Streets of Portugal


Walking around Portugal is truly a very special experience. Portuguese sidewalks are unlike anything I’ve seen in all my travels.

Incredible black and white mosaic designs transforms mundane walkways into masterpieces. Sidewalks and open spaces have been transformed into these mosaic murals featuring animals, floral decorations, coats of arms, historic scenes, and elaborate patterns --all by hand-placing small black and white stones.

It's called “Calçada Portuguesa” and is an ancient paving art based on Roman mosaics. Some of the techniques were introduced by the Romans are still applied on the Calçada today. Paving as a craft is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia, where rocky materials were used in the inside and outside of constructions, being later brought to Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.

Some interesting info about the origin of these Portuguese street tiles:

It first appeared in Lisbon near the Castelo de São Jorge, where I'm currently living. They became so popular that their use spread quickly throughout the city. Today, the tiles are found all over Portugal, and even in former Portuguese colonies, including Macau, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil.

Local lore has it the mosaic sidewalks emerged in the end of a 15th century as a way of disguising rhinoceros droppings at a royal birthday bash. King Manuel I, the monarch who presided over the start of Portugal’s vertiginous colonial expansion, was to mark his birthday by parading through the streets of Lisbon with Ganga, a rhinoceros gifted to him by the governor of Portugal’s Indian enclave, Goa. And because a giant steaming rhinoceros patty would sully the regal occasion, organizers are said to have laid down an ornate mosaic of black and white stones along the parade route.

Thus, Portuguese pavement was born, although it wouldn’t become widespread in Lisbon until the mid-19th Century, when Lisbon was recovering from the devastating 1755 earthquake that razed most of the city. In 1842, the administrator in charge of the Castelo São Jorge, a sprawling hilltop fortress built by the Moors, ordered prisoners under his command to put in a mosaic footpath in an eye-catching zigzag pattern. Word of this weird and wonderful path spread, and soon it became something of a proto tourist destination, attracting visitors from across the city.

The administrator was commissioned to design grander mosaics in other parts of the city, and before long the style spread, first covering nearly all the sidewalks in Lisbon, and then those in other Portuguese cities. The iconic wave pattern first laid down on Lisbon’s Rossio Square in 1848 also graces sidewalks in Macau, Maputo, and Manaus. But the squiggly, vertigo-inducing pattern has become synonymous with Rio de Janeiro after the design was laid down on the 2.5-kilometer-long stretch flanking the golden sands of Copacabana Beach in 1900.

Currently, Lisbon’s official strategy is to maintain the mosaic sidewalks within the historic city center, while at the same time implementing solutions aimed at making them safer and more pedestrian friendly. Such fixes include swapping out some of the slick white limestone for gray granite bits, which have much more traction, and, on sidewalks that are wide enough, putting in a strip of concrete.

The technique used is upon a well-compacted layer of sand and grit, craftsmen (called "calceteiros") lay a bedding of gravel to act as cement for the stones. Then, the small flat black and white stones are chipped to fit perfectly into a pattern or image, like a mosaic. Lastly, the stones are packed down with a huge wooden mallet.  

To see more photos, check my new slide show