It's rumoured that J. K. Rowling found inspiration for Harry Potter in Porto, Portugal. She certainly did teach English in Porto during part of the seven years that she worked on the first book, but what a different experience it must have been. Those creative hot spots that might have inspired one of the most popular fantasy series' of all time are now overrun.
The locations are cool. But it's hard to imagine J. K. Rowling strolling in and settling in for a day of writing. Now they're busy and they're loud; hardly the off-the-beaten-path quirky writer's haunts. What I found instead were tourist attractions. It's hard to feel the same air of mystery when bumping elbows with teenage girls posing for dozens of selfies. I wonder how much unmanufactured cool is left out there to be stumbled upon, in this Instagram world.
Rowling's biography (by Sean Smith) states that she spent a lot of time at Porto's Majestic Café working on the book. I really tried to consider the worn leather chairs a suitable perch for long afternoons of writing with a sleeping baby, as Rowling might have spent her time here. But the place was packed with a loud echo, and the menu a tad overpriced. I happened across a peaceful empty outdoor patio on my way to the bathroom, and wished I could have sat out there. Maybe. Maybe it was different before. Anyway, my coffee had ice cream in it; I was happy enough.
Lello Bookstore (or Livraria Lello & Irmão) is the rumoured inspiration for the Grand Hogwarts Staircase, and maybe Flourish and Blotts bookseller too. You can find conflicting reports online about whether you are allowed to take photos, or wether the cleaning lady will let you in before opening hours. When we went, there was a ticket booth set up across the street where you must buy tickets to enter. You can get a small refund if you buy a book.
Even showing up early to buy tickets, there was a line up outside. A lineup for a bookstore! At first this was exciting. There wasn't much to look at because the beautiful building was shrouded in scaffolding for restoration, but the build-up was admirable nonetheless. We were one of the first in that morning, and what luck that was. With the anxious crowd breathing down our necks, we saw it!
Then, we were swallowed by the horde. Photos are allowed with your entrance ticket, but maybe they shouldn't be. I liked the story of the cleaning lady letting in a blogger before opening hours (we were turned away). I can imagine the anticipation of the morning's crowd hanging in the air; like an empty Hogwarts just before the new year begins. That's a writer's haunt.
The staircase is cool, but hard to catch empty. Every time I ventured up, the same teenage girl was posing. The stained glass ceiling was covered for restoration with a poster of what it normally looks like, without the sunlight shining through. The carved details were intricate, but there were too many people in the shop to just stare up at them. I left Brian to battle for shots with the other photographers and selfiers to raid the small English section. I bought a book that said "Porto" to me. I think many other visitors left empty-handed.
The other rumoured inspiration is a right of passage for some Porto college students, who, from September to May, dress in cloaks with crests of different colours sewn on them. Like wizards? Maybe simple coincidence, but I'd like the chance to catch a glimpse of them in the open streets - no entrance fee, no guarantee, no merchandise, no crowd, no cellphones. Just turn the corner, and there they are, a handful of kids in the street dressed like real-life wizards caught up in their own secret world, taking no notice of me at all.