Azulejos: Once upon a tile in Porto, Portugal.
“Portugal has a peaceful feel about it. I sit on the terrace overlooking the vineyard there and I feel cut off from the world. You need that sort of thing.”
I didn’t notice them at first.
Maybe it was because of the long rows of laundry that had been strung across nearly every balcony, or maybe because I was too busy watching bright winter sunlight reflect off the Duoro River, but the many porcelain tiles adorning so many façades escaped me.
However, as my time in the city of Porto in northern Portugal went on, I slowly began to take note—here an apartment building covered completely in yellow tiled flowers; there a street sign made up of blue and white tiles whose design was reminiscent of ancient Chinese pottery.
And then suddenly, there was no mistaking it. They were everywhere.
Some showed actual images—be it a jolly Santa Claus, an elegant artist’s palette, or the beautiful tiled scene on the side of the 18th century Igreja do Carmo church (although the tiles themselves, designed by Silvestro Silvestri, weren’t added until 1912).
But it was the geometric ones I found myself drawn to the most—for the way their patterns repeated themselves, extending graceful rows of diamonds, squares, triangles and flourishes across the city.
It wasn’t until late one afternoon, as I was returning my bicycle to the rental shop, that I learned these tiles were no accident. “They are leftover from the time of the Moors,” said the young guy manning the shop. The official name for them, azulejos, even comes from the Arabic word for ‘polished stone’, az-zulayj.
“When the Arabs left, they kept the tiles. Easier to clean, and much cheaper than paint, you know?” he said as my gaze was caught by yet another façade above us.
I snapped one last photo of the tiles and said yes, I know.