A couple of months ago, I took part in an Erasmus + project abroad. During one of our activities we created a video showing how foreigners perceive different countries. The task was easy – you were told name of a country and you should say out loud the first thing that comes to your mind. At that time, I haven’t visited Portugal yet. My answer was: cliffs. If somebody would ask me now, after a few months spent in Portugal, my mind would fill up with many things but I am quite sure that I would just say: azulejos.
What are Azulejos?
Azulejos is a name for Portuguese tiles. They are very specific for the country and you can find them basically everywhere – in the exteriors as well as in the interiors of many buildings. They are covering walls of houses, churches, gardens, railway stations and many more places. You can see them also inside of the buildings – in kitchens, corridors, toilets... They make the Portuguese architecture interesting and very unique at the same time. Every spot, every city, seems to be much more positive thanks to their colours and patterns. Even though you can find many abandoned buildings in Portugal (also in big cities which was a kind of a shocking surprise for me), the tiles manage to somehow “cover” the sadness of those and give the impression of a much happier past. And you just wonder about stories they remember…
The tile motives became a mark of the country and these days, you can find them not just as an element of the architecture. Different kinds of beautiful patterns are on postcards, cups and other utensils, pillows, earrings, t-shirts etc.
Me and azulejos
Shortly after arriving to Portugal, I fell in love with azulejos. I adore patterns and colours and thanks to the tiles I can see these two aspect everywhere around. Tiles lighten up by the sun (which is rarely hidden behind clouds in Portugal) are fascinating for me. I consider them a special kind of beauty which makes Portugal so unique and interesting. They form its atmosphere and vibe which you can feel all around.
I love to explore new buildings with various tile patterns and motives. After a few months spent in Portugal, I am still stopping by buildings with tile facades, watching them in awe and takings tons of pictures on every corner. I can barely say which tiled building is my favourite because I like almost all of them, every is specific and beautiful in a different way. I think I will never get bored with them.
The history of azulejos
Very interesting is also the story of azulejos. Their tradition is hundreds of years old. I was wondering why are they so common in Portugal and why I didn’t see them anywhere else (definitely not in this amount) in Europe. In fact, they are an Arabic invention. The name itself is from the Arabic az zulaj which means in translation a small glossy stone or a small tile. Arabs were experienced in the work with soil and very skilful and they were the ones behind the boom and the development of decorative ceramics in the region. They stayed on the Iberian peninsula till the late 15th century when they were expelled. Originally, only ornamental patterns were used, later on also religious and mythological motives and sceneries from the life of aristocracy.
In the 17th and 18th century, the decorative ceramics was on its peak and it meant golden age for azulejos. After the devastating earthquake in 1775, there was a big request for tiles because of reconstruction. The styles of tiles were changing with the time. Very typical is the combination of blue and white but you can find tile work in many colourful versions.
Personally, I think that one of the most fascinating facts about azulejos is that they are very resistant. As a German artist living in Portugal – Thomas Schittek – is saying, the tiles will be here long time after all of us will be gone, never changing.
Where to see the best azulejos
As I have already mentioned, azulejos are everywhere. You can find them in the whole country, in villages as well as in big cities. For you to understand better my passion for them, I would like to share pictures of a few places where you can find some great examples. Maybe I will inspire you to travel beyond the big cities such Lisbon. Or I will at least convince you to forget about the main tourist attractions and to walk and explore those hidden tile gems in many streets of Alfama, Bairro Alto and other parts of Lisbon – the way how I like it.
Below you can find a small gallery but for a bigger I invite you to check Wandering Sloths on Facebook.