Look around you anywhere in Portugal and the ‘azulejos’ (blue tiles) are there to tell you a story. From entire facades of buildings to interiors of churches and monasteries, public places and homes, street signs and fountains, these beautiful tile panels decorate everything – preserving for posterity great moments in the country’s history, its lifestyle and culture.
The beautiful and intricate designs in every historical monument we visited left is with a thirst to learn more of this ancient art that was only partly satiated when we visited Karen’s studio in the medieval citadel town of Obidos. She spoke with a passion of the art which has been handed down generations in her family, and we were tempted enough to pick a few pieces.
Scouring the narrow cobbled streets of the Alfama, we were directed to the Loja dos Descobrimentos – a quaint little shop with plenty of tiles – either singles or panels, blue or colored. (The shop is adjacent to the Casa dos Picos on Rua dos Bacalhoeiros).
The beautiful ceramic pieces come from Coimbra and Alentejo, and from other regions of the country as well. Many tiles are reproductions of classic designs and the shop is always willing to create bespoke pieces to sate your tastes and to fit your requirements. The loja also has an atelier where you can find an artist working on tiles or where you can take a lesson on how to paint your own tile.
Glazed tiles have their origin in Egypt, but it is the Portuguese who successfully adopted and adapted them (after being introduced to this art form by the Moors) to fit into their architectural creations. The masters of azulejos were in high demand and by the 18th century, the blue tile panels became an integral part of Portuguese architecture, both at home and in the colonies.
The word ‘azulejo’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘az-zulayj’ meaning ‘polished stone’. This perhaps explains the unmistakable Arab influences in many tiles like interlocking geometric or floral motifs.
In Lisbon’s Tile Museum, you can have an overview of the development of these tiles in Portugal and see some stunning panels and displays at monuments like the São Vicente de Fora Church and Fronteira Palace in Lisbon, in many of the train stations and almost every old church, monastery or university.
So do not step past this tempting souvenir, for there is certainly nothing better for the price and the quality of work.