I was born and raised in Edinburgh, a place that’s so closely linked with the creation of Harry Potter that it’s part of the fabric. Everyone in the city knows that a young single mum named Joanne Rowling used to spend her days writing in the Elephant House café. Inspired by the view across the higgledy-piggledy gravestones of Greyfriars Kirkyard and the gothic spires of George Heriot’s School, she brought her magical world to life. Or so I thought…
With Edinburgh’s Harry Potter connections firmly cemented in my mind, you can imagine my face when our Porto walking tour guide told us that Harry Potter was written in Portugal’s second city and not Scotland’s first. So where was Harry Potter written? The answer surprised me.
Before she became a single mum on benefits, J.K. Rowling taught English as a foreign language in Porto. She lived there between 1991 and 1993, the formative years of Harry Potter. During this time she outlined and developed her ideas for the entire seven-book series, and even got started on book one.
She writes on her website “in those first weeks in Portugal I wrote what has become my favourite chapter in the Philosopher’s Stone, ‘The Mirror of Erised’ – and had hoped that, when I returned from Portugal I would have a finished book under my arm. In fact, I had something even better: my daughter, Jessica.”
There are lots of rumours about how she weaved inspiration from the city into her novels. Although some are a bit tenuous, they’re well worth knowing if you’re on the trail of Potter in Porto.
Harry Potter legend has it…
1. J.K. Rowling scribbled down notes on napkins while enjoying a coffee break in Cafe Majestic.
This gorgeous bell époque space is one of Porto’s most exclusive cafés, complete with glittering chandeliers, smartly dressed waiters… and linen napkins. Maybe she brought her own to write on?
Visit: Cafe Majestic, Rua Santa Catarina 112, 4000-442 Porto. Open 9:30am-11:30pm, closed Sundays.
2. Diagon Alley’s premium bookstore, Flourish and Blotts, was inspired by Livraria Lello.
This ornate bookshop in the heart of Porto has been voted one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. It’s such a big tourist attraction that you now need to pay €3 to enter (don’t worry: you get it back as a discount if you buy something).
3. Escovaria de Belomonte inspired the Broom Shop on Diagon Alley.
Porto’s artisan brush store dates back to 1927. Although you won’t find a Nimbus 2000 inside, you will find handcrafted brushes made from fine wood and natural fibres like horse hair and pig bristle. Four thousand brushes are made by hand each year and exported around the world.
Visit: Escovaria de Belomonte, Rua de Belomonte 34, 4050-096 Porto. Open 8am-7pm Mon-Fri, closed weekends.
4. The university students black cape uniform inspired the way Harry and his pals dress for school.
You might feel like you’ve bumped into a group of Potterheads when you spot them wandering around the city. The difference is Portuguese students only wear black ties, not colourful ones like the Hogwarts students. (Apparently they also dislike being called ‘Harry Potter’ and much prefer their old nickname, ‘Batman’).
5. The Fonte dos Leões, with its winged lion statues, provided inspiration for the Gryffindor house symbol.
Visit: Fonte dos Leões, Praça de Gomes Teixeira 10, 4050-159 Porto.
6. António de Oliveira Salazar (Portugal’s dictator from 1932 to 1968), lent his name to baddie Salazar Slytherin.
Slytherins are cunning, resourceful and ambitious so we can see why Rowling named the house founder after Portugal’s ex dictator. He kept Portugal neutral during WWII, and used those three skills to keep both the Allies and Axis powers happy despite massive pressure to pick a side. Portuguese literacy levels remained low throughout his regime, as education wasn’t a priority, so we can see why an English teacher (and aspiring novelist) might take a dim view.
Bittersweet beginnings and happy endings
When her marriage broke down, Joanne packed up her infant daughter (and the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and relocated to Edinburgh. This is where the story we all know begins. Life was hard for the newly single mum, who had to sign onto state benefits in order to sustain herself. Thankfully there was a happy ending.
Despite battling with depression, bereavement and poverty, she created a multi-billion dollar sensation that inspired a passion for literature in countless children. Take that, Salazar.