Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

Here in the U.S., our cities have transportation departments, building commissioners and art endowments–three separate but equally important entities. But in beautiful Portugal, things work a little differently…because the roads and buildings are art.

Photo by Ian Bishop

I’d read extensively about the azulejos we’d see in Portugal, but I thought I’d only see tile work on a few major churches and monuments. I also thought, as the “azul” in azulejo seemed to indicate, that they’d all be blue and white. Instead, what I found was a multicolored visual feast around every corner, whether I looked down at my feet or three stories above me.

Tiles decorating the facade of Pena Palace in Sintra

Tile decorations and mosaic designs are simply inescapable in Portugal–and thank goodness for that, because there’s no more satisfying diversion from a long day of walking than stopping to inspect a breathtaking mural on the side of a confeitaria or looking down at your feet to discover an intricate flower pattern on the sidewalk. It’s clear that the country’s handiwork with ceramic tiles, basalt and limestone is what really separates it visually from the rest of Western Europe.

From the moment we arrived in Lisbon, we saw tiles everywhere. They fit together in elaborate, hand-painted murals narrating Lisbon’s maritime history in the city’s metro stations. They adorned the face of seemingly every building from the northern wine country all the way down to the sun-drenched, beachy Algarve. Tiny black and white stones fit together to form the whole country’s sidewalks. They were by turns weather-worn, ornate, beautiful, ugly, geometric, slippery and three-dimensional. Portugal didn’t seem to discriminate. Rather, it seemed to say, “If it’s covered in tiles, any tiles, it’s Portuguese.”

After a while, I wondered why tile art was so pervasive in Portugal but nowhere else in Europe…so I did some research. It turns out the Portuguese term for tiles, azulejos, has nothing to do with azul, the word for blue, like I thought. Instead, it’s actually derived from the Arabic word al-zulayj, which means “polished stone.” Whoever named them must have been paying respect to Egypt, the birthplace of tiles. But despite Portugal’s deep connection with Northern Africa–Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula for 700 years until Catholic conquerors wrested the land away in 1492–the tiles we see today were mostly inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. Legend has it that the king, Dom Manuel I, saw those wondrous Moorish tiles In Granada and used them as inspiration when designing his palace in Évora. All his tiles were imported from Seville and featured nothing more than abstract geometric patterns, in keeping with an Islamic law that condemns idolatry.

Dom Manuel I made tiny Portugal a conqueror of far-flung lands and a major global power, and for that he was revered. The clergy and the nobility hastened to follow his artistic example. In an architectural style they dubbed Manueline, they built churches, government seats and private estates with nods to his influence–intricate designs carved out of limestone, maritime symbols…and, of course, tiles. It wasn’t long until tile fever took over.

Tiles in Lisbon

Photos by Ian Bishop

The history of Portugal’s calçadas, or tiled sidewalks, is less documented–perhaps because, unlike azulejos, there isn’t an entire museum devoted to them! We know the first intricate mosaics in Portugal were designed by the Romans 2,000 years ago–in fact, you can still ooh and aah at them today at an archaeological site just outside Coimbra. But they never would have returned were it not for Dom Joao II, who in 1498 issued a decree that Portugal’s dirt roads were to be paved with limestone. (It’s said that he did this not for the good of the people but so that he could march in a dirt-free street parade in his honor…alongside a white rhino. You can’t make this stuff up!)

That takes us to 1755, the year of the earthquake that so devastated Lisbon that almost no building in the city survived. In a hasty attempt to rebuild, road workers gathered together the shards of limestone and basalt that once graced Lisbon’s roads and formed its handsome buildings and turned them into mosaic sidewalks, taking inspiration from their Roman ancestors.

The signature star-shaped tiles in Sintra, Portugal

The technique, once a necessity, transformed into an art and spread all over the country in the mid-19th century. Even Portugal’s former colonies boast artistic calçadas, from delicate geometric patterns in Maputo, Mozambique, to a giant wave-patterned esplanade at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

If you travel all over Portugal, pay close attention to the sidewalks and sides of buildings: They’ll often tell you a lot about the local heritage. Travel to Pinhão, a town sitting on the banks of the Douro River, and you’ll see its history of grape-growing and wine-making told in tile murals at the train station. Look down while you’re walking around Lagos and you’ll see mosaics in the shape of crabs, fish and octopuses, a testament to the Algarve region’s strong fishing industry and close connection to the ocean. In Sintra the sidewalk mosaics are star-shaped, a nod to the fact that the town name means “bright star” in a now-defunct Indo-European language.

The University of Coimbra’s seal…in tiles

If you visit Portugal, don’t forget to pad your itinerary with lots of “Wait, I need another look at this amazing tile/mosaic!” time. With all the steep hills you’ll be climbing, you’ll need a break anyway.

READ NEXT: SEVEN NON-TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN LISBON

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Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Travel Week 1, Part 1: Barcelona

I’ve caught up on classes sufficiently enough to take a deep breath and recall the whirlwind adventure that was my travel week. Luckily, I was taking notes all the time while traveling to help me write blogs for class, so even though everything went so quickly and was over so fast, I can still remember what happened.

Roller coaster near the beach, Barcelona, Spain

We started in Barcelona, on Saturday, at two in the morning. Our plane from Venice, which was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, was severely delayed and when we finally landed in Barcelona, the metro system we’d been counting on catching to the city center and our hostel was no longer running. Once we figured out the confusing bus system (which we found was just as confusing in every other city we visited and therefore made a point to use the underground metro whenever possible), we got off at a stop about a mile away from our hostel and spent the next hour looking for it. The hostel turned out to be on a street off one of the main tourist drags, La Rambla, and stank of urine from the night’s debaucheries once we arrived. It was seemingly a shady place, but luckily we found our hostel was not–it was clean and efficient.

We quite reluctantly woke up early the next morning to see the sights, first heading to Park Guell. You’ve likely already read about my time there. I found it interesting, but I later realized that our group missed most of the park–the pretty part, ironically. We saw nothing people think of when they picture Park Guell–no mosaics, no Gaudi. Nevertheless, the view of the city couldn’t have been better from the top, and the musicians were entertaining.

Next, we made our way down the huge traffic thoroughfare Diagonal toward Sagrada Familia and, on our way, stumbled upon a Gaudi apartment building, a giant owl-shaped billboard, and a corner apartment building with turrets and spires like that of a Disney castle. We also saw a beautifully painted chapel designed by one of Gaudi’s teachers–one who was, clearly, more of a conventional mind than Gaudi himself. For there is no weirder sight than Sagrada Familia, the absurdly modern yet Gothic Gaudi-designed church standing unfinished in the middle of the city. Each side is different: one looks like the entrance to some modern by-the-thousands Protestant temple; another looks like a spoof of Notre Dame with its gargoyles of 30 different species springing out all over the place; a third side has no theme as of yet and is covered in scaffolding; the fourth and probably most famous side looks like it would earn a Best in Show award in the most prestigious sand castle contest in the world.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I unfortunately forgot my camera on this glorious day of sightseeing, but I luckily remembered to bring it the next morning when we took a bike tour of the city. We saw Sagrada Familia again on this tour, but everything else was new–the park in the center of the city, the zoo, the beach, the palace that once housed the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what would have been the most beautiful Gothic church to behold were the entire front not covered in scaffolding.

Monument for Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain
Surprise, surprise–nights in Barcelona are far more lively than days. I have a theory that all the locals sleep away hangovers when the sun is up and wake up at dusk to party all night, and given the prevalent smell of urine all over the city, I’m sure that’s true to some degree. My group stayed away from the party scene, however, and instead opted to get up early and take in the sights. When we did stay out, we spent our nights enjoying a dish of paella and some sangria or getting some treats at the local ice cream place. One night, we tried to see a light and fountain show in front of a government building, but we must not have read our guidebooks very thoroughly, because nothing happened after we sat in front of the fountain for a good 20 minutes.

Old Town, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona wasn’t my favorite stop during the travel week, but it was an interesting cultural experience. I was expecting the overall mood to be similar to that of Italy, given that the two countries share a carelessness for time and multitasking, preferring to languish in one activity at a time and stay out late. But I found Spain to be even more carefree than Italy, and it made me realize I could never fit in there. I’ve been too Americanized to believe relaxation is always better than stress.

Read Next: Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris