Harry Potter Popular in Porto

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is the George Washington of our times. It has nothing to do with politics or military strategy. Rather, it has everything to do with the tourism industry that has sprouted up around every place that Washington slept and now is burgeoning with every place Rowling got inspiration or wrote or where parts of the iconic films were shot.

So here we are in Porto, and Declan’s dragging us off to the Livraria Lello, a century-old bookshop that inspired the winding (and moving) staircases at Hogwarts as well as the general feel of the place, with its heavy mouldings, intricate woodwork and colorful stained glass ceiling.

I knew nothing about Rowling’s connections to Porto, but she taught English as a foreign language in the city for several years, marrying a Portuguese man with whom she had a daughter. From there, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the first three chapters of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in her suitcase, but more about that later.

Going with the flow

As the success of the books and then films turned Potter into an international phenomenon, any place identified with Rowling also became popular. Apparently, the staff at Livraria Lello formerly were fierce about prohibiting photo-taking by tourists. “Hey, we’re here to run a business,” was the general tone of the staff quoted on some older travel websites I consulted.

But today they embrace the tourists, the red paint in the centers of the stair treads chipped off through constant use, a couple stopping traffic on the stairs so they can take a selfie without others in the shot. Of course, that couple, the three in my family and everyone else in the bookshop paid four euros for the privilege of visiting the business.

The door attendant (I’m not making that up) directs tourists to the corner shop to buy vouchers, then scans them at the door before allowing admittance. I overhead him say (in English, thankfully) that 5,000 people visit the store each day during high season. That’s an awful lot of golden galleons, silver sickles and bronze knuts. You can use the voucher toward books, but we already are hauling more of those back than we intended, the result of hanging out with so many Northern Irish authors. And a large majority of the ones at this bookstore, naturally, are in Portuguese.

There may not have been 5,000 in Livraria Lello when we visited, but it certainly felt that way.

‘Thinking fondly of Emma Watson’

Several years ago, during a fall book tour to support Marilynn’s biography of Stewart Parker, we met a friend of Stewart’s at The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffeeshop where Rowling wrote while her daughter slept. As I recall, the place was rocking with tourists on a dreary Scotland November afternoon.

The main evidence of the popularity of the place wasn’t in faded stair treads, but in the toilets. Every square inch of the men’s room was filled with graffiti about the books, from the sweet to the profane and about every sentiment in between. I know from Marilynn that the women’s room was the same way.

My favorite graffito was one that said, “Thinking fondly of Emma Watson.” I have a picture of it (yes, I took photos in the toilet), but it’s locked somewhere in the cloud that’s a pain to access remotely.

So you’ll have to take my word for it.

Coimbra an Up and Down (Mostly Up) Experience

I forgot to mention how hilly Coimbra is. Porto is the same way. Getting up the triple and quadruple switchbacks—while walking on cobblestones—is a test for any person. Fortunately, Declan took that into consideration, too, when planning this trip.

He scheduled mid-day breaks on most days, so I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for too long at a stretch and would be ready to go again in the afternoon. He also booked hotels close to where the action is.

In Coimbra, the nighttime action includes fado music, a Portuguese specialty that generally denotes a sense of longing. We attended an event at à Capella, an intimate venue in a 14th-century chapel. The music was interesting, but not really to my taste. However, Marilynn liked it better than the flamenco music and dancing we saw in Seville, Spain, a few years ago.

Roman influences everywhere

On our final day in Coimbra, Declan had us scheduled to visit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, built over the remains of a Roman forum. The cryptoportico (a kind of elaborate foundation) is believed to be the largest surviving Roman building in Portugal.

A tour of the cryptoportico begins the museum visit. Long, spooky corridors with occasional archways line one side, while shorter offshoots and individual rooms are dotted throughout. In other places, industrial walkways above other ruins allow good views of other parts of the cryptoportico.

Other highlights of the museum include the 11th- or 12th-century remains of part of a Roman-style cloister that was unearthed on the site in the 1930s. Another is the expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564. A controversial decision was made in the 1960s to dismantle the severely deteriorated church, where the apse wound up in the museum. Seeing the amount of degradation, however, the decision seemed a wise one.

You’ll also find lots of religious painting, sculpture, statuary, reliquaries and what Declan and I like to call bling. Among my favorite things, however, were the dozen or so azulejos (Portuguese tiles) that contained mathematical or astronomical concepts dating from instructions issued by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1692. The style suggests they were made in Coimbra.

Going back to church

There’s no better way to top a visit to a museum full of religious artifacts than to see a church. So after lunch, we found our way to the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra, a “church-fortress” dating to the 12th century. The church features small slits in the walls, just like in a castle’s battlements, the better to station archers in case of a siege.

Like all churches this old, there are numerous influences, including Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. The highlight, for me, however, was the 13th-century Gothic cloister that surrounds the central courtyard. I especially liked the pediments below the arches, each designed in a different pattern.

Our time in Coimbra complete, we boarded a train for our next destination—Porto.

Declan Plans Portugal Adventure

For literally months, Declan has been planning this nine-day trip to Portugal. The last hurrah, if you will, to this wonderful seven-month European adventure that ends in just over two weeks.

When I told someone he had planned 85% of the trip, Declan looked at me sharply and said that the estimate was low. In retrospect, he’s probably correct. He first defined what cities we were going to visit after Marilynn and I said we should confine ourselves to the north of Portugal, where it was likely to be cooler in the middle of July.

Declan then researched plane tickets from both Belfast and Dublin to find the best (and cheapest) ones. He researched sights, hotels, transportation, restaurants and more, filling our days with activities while respecting our need to rest from time to time.

I’m writing about our first day in Coimbra on the fourth day of the trip (in Porto), and I can say that Declan has done a tremendous job so far.

Academic beauty in Coimbra

After flying in to Porto, we immediately headed to Coimbra, in the middle part of the country. Coimbra served as Portugal’s capital for more than 100 years (between 1139 and 1255, when it moved to Lisbon) and houses the country’s oldest university, founded in Lisbon in 1290 but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. So I guess Coimbra’s loss is Lisbon’s gain, and vice-versa. We stayed at the Hotel Vitória, a short walk from the train station and centrally located within the city.

Our first day was dominated by a visit to the Universidade de Coimbra, located in the highest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. Several of the buildings feature terrific city views, including the clock tower. One ticket allows entry into all of the buildings, and climbing the clock tower is an extra euro—the winding staircase gets tight and twisty at the top, but the views may well be worth the vertigo.

The Biblioteca Joanina (library) was deemed too distracting for student use, its 60,000 volumes housed amidst gilt, frescoes and lots of ornate woodwork. The 18th-century building remains too precious for tourist photos, so you’ll have to take my word that it ranks high on the audacious scale. Speaking of audacious, under the library is the Prisão Académica (academic prison). Misbehaving students were housed under the library until their grades got better, I suppose.

Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace). We saw what appeared to be a Ph.D. defense take place in the Grand Hall, a high room with lots of dark wood, second-floor doors that can be opened from the two-sides balcony above, ornate ceiling and large portraits of Portuguese kings.

Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century and replaced an older chapel from the 11th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today for music concerts, as well as weddings and baptisms at the still-consecrated chapel.

The central buildings of the university form three sides of a rectangle, with open views of the city from the fourth. With his back to the city, the statue of King João III overlooks the courtyard. The 16th-century king was responsible for moving the university to Coimbra and expanding it during his reign.

Several other historic buildings are included in the ticket price, including the Chemistry Laboratory, the Cabinet of Physics and the Cabinet of Natural History. The latter, created in 1772, is the oldest museum in Portugal that remains in its original location. These three buildings, with their science exhibits and displays, could easily have filled a day for those with an eye toward the history of invention, chemistry or natural history.

All I can say is that Declan knows what his parents like.

Bullocks Butt in on View of Bronze Age Standing Stone

Bronze Age religious symbol or bullock hindquarters scratching post? The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone may have served the former purpose at some time during its 2,500-year history, but it’s definitely serving the latter purpose at present from its location in the middle of a field full of cattle.

The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone is located a couple of miles outside a village with the great name of Muff. In fact, the stone is often called the Muff Stone. It dates from 2,500 BC, standing about six feet tall and half that in width and depth. Its distinct feature is 40 cup marks, or round indentions, about half of which are encircled by one, two or three rings. The stone evokes similar feelings to Newgrange, an ancient stone monument aligned with the winter solstice.

Finding the stone took a morning’s effort, several wrong turns and directions from a helpful older man cutting weeds along a remote roadside. None of us suspected it would be found a quarter mile off the main road, the concrete driveway winding behind a house before opening up in front of several farm buildings.

Grand adventure ahead

Declan read about the stone in a book our B&B host provided us, and it looked cool. We had no definite plans for Monday, and we all enjoy an adventure. Our host believed there was a historic marker that would make locating the Ardmore Stone a snap. But we didn’t see it on our way to Muff, so we inquired about the stone at a petrol station in town. However, no one there knew how to find it.

Heading back toward Moville, Marilynn remembered it was near Inishkeen, signs for which we’d seen along the way. So we left the main road and headed in that direction, only to wind up back on the main road at another sign for Inishkeen. So we’d basically traveled in a semi-circle.

A little ways back, an older man was weed-whacking his yard, so we turned around and asked him for directions. He was quite specific: pass the closed pub with the thatch roof, then a closed building supply company and take the next road to the right, a concrete driveway. He gave great directions, but it was obvious the concrete road was somebody’s private drive and not a public thoroughfare.

Preternatural bovines

As we wound up the road, we could see the stone in the middle of a field, looking like it was being protected by a herd of cows. The road wound uphill, past a residence and opened out to three large outbuildings, a truck with its door open in front of one of them. We got out and were immediately met by a large dog that, fortunately, turned out to be friendly.

The farmer then appeared from the building, and we asked permission to see the stone. He graciously agreed, cautioning us to watch out for cow patties and assuring us the bullocks would be no bother.

We couldn’t escape the feeling that the cows felt some sort of connection to the stone. They watched us intently, moving away from us in ones and twos, then en masse, but never getting too far away. As we approached the stone, they continued to watch us from turned heads. We spent a few minutes examining the stone and snapping a few pictures before making our way back to the car.

The cows started walking back around the stone as we moved away, again with intent stares that seemed preternatural. They gathered around the stone as if protecting it, one rubbing his butt contentedly across its face.

Farmer Dermot explained that he gets visitation requests quite frequently and is happy to share the stone. Apparently more happy to share than the cows appeared to be.

Donegal Beauty Is Like No Other

There’s Irish beautiful, and then there’s Donegal beautiful. County Donegal is in the Republic, but it abuts the north, like Michigan sticks up into the Great Lakes. We spent a four-day weekend in Derry and Donegal, exploring the wonders of the coast.

But first, Derry and thereabouts

Marilynn attended a conference in Derry most of last week, while Declan and I entertained a guest from Tennessee. On Friday afternoon, we drove the couple of hours to join Marilynn in Derry, where we stayed with our friends the Pynes, who own two wonderful B&Bs in the central part of the city.

After visiting with them on Friday evening and early Saturday, we set out to briefly explore Derry, which we’ve all visited many times before. Declan especially wanted to sit on the Lord Mayor’s throne in the Guildhall, which he’d done on a previous trip. We also walked the walls of Derry, a unique feature of the city that dates back hundreds of years. Derry’s walls are among the finest in Europe and should be part of any visit to Northern Ireland.


We descended the walls to the Bogside, the nationalist part of the city that features many murals to fallen protesters (especially victims of Bloody Sunday and those who died on hunger strike during the Troubles).

On our way out of town, we visited the Grianán of Aileach, a restored stone fort from the 8th or 9th century. Marilynn and I had visited here years ago, but it was Declan’s first time. From its hilltop perch, the Grianán offers fine views of the surrounding countryside. But having driven there directly from Derry, we now want to know how Seamus Deane walked there as a child, as he describes in his book “Reading in the Dark.”

Onward to Donegal

But the main event of this trip was County Donegal, where many from Belfast go on summer holiday. Fortunately, high season wasn’t in full swing, so we had many sites to ourselves. With a car, we could explore at our leisure.

We stayed at the Inishowen Lodge near Moville, where our host Irwin was extremely helpful with directions, a book on the area, general advice and the use of a detailed map and pair of binoculars during our two-day stay. The lodge is high above Lough Foyle, and the view from our room was truly spectacular. It almost rivaled the fantastic and varied breakfasts we enjoyed during our visit.

The first day, we visited the Cooley Cross, a cool Celtic cross allegedly put up by Saint Patrick. The high cross sits right along the roadside just outside a small cemetery with a small stone structure that formerly contained human bones, the skull house. During Druid times, marriages were supposedly performed here, with celebrants lifting the bride on one side of the cross and the groom on the other, the bride and groom joining hands through the hole at the top of the cross.

We also viewed the remains of the Green Castle and saw what we believed was a pod of dolphins frolicking in the waters off Shroove beach.

After a sumptuous breakfast on Sunday, we made straight toward Malin Head, the northernmost point on the island. We wound our way along back roads and country paths, guided by signposts and our desire to see as much nature as possible. A highlight Sunday was a walk along Kinnagoe Bay, a remote beach and the site of a 16th century wreck of a Spanish Armada ship. The color of the hills changed by the minute, the result of the late afternoon sun peeking out from behind clouds and the ability of Irish grass to change color as if on whim. On the way back, we discovered several fields where peat had been cut into logs and left to dry—teepee style—in the field.

On Monday, after staggering away from another great breakfast, we did a little more local sightseeing before heading to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace, a new museum in Bellaghy that celebrates the life and work of the late Nobel Prize-winning poet.

Then we made our way toward home, full of new memories of the beauty of Donegal.

Thinking of Home on Independence Day

In Belfast, the Fourth of July is … Tuesday. Just a Tuesday.

No fireworks. No smoked or grilled meat on the Big Green Egg. No bonfires (those happen next Tuesday when, thankfully, we’ll be in Portugal). Marilynn and I worked today after spending the weekend in Derry in the north and County Donegal in the Republic.

But that doesn’t mean that Declan and I didn’t get into the Independence Day spirit here in Belfast—albeit a couple of weeks early. Marilynn was at a conference in Scotland, but Declan and I attended the Independence Day celebration at the US Consulate General’s residence with about 500 other mainly Irish people and a smattering of Americans on June 23.

Even though it’s not a holiday here, Irish schools let out on June 30, so everyone goes on holiday right after, making a celebration on the actual day impractical. It was more networking than celebration, anyway, so think suits and ties rather than ballcaps and shorts.

Old friends and new

Declan and I immediately ran into author David Park and his wife, Alberta, who were talking to one of David’s former students and his American fiancée. The Parks have hosted us for dinner at their home in County Down, and we reciprocated with brunch on a spring Saturday. David attended Marilynn’s talk on “Hopdance,” and we all attended his reading at No Alibis promoting the paperback edition of his short story collection “Gods & Angels.”

Declan then wolfed down a hamburger and made a beeline to the back yard of the residence, where he played basketball with the consul general’s kids. With a growing thirst, I passed the Guinness booth in search of my new favorite Irish beer, Yardsman, brewed in Belfast by Hercules Brewing. I had seen a Yardsman glass and was determined to have a pint. Their booth was located in a corner of the yard.

Life, liberty, healthcare

Joining the queue, I overheard a few people on the side talking about healthcare. I joined that conversation, hoping to meet fellow Americans talking about Trump’s effort to undo the Affordable Care Act. Most were non-American officials from the Belfast Titans, the local ice hockey team whose mascot is Finn McCool, the mythical giant who created Giant’s Causeway. One, a former player who played in seven countries (including for the Gwinnett Gladiators in the north Atlanta ‘burbs), relayed the story of an American friend hit by high medical bills when his insurance ran out.

Say what you will about the National Health Service, but no one is turned away. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are codified in the preamble of the US Constitution. But how can one have those things without health insurance? I posit that healthcare is a fundamental right and firmly believe that everyone should be covered.

So on this day of celebration, think about our country and how we treat the least among us. Is it with respect or with contempt? Then think about our country’s place in the wider world and Americans living outside the US, because we certainly are thinking about you on this day of independence.

Sun, Fun (and Birds) at Wetland Centre

Saturday was for the birds, literally. We did the major attractions of Belfast years ago and have visited many others during our nearly six months here. So what’s left to do?

With Marilynn at a Fulbright conference in Edinburgh, the weekend belonged to Declan and me. The nice folks at the Visit Belfast Visitor Centre suggested a day at Castle Espie Wetland Center in Comber, which none of us had heard of. But our road-trip friend Eileen and bird-watching friend Joanna both said it was great, so away we went.

First off, you have to want to get there. We rode into city centre (bypassing the close-by Europa Bus Centre), then walked 15 minutes to the Laganside Bus Terminal near the Titanic Quarter. A 25-minute bus ride landed us in Comber, where we had to find a taxi office and wait 15 minutes for a ride. Fortunately, on the way back, we could pre-book the taxi to arrive minutes before the bus. And, for some reason, the bus delivered us back to Europa, from where we could walk home.

Hides to seek birds

Although it sounds like another big house, Castle Espie has no house—although it once did. Its most significant history was as a limestone quarry and brickmaking works. A recently constructed visitor centre helps set the stage for the wetland centre on Strangford Lough.

After paying for admission and an additional 75 pence for a bag of bird food, off we went. Declan tried to feed the mostly ducks and geese in the captive bird area, but they weren’t having any of it–again, literally. We spent several minutes there before moving into the conservation area, where no bird feeding is allowed.

The meandering waterside pathway through the conservation area is dotted with observation areas and indoor hides where you can watch the birds unobserved while (given the Belfast weather) keeping dry. The first hide looked across the lough. Others looked across the saline lagoon and the limestone lake. The impressive Limekin observatory featured a large standing telescope where Declan could watch the cars on the nearby road.

Former home to limestone works

But from the raised observatory, you could see both across the wildlife centre and across the lough to nearby Scrabo Tower, built on a hill in 1857 to honor “Fighting Charlie,” the third marquess of Londonderry, Charles Stewart. These are the same Londonderrys that built and lived in Mount Stewart, an actual big house we visited last month.

From the observatory, the focus changed from birds to the limestone works, including water inlets, the remains of the brickworks and a pump house. Finally, the path wound through grassland and woods, with lots of areas for young’uns to play and explore.

Since the path through the conservation area begins and ends at the visitor centre, Declan had another opportunity at bird feeding, which was more successful this time. Declan said it tickles when birds feed out of your hand. I’ll take his word for it.

While waiting for the cab back to Comber, we enjoyed snacks in the Kingfisher Kitchen, which looks out over a pond and the lough. Ducks and geese roam freely and even come up to the windows.

I’m not a bird person, per se, so I have no idea what we saw. But I did enjoy them nesting and flying in a place I know is protected.