Portugal: A love story in tiles

Karishma Kirpalani | Updated on September 27, 2019

Chip by chip: Porto’s Sao Bento railway station has a tile-work that tells the story of the evolution of transport   -  VISIT PORTUGAL

Feeling blue: Azulejo tiles on the facade of a house in Lisbon   -  VISIT PORTUGAL

From pavements to churches, palaces to street corners — Portugal has a tile for every place

Tiles tell a story. Or that’s what I have gathered from my trips.

Apart from adding colour to the surroundings, they are symbols of cultural heritage. While exploring Morocco, we came across fountains and traditional houses (riads and dars) that have beautiful mosaics made with small tiles. Turkey’s love for Iznik tiles shows in its palaces, restaurants, bazaars and houses. Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex in Granada, Spain, is considered to be an inspiration for anyone with an interest in tiles. Closer home, Goa has tiles on the walls of it houses, tabletops at restaurants and even frescoes in popular tourist areas such as Calangute.

Portugal, a country I visited recently, scores well on the tile-o-meter. Its imaginative use of azulejo tiles — also common in neighbouring Spain — inspired me to dig into the history of the country’s affair with the said tiles. It turns out the the roots of the word azulejo comes from azulayjaArabic for polished stone. This art style was brought by the Moors of the Iberian Peninsula and the use of these tiles in plain colours can be traced back to pavements of the 13th century. The azulejo gained popularity and attention in the 16th century, following Portuguese ruler King Manuel I’s visit to Seville and Granada. It is said that the monarch was bowled over the architectural beauty of the Alhambra and he decided to fashion his palace in Sintra, a town in the Lisbon district, after it. By the next century, azulejos had established a foothold on Portuguese design. In another 100 years, the country even became the largest manufacturer of the tile in Europe.

It also broke some barriers along the way. The earliest use of azulejos in Portuguese cities and towns were mostly in the houses of the rich. But a walk around Porto, the second largest town in Portugal, and Lisbon shows you that the tiles eventually made it to almost every house. Apart from being beautiful and rich in colours, the azulejo is also known for its resistance to both heat and moisture.

Portugal also has a host of other tiles to show off. You will find tiles everywhere — and I mean everywhere. Think street nameplates, benches, fountains, murals, façades of railway stations, residential buildings, churches, palaces and, last but not the least, pavements.

Some streets, such as the Rua Da Augusta in in Lisbon, are known for Calçada Portuguesa. These are limestone tiles layered by skilful craftsmen. These are usually in black and white, arranged in asymmetrical patterns. This is a Lisbon trademark. The Museo do Azulejo Lisboa (National Tile Museum) in the city is a fitting tribute to the importance that tiles enjoy in the country’s cultural tapestry.

The tradition of writing names of roads and streets on tiles is most conspicuous in Albufeira in the southern coast of Portugal. The name is surrounded by a floral border in red, blue, yellow or green.

An interesting example of tile-work lies in the interiors of Porto’s Sao Bento railway station. It tells the story of the evolution of transport. At the top end of the walls, a row of multicoloured tiles depict modes of transport in the olden days — carts pulled by bullocks and donkeys, horse-drawn carriages, wooden boats and so on. Ships and steam engines emerge on other parts of the wall, in white and cobalt-blue tiles. The people in the artwork are engaged in a variety of activities — from walking in a royal procession to attending weddings. And one set, curiously, is seen pumping water by a river.

Just a few hours away from Porto, the town of Aveiro loves to tell the story of how the fisherfolk shaped its history. The tile-work on its benches and walls show the life of the community and also glimpses of the pretty town. Anyone who loves a good story — captured in stunning visuals — will feel at home in Aveiro.

Karishma Kirpalani is a travel blogger based in Chennai

Published on September 27, 2019

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