Azulejos and Calçadas - the mosaics of Portugal

Wherever you go in Portugal you are surrounded by beautiful mosaics and tiles. Many of the buildings in cities such as Porto and Lisbon are covered in distinctive azulejo tiles. The sidewalks, city streets and largos are paved in calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese pavement).  Together, these tiles help give Portugal its distinctive ambiance. 
São Bento train station in Porto

Capela de Santa Catarina, Porto

The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word az-zulayj, or "small polished stone." While the name comes from the Moors, the actual decorative tiles were introduced from Spain in the 15th century. King Manuel I was fascinated with the ceramic tiles decorating the Alhambra Palace when he visited Granada, Spain. He decided to have his palace in Sintra decorated with the same tiles. Soon they were all the rage in Portugal, decorating everything from churches and palaces, to ordinary houses, shops, and train stations. The tiles were used to cover up the large areas of blank wall that were common inside buildings during the Gothic period.

The simple geometric shapes of King Manuel’s era were eventually replaced by more ornate decoration. In the 17th century, large tiles used just blue and white, influenced by Ming Dynasty porcelain from China that was popular during the time. After the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon, the plainer Pombaline styles that replaced the ornate Manueline architecture, also incorporated the use of azulejos to add interest to otherwise industrial-looking buildings.  Today, azulejos depict Portuguese history, legends, religion, and culture, and add color and interest to buildings, neighborhoods and cities. In addition to their use on buildings, azulejos are used on street signs, and in decorating public spaces like walls, park benches and fountains.

The Monument to the Calceteiro in Lisbon:
paying homage to those who create the calçada.
Azulejos offer the added practical benefit of insulating buildings from the heat, dampness and noise. Calçadas, on the other hand, do not have much of a practical side to point to. They do, however, provide interesting art directly underfoot. Their origins are unclear, although certainly inspired by the art of the azulejos.  One story puts their origin after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, as the city was being rebuilt. Inspired by Roman mosaics, the streets were paved in small limestone and basalt pieces recovered from the earthquake rubble. Another story suggests that the calçadas were a make-work project thought up by Lieutenant General Candido Pinheiro Eusebio Furtado, governor of the São Jorge Castle of Lisbon. He had a vision to transform the pavement of the castle’s park.  In 1842, he had his soldiers turn the area into a zigzag pattern of limestone and basalt stones. The park of São Jorge Castlesoon became beloved by Lisboans, and Furtado was commissioned to create a mosaic for Rossio Square – a wavy sea of black and white, and the most famous Lisbon calçada, called Largo Mar (wide sea) in honor of the Portuguese discoveries.
Rossio Square, Lisbon

While beautiful, the uneven calçadas can be tricky underfoot, and require constant maintenance and repair. They also become very slippery when wet. On a rainy day, the sidewalks can be treacherous! The calçadas, however, remain an important feature of Portuguese cities and the people here have fought to keep them from being replaced with more practical alternatives.


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