A Harry Potter-inspired sailing on the Viking Helgrim

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Biblioteca Joanina, or Johannine Library, is the centerpiece of Coimbra University.
Biblioteca Joanina, or Johannine Library, is the centerpiece of Coimbra University. Photo Credit: agsaz/Shutterstock.com

Travel Weekly contributor Celeste Moure cruised the Douro River with Viking Cruises before tourist travel shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At this time, the CDC recommends travelers avoid nonessential travel to Portugal. Looking forward to the post-Covid era, her report follows:

When I booked a trip on Viking's new Helgrim ship to explore Portugal's River of Gold, the Douro, I knew I'd have the chance to check out some amazing museums and galleries in Lisbon, visit centuries‐old castles and cathedrals in Regua and Salamanca and taste traditional cuisine and wine at vineyards, farms and, of course, on board.

What I didn't know, though, was that I'd get to visit some real‐life places from Harry Potter's universe -- places where author J.K. Rowling lived, breathed and took inspiration from.

Like a lot of adults, I have to admit that I fell under the spell of Harry's wizarding world quite late and very much by accident. My daughter had read all the Potter books (some of them twice) by the time she turned 10, and together we binge-watched all the movies over the course of a couple of weeks, just months before my summertime trip to Portugal.

I knew very little of J.K. Rowling other than she was a Brit, and so I had assumed her inspiration for the books must have come from her homeland. After all, it was during a delayed train journey from Manchester to London King's Cross that Rowling first had the idea for Harry Potter.

But it turns out that much of Harry's world was inspired by the author's time living and teaching in Portugal.

The Viking Helgrim plies the Douro River in Portugal.
The Viking Helgrim plies the Douro River in Portugal.

Coimbra University and Hogwarts

After two days exploring Lisbon, the Viking journey set off for Porto and on the way, we stopped for lunch and a tour of Coimbra, one of the country's oldest cities and home to an enchanting medieval‐era university.

Dating back to 1290, Coimbra University has some unique academic traditions and festivities. Each faculty at the university has an official color, which is used in the seal and other symbols.

At Hogwarts, young witches and wizards abide by a strict dress code: white button‐down shirt, a tie with one's house colors, a sweater, dark trousers or skirt and a full‐length cape. Walking around the university, our tour was swallowed up by a group of students in near‐identical uniform of black suit, white shirt, tie and mantle.

A word of advice: don't refer to Coimbra University students as "Harry Potters." After all, they were around for centuries before the young wizard was even conceived.

Biblioteca Joanina and Hogwarts Library

Featuring stained glass windows, rolling ladders designed for reaching dusty old books stacked floor‐to‐ceiling on dark paneled shelves and a spectral ambiance, the library at Coimbra University bares more than a passing resemblance to that at Hogwarts. Squint your eyes and you might just think you can see Madam Pince scolding naughty wizards to keep their voices down and get back to their books.

Majestic Cafe

Opened in 1921 and featuring stunning curved wooden frames and mirrored walls, this stunning belle epoque‐style cafe retains to this day an air of grandeur and sophistication. 

While living in Porto, Rowling was said to frequent the Majestic and scribble down ideas on napkins. In fact, rumor goes that it was here that she completed the first three chapters of the first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.).

If you go, expect to wait for a table and a steeper-than-usual bill even for a simple coffee.

Livraria Lello and the Moving Staircase

This Art Nouveau bookstore in Porto is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world. Architectural Digest, Conde Nast Traveler, Forbes and many other publications and travel guides often cite Livraria Lello as a literary haven worth visiting.

Designed by Xavier Esteves in 1906, inside the neo‐Gothic building are some 100,000 books stacked from floor to ceiling and surrounded by stained glass, ornate carved wood shelves and a dreamy staircase.

Hogwarts's flight of stairs may be straight, yet they are rumored to have been inspired by the curved ones at Lello. Potterheads also believe that Flourish and Blotts, where Hogwarts students purchase their schoolbooks, also takes inspiration from Lello.

Escoveria de Belomonte and Diagon Alley

The magical brooms in Harry Potter will look distinctly similar to those handcrafted at this Porto shop (Brush of Belmonte in English). Made by hand using high quality woods and natural fibers, the brushes look every bit as rustic as those owned by Harry, Hermione, Ron and the rest of the characters. Diehard Potter fans believe that the broom shop also inspired the shops on Diagon Alley where Harry sets his eyes on his first broom, the Nimbus 2000, in a window display.

Fonte dos Leoes and Gryffindor

A popular meeting spot for students during the academic year, this striking fountain, known as Lion's Square by Porto locals, features four seated, winged lions with water spewing out of their mouths. Throughout the book series, Rowling uses intricate details from iconic real‐world pieces of architecture, and while there is no official connection between Gryffindor, whose house mascot is a lion, and the fountain, the inspiration is not far‐fetched.

Dictator Salazar and Slytherin's Founder

Among the four houses at Hogwarts, Slytherin is the evil one -- at least according to my daughter, who points out that Voldemort is one of its members. The house's namesake was a power‐hungry wizard, Salazar Slytherin, who Rowling named after one of Portugal's most notorious rulers, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. From 1932 to 1968, Salazar led a dictatorship that used censorship and a secret police to crush opposition. In 2017, Rowling confirmed on Twitter that her Slytherin character was named after the Portuguese dictator. 

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