A wall of faded green ceramic tiles — an intricate braided pattern tying them all together — is on my left. And to the right, a blue-and-white tiled mosaic of people working in a field stretches several feet above my head.
Throw a stone in Portugal, and you’ll hit a decorated tile. (But don’t do that; they might chip.)
Small town or big city, tile work runs rampant across Portugal.
On our first day of our recent trip, I found myself stopping every few steps to snap photos of the buildings because of the tiles. They completely covered the outsides of some buildings. In some places, there was a small tile mosaic above the front door. And painted tiles often stood in for street signs posted on the corner of buildings. They adorn fountains, signs, park benches, and walls.
So, what’s the story?
These tiles, called azulejos (“small polished stone”), have a Moorish history and have been part of Portuguese and Spanish culture for about four centuries. King Manuel I introduced the tiles to Portugal after a trip to Seville as a means to cover up big, blank walls.
At first, painters used a simple color palette for the tiles. In later years (and even today), the tiles became works of art with designs and patterns like leaves, flowers, and birds. Tiles also told stories about Portugal’s people, history, and culture with scenes from lore and daily life.
I think these full-wall scenes are some of the most impressive.
Artists spent an incredible amount of time and attention to detail on these works of art. And the sheer number of them means walking through any town is like a stroll in an art museum. Like quilts where artisans purposefully sew a mistake in, many of these scenes have a few tiles that are turned the wrong way or purposefully mismatched.
Today, a mix of original azulejos — often chipped, broken, and discolored — mixes in with more modern, geometric patterns and bolder colors. Among these, the oversized scenes still cover the vast majority of church walls (both inside and out), some train stations, and other wall surfaces.
Most tiles are glazed and flat; others sculpted and three-dimensional, the vines and flowers bumpy to the touch.
Part of Portugal’s appeal is that an artistic surprise awaits around every corner.
Sometimes it’s the monochromatic — but impressive — tile work covering a building’s exterior that catches your eye. (Seriously, four floors worth of tiles is a lot of tiles.) Sometimes it’s a small but intricate (and funny or scary or unusual) tile-made work of art over a front door. And sometimes it’s an image of people, a place, and a moment in time captured in such detail that Portugal comes alive, one tile at a time.