Like moths to the flame

No matter how a city tries to modernize – particularly if it got the urge in the architecturally frightening 60’s and 70’s – many of those which are attracting tourists today have gone back to earlier times and resurrected icons of the past. Here in Porto, trolleys from early last century have been reintroduced and they are packed with tourists. The crowds flock to those places that are not just like what they have at home, but rather something special and unique to its place.

Have you ever seen a bookstore crowded with people who paid 5€ just to get in? We learned today that (my personal heroine) J.K. Rowling lived for a year in this city, our last stop in Portugal. She reportedly haunted the Lello & Irmão bookstore, and it certainly made an impression. This has become an essential Harry Potter pilgrimage site, as one can easily imagine it on Diagon Alley. Now J.K. again haunts this place, which actually charges admission to stem the flood of gawkers who come just to look, though many end up buying. (Lots of Harry Potter available.) A total fantasy, it is the perfect home for books and imagination.

We are particularly fortunate in our lodgings in Porto. Just across the street from the train station facing Liberty Square is our favorite hotel, the Intercontinental. It returned our affection by upgrading us to a duplex suite, so we are living large while we are here. Two bathrooms, a balcony, the works!

Since we are so close to the train station, we took the time to look at it in more detail. It boasts glorious tilework that shows historical and folk scenes from the region.

We strolled through the city, admiring the architecture, the tiles, the styles and the energy being put into renovating the wonderful old buildings, yet preserving the facades. Prince Henry the Navigator looms over the Stock Exchange square, and his birthplace is conveniently nearby.

We walked down to the Douro riverfront, which has been preserved in its 18th and 19th century glory – though not without a fight – and attracts tourists by just being itself. The main attraction is the Dom Luís I Bridge, not surprisingly built by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.

Don’s Food Corner

A mere block away from the hotel, the guidebooks promise, is the most beautiful McDonald’s in Europe, if not the world. The reason? It’s because McDonald’s took over the space of a grand café originally opened in 1936, called the Imperial Cafe.  The eagle over the entrance is what gave it the “imperial” status and today it is referred to as the “Imperial” McDonald’s.

Well, we couldn’t just admire the incredible stained-glass windows tracing the growing, transport, processing and enjoyment of coffee and the equally magnificent and ornate friezes, as well as the crystal chandeliers, without tasting the goods. We just couldn’t let you down. (When we checked in at the hotel we were asked if we wanted any assistance with restaurant recommendations. We demurred since we knew that we were going to run across the street for some Big Macs, but we didn’t mention that.)

You’ll be glad to know that it’s safe to travel to Porto if you need a McDonald’s fix. The Big Macs are exactly as you would expect as were the French fries and diet Coke. Tucked in a corner, however, is an additional counter and display case for Portuguese-style sweets and espresso.

At one time, this grand room, now reconfigured to accommodate the demands of a McDonald’s and its customers, was a central gathering place for generations of citizens of Porto. It represented cultural elegance to be enjoyed for the price of a cup of espresso. Today, it’s still a gathering place, although perhaps not quite as elegant, teeming with perhaps a different kind of energy. Still, it’s nice to see that it was preserved, still giving off a lofty vibe which surely reaches today’s customers on some level — even if they don’t know the history of the space. They’re still drawn like moths to the flame.

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