Portugal is a dream destination you need to check out

Potterheads will go potty over Porto. That’s Portugal’s second biggest city, sitting pretty along the banks of the River Douro. Apparently J.K. Rowling penned an early draft of the first book in the series, Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, when she lived there between 1991 and 1993, while married to her ex-husband (and father of her daughter Jessica), a Portuguese journalist. Potter fans claim her time there influenced some of the references in the books.

Case in point is the uniform that Hogwarts (School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) students wear, which is heavily inspired by those worn by a certain group of students at the University of Porto. Pretty much opposite the campus there is a bookshop that keeps drawing visitors, so much so they had to impose a €3 (RM14.30) entrance fee in 2015 to regulate the hordes. That fee can be offset with purchases of items in the Livraria Lello bookshop. This seems to have worked as, Lello tourist officer Matilde Lindberg said, sales have almost tripled.

The famous staircase at the Livraria Lello bookshop.

The bookshop opened by the Lello brothers, Jose and Antonio, in 1906 celebrated its 110-year anniversary last year on Jan 13. Our combined media and travel agent group was hosted by Trafalgar Tours in early November last year. The media was given a sneak peak before opening hours – and it was a stunning sight inside the Gothic Revival-style building. It’s also a Trafalgar trademark to give its customers a “hidden treasure” at some point of the tour.

The fantastic red spiral staircase, it is claimed by Potterheads, is quite similar to the staircase in Hogwarts. Also, the interior supposedly inspired the look of the Flourish and Blotts Bookseller, where Hogwarts students buy their schoolbooks.

But even if you’re not a fan of the books (or the movies), it’s well worth a visit to see what has been dubbed the third most beautiful bookshop in the world by The Guardian and Lonely Planet, and one of the coolest by Time Magazine and CNN.

Nearby is the Gothic Tower of Clérigos that looks like the Astronomy Tower where Dumbledore met his end. And again, some fans claim (none of the above with the exception of the student cloaks has been confirmed by Rowling herself), the pricey cafe nearby – Cafe Majestic – was where the author penned some of the chapters.

Suffice to say you can see many a fan traipsing through the city looking for as many linkages as they can.

The famous Cafe Majestic where J.K. Rowling supposedly used to frequent.

Places of beauty

Porto is, thankfully, not just about Potter. It’s a port city (well-known for its port wine production), an arty city, and a city of culture and heritage and because we spent more time there, it became my favourite city in Portugal.

The detailed and ornate Moorish room, the Salao Arabe at the former Stock Exchange building.

We had a local specialist (another Trafalgar trademark) showing us around, and one of the treats was totally unexpected. Who would have thought the former Stock Exchange building would be so palatial and house an impressive inner Moorish courtyard and rooms that make you go “Wow!” – including the Salao Arabe, which is elaborately decorated in a Moorish Revival style.

A stunning bridge, the Ponte de Dom Luis, greets you as you stroll along the banks of the beautiful Douro. It’s a double-decker with an arch reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower (it was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s student). You can spend many satisfying hours here exploring or just drinking in the sights. We managed to sneak another hidden treasure – another regional trademark, a demonstration of the fine art of filigree jewellery – courtesy of our tour director, the very affable and knowledgeable Pedro Pinto.

The breathtaking Douro Valley at the point where the river roughly cuts the country into north and south.

Our Portuguese adventure actually started in the capital city, Lisbon. We didn’t have much time there, just taking an unguided walk and a quick tour the next day on the comfortable luxurious coach with WiFi, expertly driven by Tome Silva (who was a hit with the ladies).

Lisbon is a beautiful hilly city, with magnificent architecture, cobbled alleyways and yes, bridges too. Tapping into the culture is invigorating – we were lucky to have watched a soulful, mournful traditional Fado (songs accompanied by guitars or mandolins) performance at Cafe Luso.

The intimate lighting heightened the melancholic mood set by the Fado performance at Cafe Luso in Lisbon. The large map on the ground of the square at the Monument to the Discoveries in Belem. It shows all the areas that the Portuguese visited or conquered.Of course, the must-sees include the Unesco Heritage listed Mosteiro da Santa Maria de Belém (Jerónimos Monastery), the Tower of Belem and the Monument to the Discoveries (check out the mention of Malacca), all within walking distance of one another.

Our journey took us up north, passing by the fishing port of Nazare, a beautiful and quaint place with many interesting nooks and crannies. The momentous stop (especially with the number of Catholics on board) was in the town of Fatima, where the apparition of the Virgin Mary apparently appeared to three children 100 years ago in May.

The beautiful main square of the old town of Guimares.

The scenery along the drive was really spectacular and it was difficult to tear oneself away from the window. A brief stop at the ancient city of Guimarães was next, where it is acknowledged as being the cradle of Portugal, with a historic town centre also Unesco-listed. Take it from me, any city or town in this country is not only beautiful but also has a character of its own.

More spectacular scenery greeted us – sprawling vineyards along the hilly slopes cut through on one side by a flowing river. As it was deep into autumn, the colours were amazing. We passed another Unesco site, the stunning Douro Valley close to the Regua Dam.

Castles and horses

After a “sleep” stop at Viseu, we departed early the next day, crossing the Tagus Valley to head southwards (having done the loop) to the walled city of Evora. We stopped briefly to see the ruins of a Roman tower, and had an unexpected encounter with a donkey cart and an olive farmer.

We had a treat when we stopped at Castelo de Vide, where narrow alleyways hold a Jewish quarter and a hidden marbled Renaissance fountain. It seemed to be a favourite stop for many.

The narrow alleys and distinctive white houses of Castelo de Vide.

Evora was also special as we stayed in a hotel right smack within the walls, and we got to visit a Roman temple, fascinating cathedrals, and the morbid Chapel of Bones. It takes a lot to scare or shock me so I wasn’t taken aback, though there were gasps from many a visitor.

The ruins of a Roman Tower at Belmonte. The morbid Chapel of Bones (made up of real bones and skeletons) in Evora. The warning at the entrance says: ‘Ns ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos’ (We bones that here are, for yours await). The ruins of a Roman temple at Evora. Portugal has many stunning places of worship. In some, you can see not only on the inside but also on the exterior walls the famous blue azulejo ceramic tiles.Our final stop before heading back to Lisbon was another Trafalgar trademark – Be My Guest – where we are welcomed by a local family to have lunch with them. This was no ordinary family, though – they run a stud farm, Coudelaria Brito Paes (operating since 1778) of the famous Lusitanian horses (supposedly the oldest saddle horses in the world). We not only got to watch some of the horses perform but heard the story of the current owner’s ancestor, who died of unrequited love (who was the wife of the King of Portugal) and vowed never to marry and cut his beard.

At the local family’s home, the lunch spread was generous and flavourful.

This is what you find everywhere in Portugal – the warmth of the people (in the bigger cities, it’s easy to get by speaking English); the delicious (and healthy) meals; the beautiful and amazing history, culture and scenery; and the safety.

And Porto is one of the cheapest cities in Europe to live in. I would go back in a heartbeat!

For enquiries on the latest deals on Trafalgar Tours’ European itineraries, contact Holiday Tours (03-6286 6220).



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