Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Porto and Harry Potter - Portugal's Second City Has Something For All

By David C Baird

In Porto it's easy to feel you are only a step away from Hogwarts. And indeed in this fine old city in the north of Portugal the first of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter yarns took shape.


It's a place of fog-wreathed, cobbled alleys and granite wine cellars, of Gothic, Baroque and Art Deco extravaganzas. All human life is here, in the bustling streets and also depicted on elaborately tiled building facades.
Portugal's second city used to have a down-at-heel air, but it has been spruced up and offers enough attractions to keep a visitor busy for days.
An old saw has it that, while Lisbon shows off, Porto works. Even the favourite local dish has an unpretentious air in this down-to-earth trading and industrial centre. Because of their affection for stewed tripe, Porto folk are known as the "tripeiros" (tripe-eaters).
But take heart. There are plenty of other dishes on local menus, not least fresh seafood and the national obsession, "bacalhau" (salted cod), cooked in scores of different ways.
Oddly enough, tripe's popularity can be blamed on the son of an English aristocrat. It originated when Henry the Navigator, born in Porto to King Joao 1 and Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, was about to sail for North Africa and local citizens donated their meat to the fleet. That left only tripe for the locals.
C.K. Rowling reportedly drew inspiration for her Harry Potter saga from Porto wile employed as a language teacher here in the early 1990s. In her spare time she worked on the first of her novels, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
One place where she surely lingered was the Livraria Lello, an Art Deco fantasy on Rua das Carmelitas. Some claim this is the world's most beautiful bookshop. Behind a neo-Gothic facade shelves of books rise to the heavens, framed by carved staircases and leaded windows. A place of dreams indeed.
Less dreamy are the massive walls of the St. Porto's cathedral, brooding over the city from a hilltop. The structure, dating back to the 12th century, boasts a cloister with fine tilework.
However, for truly impressive tile craftmanship, take a look at churches such as the Igreja do Carmo and Capelo das Almas. And visit Sao Bento railway station's entrance hall with its colossal, breath-taking murals of battle scenes.
Take time to enjoy tea at one of Porto's upmarket cafes in the shopping area of Rua Santa Catarina. White-jacketed waiters glide about the tables amid the Majestic's mirrors, polished woodwork and cavorting cherubs.
But first things first. The "adegas" (wineries) are waiting. On the south bank hundreds of thousands of bottles of port are maturing in the vaults of such shippers as Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Ferreira, Osborne, Sandeman and Taylor.
In the 17th century Britain's ban on imports of French wine led to increased demand for the Portuguese product. English and Scots traders set up shop in Porto.
Because the long voyage to England often spoiled the wine, alcohol was added to stabilise it. This intensified the aroma - and thus was developed port as we know it. And Porto is the place to sample

Journalist and author David Baird has worked for publications all over the world. He is now based in Spain. His book Between Two Fires - Guerrilla War in the Spanish sierras has won praise from leading historians. His latest books are works of fiction, Typhoon Season, a nerve-tingling thriller set in Hong Kong, and Don't Miss The Fiesta!, passion and adventure played out in southern Spain. More information at the Maroma Press website, http://maromapress.wordpress.com/

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