The world-famous library of Livraria Lello e Irmao, in Porto, Portugal, is one of many places where author J.K Rowling drew her inspiration for the fantasy world of Harry Potter. © Kerrick James
Cruise the Douro River through Portugal, a nation where J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, reportedly found great inspiration.
By Kerrick James
Originally published: March/April 2017
We all have our reasons to travel. Mine is to experience cuisine and culture, photograph natural and manmade beauty, and make new friends and memories. Last summer, with those priorities in mind, I chose Portugal, on a river cruise with Viking that started in Lisbon and sailed east on the Rio Douro, the “River of Gold,” toward Spain.
Lisbon means “good bay,” and so it is. Nestled above the Atlantic, the city is outfitted with the grandeur of Phoenician, Greek, Moor, and Roman civilizations. We strolled Alfama, the only district unaffected by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, fire and tsunami. Tiny, winding cobbled paths led us to shops and restaurants the size of shoeboxes.
That evening I joined Viking’s Taste of Lisbon excursion to Pateo de Alfama for an excellent dinner of fragrant broiled chicken washed down with copius pours of red and white Portuguese wines, while savoring our first taste of Fado, the soulful national song expressing love, life and fate, mingling voice with classical and 12-string guitar.
En route to Porto, we stop in the university town of Coimbra, where students in flowing black robes sing for coins in a storied tradition. Some say these black robes inspired J. K. Rowling when she plotted her future wizarding tales. Rowling lived in Porto for a decade while teaching English and discovered seminal ideas for her Harry Potter magnum opus. After walking the campus, we’re treated to a luncheon and concert at Republica da Saudada.
That afternoon we board the Hemming, docked across from Porto on the Rio Douro, facing the red-tile roofed skyline. Capacity is 106 passengers, but I share it with just 87 pampered folks. My stateroom is beautifully designed and appointed, comfy, with copious storage and private balcony. The friendly crew is Portuguese but they speak English well. I note with pleasure the 24-hour coffee bar close by.
Next morning, we toured the river city of Porto, where much of the world’s supply of sweet, fortified wine is aged in warehouses beside the Rio Douro. We learn that, in addition to the Coimbra robes she gave the Hogwarts students, Rowling drew inspiration from Livraria Lello, one of the world’s best bookshops, its flowing designs and her creative imagination melded into a literary fantasy world. Worldwide fame has made this a must-see, so be patient.
Boat travel on the Rio Douro is limited to daylight, as dangerous rapids once were feared. Far safer now, with three locks upstream, our vessel cruises in early shade up the Rio Douro, wisps of fog lifting off the mirror-smooth water, backlit by the rising lemony sun. Deliciously cool air swirls outside my skinny balcony, so I sit back and relish the cruise experience at last. Golden hillsides rising tall through clean pure air to a rich blue sky, provide a painterly vista everywhere the ship points. Terraced vineyards surround bucolic country homes, from water’s edge to distant ridges. From palatial villa to farmer’s hut, this is an agrarian idyll, with always, grapes growing in the sun. On we glide upriver, motoring toward the rising sun, as the day warms and hawks circle in the updrafts.
Castles & Palaces
Portugal grew rich from trade, and that wealth is showcased as we explore the Rio Douro wine country. Guimaraes is Portugal’s birthplace, so we tour the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, a 15th-century estate filled with art and oozing with power. On a hill above the palace is the Castelo de Guimaraes, built in the 1100s to deter raids from the Moors, Normans, and Vikings. But my favorite experience was our free time to walk and savor the medieval small town core, with its plaza, alfresco cafés and artisan’s shops. History and modernity mesh here with grace. I was sad to leave Guimaraes.
The Mateus Palace is much anticipated, doubtless due to fond memories of the 1970s stalwart import Mateus Rose, with the façade of the Palace on its label. Built in first half of the 18th century, this opulent Baroque palace is now a national monument. It is positively overflowing with sculpture, paintings, historic books, and Ming Dynasty blue china from Canton, brought over by sail centuries ago.
Castelo de Rodrigo, survivor of many battles with the Spanish, commands a conical hill overlooking the border. Today it offers glimpses of medieval stone homes lining cobbled streets of golden granite. As we stroll the narrow walled lanes, I muse the tales these walls have heard, from Roman times to now. In late sunshine we drive back to the river at Barca d’Alva, across plateau country studded with olive and almond trees.
Toasting with muscatel at the Quinta da Avessada, in Favaios, above the Rio Douro, Portugal. © Kerrick James
Departing the Rio Douro, we cruise east on excellent roads into Spain and park near the Roman bridge, to explore as we wish. I wandered the Old & New cathedrals, comparing and contrasting their art and architecture. Salamanca is oft called the Golden City for its warm-hued sandstone buildings, and is home to 50,000 university students. Winding steep-walled streets are reminiscent of southwestern slot canyons, cooler and inviting, until I emerge into the intense Spanish sunlight. I explore the shops, but afternoon siesta looms for the shopkeepers, and that means lunch.
We gather at the Restaurant al Monte, a spacious sandstone room with barrel-vaulted ceilings, welcomed by a Spanish classical guitarist and ceaseless pours of red and white vino. The star attraction is a certified carver of Iberian Ham, sliced thin right off the cured leg of the pig. The wine red color of these wafer-thin slices of ham might sound macabre, but if you’re a carnivore, they’re heavenly to taste.
Paella caps off this brilliant lunch, as we share varied tales of travel. Every day I’m meeting and learning from very loyal Viking cruisers, and by my count more than half are repeat ocean or river sailors. My new British friend Malcolm professes his admiration of the Douro, cherishing its civilized beauty and quality experiences accessible from the river. I agree wholeheartedly.
Kerrick James is a regular contributor to EnCompass, and a freelance writer and photographer based in Arizona.