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Azulejos: Once upon a tile in Porto, Portugal.

Posted on Mar 9, 2012 | 12 Comments

“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.” 

—Cliff Richard

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.

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

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).

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

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.

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

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.

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

Azulejos in Portugal

Want to see the azulejos in Portugal?

  • Abi

    Come to Andalusia! There are loads here too.

    • Thanks for the tip, Abi! I’m actually staying in Seville for one night in May on my way to Morocco, so have been reading up on that part of history a bit. Andalusia’s connection with the Arab world sounds fascinating–I can’t wait to learn more about it.

  • For those who love Portuguese tiles….or AZULEJOS…please check out Atrio Antique Tile Replica Jewelry.

    Wear a piece of History!

    • Your jewelery is beautiful–thanks for letting us know about it!

  • I loved the azulejo tiles in Portugal! When I was in Lisbon I just walked around gawking at them. AND there’s a museum dedicated to these tiles! I also wrote a little post about it 🙂 http://thatbackpacker.com/2011/11/26/tiles-galore-lisbons-azulejos/

    • Hi Audrey! I’m so glad to find someone else who shares my love (*cough* obsession…) with Portugal’s azulejos. And I’m pretty jealous you got to visit the museum 🙂 I came across that when I was doing some research for this post and would love to visit it. I was only in Porto, so no tile museum there, sadly. I loved reading in your own post about how you keep track of tiles across the world…that would make for a great photo essay!

  • Wow I love the tiles, i think that is so great you were able to go and track down so many different examples. I hope to get to Portugal, and hoping to visit there sometime this year.

    • Thanks, Anwar! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’ll definitely have to keep an eye out for the azulejos when you’re in Portugal this year 🙂

  • That link to the most beautiful tile façades shows some attractive examples but for the major tile attractions in Lisbon (including shops that are authentic galleries!) see this Lisbon tiles top 10: http://www.lisbonlux.com/culture/azulejos.html

    In Lisbon also don’t overlook the beautiful gilding in the churches made possible with all the Brazilian gold of the 17th century and the cobblestone art of the pavements that look like Roman mosaics!

    • Thanks for such a detailed comment, Mark–sounds like I’ll have plenty of azulejos and other architectural features to check out when I’m in Lisbon 🙂

  • Nanette

    Hi i am in portugal at the present time and would live to know where i can buy some of the tiled jewellery, i think its lovely but cant find it anywhere. Hope you can help.

    • Hello, Nanette! Thanks so much for stopping by and saying hello. That’s a great question about the tiled jewellery – unfortunately I’m not quite sure where to find it, but you might try looking up this group on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/azulejos.eu – as they’re all about the colored tiles in Portugal. Good luck, and have a wonderful time in Portugal!