Once the most powerful empire of Europe, today Portugal seems tucked away from the rest of the World, Spain surrounding it on the mainland and the wide open Atlantic to the West; a contemporary paradox as this is where the discovery of the New World began. It’s no wonder the traditions of the Portuguese, a multi-cultural and proud people, run deep and the experience is one of remarkable authenticity. After a week in Portugal, I left with a sense that there was so much more to discover as well as a rekindled romance with the sun to keep me warm under the grey ceiling of Paris.
The streets of Lisbon, old narrow streets that weave up and down the seven hills of the city, are rustic and colorful, unabashed in showing their true colors which are a mix of chipped blues, yellows and oranges and shades of brown and grey. But the most beautiful facades throughout Lisbon come from a tradition brought by the Moorish who occupied much of Portugal and Spain during the Middle Ages: Tiles. Yes, tiles.
Scenes you might expect on canvas, you’ll find here painted across tiles. While painted tiles are not unique to Europe, it was here that these colorful rhythmic patters and carefully construed designs became an art. It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice them everywhere, along the streets, in restaurants and as decor, each composition unique. The most beautiful of the tiles date as far back to the 16th century and it’s not unheard of, though it is rare, to find a few made as far back as the 12th century. Most façades date to the 20th century, while the most charming were completed in the 18th and 19th century though now in disrepair or incomplete.
In love with this tradition, I sought out a small antiques gallery rumored to have a large collection of old tiles for sale. As I entered into the ceramic maze late that morning, I was captivated by the stacks upon stacks of old, chipped tiles many unmatched others composing beautiful hand-painted compositions. I carefully pondered each one indecisively; did I want the 16th century or 18th century hand-painted fawn? should I splurge on the more expensive 17th century face of an angel? The 19th century just wouldn’t do – that’s when many of the designs were stamped and by the 20th century everything was industrialized. No, I wanted something the artist had touched with this coated brush, a souvenir from a few hundred years ago, a small tile clearly attached to a history just as it was once a part of a building. The charming dealer, filled with interesting bits of information each as telling as the tiles, humored me while I struggled to decide until finally after nearly an hour of pondering over this one verses that one I left with my prize: a 17th century hand-painted blue and white tile with architectural and foliage details.
The shopping gave me an appetite but I wasn’t finished piecing together the designs on the mounds of old ceramic tiles so off I headed to a nearby restaurant I knew wouldn’t disappoint. In Portugal, the best places are humbly understated and the renowned restaurants are often without even a visible sign. I never would have found Faz Gostos LX in the Chiado if it hadn’t been highly praised by a local I’d met the day before. The beauty of Faz Gostos LX is not only the delicious food, the menu a balance of traditional and contemporary fine cuisine from Chef Duval Pestana, but can found in the dining room decor as well. Inside what was once a monastery, the restaurant has preserved the original tiles once arranged as a mural along the same walls. Admiring the 16th century decor, I enjoyed my delicious cod fish pastties in steaming tomato rice kept piping hot in its copper pot.
Make a day of it!
For tiles, these are among the greatest monuments, restaurants and museums in Lisbon to admire the craftsmanship!
Museu Nacional do Azulejo
An absolutely marvelous collection of antique tiles from around the world housed in a 16th century building. In addition to exhibits showcasing contemporary artists also using tiles in their art, the tile museum showcases the production and tradition as far back as the 15th century.
Built in 1640, this is one of the most beautiful privately owned palaces of Lisbon located in the Benfica suburbs. Enjoy the tiled frescos amid a walled formal garden.
Mosteiro de São Vincente de Fora
A unique collection of 38 tiled murals illustrating the fables from 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine – a prime example of two large Empires inspiring one another and sharing traditions.
Palácio Nacional de Sintra
Not from Lisbon, Sintra is most visited for it’s large palace up on the hill overlooking the Portuguese countryside. But don’t miss the Palácio Nacional de Sintra and the largest collection of hispanic-arab tiles which dates to the 18th century.
While there are a few galleries in Lisbon that sell the tiles, I found Solar to have the best collection at the fairest prices. Beware of galleries selling expensive tiles that were painted contemporarily with 17th century motifs.
Traveled to Lisbon? What were your thoughts on the tiles of Lisbon?