Azulejo tiles were one of the first things we couldn’t help but notice in Portugal. Azulejos are everywhere, especially in Porto, they’re gorgeous to look at, very colourful and so very Portugese.
The beautiful ceramic tiles embellish the facades of many buildings and as we explored Porto we noticed the eye-catching azulejo tiles decorating everything from benches, street signs and fountains. There were even azulejos adorning huge arty boulders.
Some of the tiles portray historic rustic scenes and other azulejos are decorated with intricate geometric designs or flowers. Many are coloured blue and white but there’re others in the traditional Mediterranean colours of green and yellow. Here’s what we discovered…
A short history of Portugese Azulejo tiles
In the 13th century southern parts of Portugal were under Moorish rule. The Moors introduced the use and production of Azulejo tiles to the country. The name Azulejo originates from the Arabic word az-zulayj, meaning ‘small polished stone’.
In keeping with Islamic law the first tiles were forbidden to portray human subjects, hence the intricate geometric and floral designs.
From Patterns to People
King Manuel I brought Azulejo tiles from Seville to decorate his palace at Sintra in 1503. Hugely practical, they’d keep the interiors of the palace cool, covered vast areas of blank plaster and required minimal maintenance. So much easier just to wipe them down instead of a whole new paint job.
By the 1600s the Portugese started to use human and animal figures on the Azulejos. Over 100 years of painting geometric patterns has got to give at some point hasn’t it… This practical and decorative tiling tradition became a way of telling stories and recalling historical events throughout Portugal.
Azulejos at São Bento Station
Probably the most beautiful railway station in the world and the most well-known tiled building in Porto is the São Bento Railway Station. Over 20 thousand blue and white Azulejo tiles cover the walls of the old station and illustrate the history of Portugal.
The tiles were painted by Jorge Colaço, the most important azulejo painter of the time from 1905-1916. We stood and craned our necks checking out the fascinating scenarios and found some more unusual tiles amongst the artwork. But be careful – you could easily miss your train while engrossed in the station’s epic tile-work.
Azulejos at the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso
Another building in Porto with the mark of artist Jorge Colaço is The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso. The 18th-century church facade is covered in nearly 11,000 azulejo tiles and is an imposing building. The tiles are newer than those in São Bento Station and were added to the church in 1932. On the day we saw it the colour of the sky mirrored the blue of the tiles.
Modern Azulejo Tiles
For a different take on Porto’s azulejos there is a modern art installation just opposite Sao Bento Station where large tiled boulders can be found.
The ubiquitous souvenir fridge magnet in lots of different designs and colourways decorate the market stalls along the Ribeira. You could actually reproduce your own azulejo tile work of art on your fridge when you get back home!
Have you seen Azulejo tiles in Portugal?