Portugal travel: Drift away while Porto casts its magical spell

Portugal travel: Drift away while Porto casts its magical spell


The Douro River winds through the heart of Portugal’s second city (Image: Hans Georg Eiben/Getty Images)

JK Rowling found Porto so spellbinding it gave her the inspiration for Harry Potter. The author spent 18 months teaching English in Portugal’s second city as she penned the first chapters of debut Potter novel The Philosopher’s Stone. This colourful, coastal gem is also home of the rather mysterious “pass-it-to-the-left” port wine. We Brits tend to crack it open at Christmas when the Stilton comes out, but Porto natives, or tripeiros, are baffled by this and sup it every day.

A cruise along the Douro River, from Porto through the heart of the port wine-growing territory to the Spanish border, provided the perfect opportunity to sample the drink and check out the region’s impact on Britain’s favourite wizard.

I was on the maiden voyage of French-owned family firm CroisiEurope’s newest ship, named after legendary Portuguese fado folk singer Amalia Rodrigues. As we set sail I could barely believe we were moving, so smooth was the passage and the difference between river and sea cruises became apparent.

While ocean-going ships boast casinos, theatres and nightclubs to keep passengers entertained on sea days, their river equivalents have no need for such distractions. The vessels are much smaller so they can pass under bridges and navigate shallow inland waterways.

Our 24/7 entertainment came courtesy of the river bank as we sailed along the Douro, admiring the pretty villages, magnificent marinas and vineyards lining the steep shoreline.

All beds in Amalia’s 58 cabins face outwards so you can take in the “moving wallpaper” as you relax.The luxury cabins have high-speed wi-fi, air conditioning, balconies, ensuite shower rooms and TVs that drop down from the ceiling.

The vessel has a panoramic sun deck with a swimming pool, a lounge bar where visiting musicians and dancers performed nightly, and a restaurant.All food and drink is included, making it exceptional value – and fun.


The gondala-style boats on the canal at Aveiro (Image: James O’Neil/Getty Images)

The only thing that disturbed our plain sailing was navigating the locks that raised the ship as the river rises inland.

Passing one each day, my first experience was particularly breathtaking.

The Amalia has been built just wide enough to squeeze into the Douro’s locks and observing the captain manually steering her in with just 11ins to spare each side was like watching an artist at work.

She escaped without a scratch from Carrapatelo lock – the highest in Europe lifting ships 118ft.

Docking daily for sightseeing excursions, one of my favourites was a tour of the 18th-century home of the Mateus family who gave their name to Portugal’s famous rose wine. It houses a library of historic first editions, a museum and spectacular gardens.

Another was a trip to the coastal city of Aveiro where gondola-style boats, once used to harvest seaweed, ferry passengers along canals and Atlantic waves crash on to deserted white sandy beaches at nearby Costa Nova.

The coach journey from the ship to the vineyard of Quinta do Tedo, through rows of gravity-defying grapes clinging to mountain terraces, was also spectacular.


The famous winding red staircase of the Porto bookstore Livraria Lello (Image: Stefano Politi Markovina / Alamy Stock Photo)

Here guide Rita Dias told us how the small, dense grapes are crushed by foot in three-hour sessions over four days every year to produce 90,000 bottles, which are barrelled for up to two decades. In September tourists can join in the squashing sessions.

A bottle of their 10-year-old tawny port costs €29 and is light enough to drink all day – which I attempted as I chatted to my new shipmates on the Amalia while watching the Portuguese countryside roll by.

It was also easy to see how such an idyllic setting could inspire an author to create something magical.

A trip to the ancient Universidade de Coimbra – the oldest continuously-operated university in the world situated between Porto and Lisbon – started to reveal what stirred JK to pen Potter.

Its students wear uniforms of black suits, ties and capes just like the young witches and wizards at Hogwarts. Its 18th-century Joanina library is home to tiny bats released every night to eat bugs that could destroy its 200,000 ancient volumes.

In Porto, the Livraria Lello almost certainly inspired Flourish and Blotts Diagon Alley bookshop from Potter. Its winding red staircase bears a striking similarity to the elaborate one described at Hogwarts, which changes its configuration.


Enjoy a caipiporto cocktail on a visit to the pretty terraced vineyards (Image: Jon Bower at Apexphotos/Getty Images)

Admission to the Gothic bookshop costs €5 but you can claim that back on any purchases. A must-see for Potter fans, it has a room devoted to JK’s books and a catalogue of signed first editions.

Meanwhile, handmade brushes crafted at the city’s Escovaria de Belomonte store look just like the magical brooms in Harry Potter. Lettering on the shop’s sign resembles the font used in the books.

Meanwhile the ancient 240-stair Torre dos Clerigos – which offers stunning views of Porto – is said to be the inspiration behind Hogwarts’ Astronomy Tower.

But no JK experience would be complete without a visit to the Majestic Cafe. The author was a frequent visitor to the art nouveau restaurant and reportedly worked on the Philosopher’s Stone over lunch, scribbling notes on napkins.

After three of their caipiporto cocktails – made up of white port wine, sugar syrup and lime – I too was feeling the magic.


CroisiEurope has a selection of all-inclusive five and seven-night 2020 Douro round trip cruises from Porto on board Amalia Rodrigues. Prices start from £936 per person for five nights and £1,323 per person for seven. Flights extra, croisieurope.co.uk, 020 8328 1281. Portugal tourism: visitportugal.com

Published at Sun, 12 May 2019 09:07:00 +0000