The Azulejos (or tiles) of Porto

The sprawling Rua das Flores was originally the largest street in town – big enough to herd cattle down the middle and still allow pedestrians to walk alongside.  This was Porto in its early Moorish days.

Today the flowers on this thoroughfare are mostly seen on the building facades in the varied and textured and colorful tile mosaics for which this city is famous.

Standing on the cobbled plaza, you are surrounded by buildings faced with blue and white ceramic vignettes, and they often depict a figure in a winged helmet – that’s Mercury, the God of Trade.  His image indicates that the building was a store.

What type of store?  Look closer and you can decipher an image of a book – a roll of paper with pen and quill.   This store turns out to be the paper goods store where our guide Nuno would always shop for his drawing supplies in architecture school.

 

It’s tempting to stroll on, but if you force yourself to stay  look more deeply into the tile art, you will notice layers upon layers of styles.    Starting up at the crest of the buildings, the curved underside of the rooftiles are often decorated with now-faded geometric and floral design.   Just below, the top floors’ wrought iron balcony is dressed up with a forged figurehead at the corner through which a vertical line of yellow daisy tiles run.  But even these daisies are not identical.   Close examination reveals the originals have sharp corners while the cheaper replicas have smoother edges and duller color finishes.

With no copyrighting issues, factories often copied each other’s designs.  A novice like me can identify the cheaper versions because factory paint blurs while handprinted details keep crisp lines.

But the more sophisticated eye of Nuno showed us another way to tell.  The backs of the tiles of the imposters where lined, so when they fall off the buildings, you can see the stripes that remain in the adhesive underneath.

In the visual overwhelm of Porto’s tile “candy store”, it’s easy to miss these details. Not until I forced myself to pause and look ever deeper at the same facades did the layers pop out at me.

 

Other details reveal history  too.

A few buildings stand out with brick-shaped horizontal tiles.   This detail dates back to 1809 when Napoleon’s army liberated the city.  Many stayed and made their homes here, and – just as with recipes on the Silk Road – they tended to bring features of their homeland – like brick buildings –  with them.   So today, Rua das Flores has a prominent building with shiny bright green brick-shaped tiles that stands right alongside the fancy blue-and-white mercantile.

Overwhelmed by the 360* tile decor at Porto's train station in PortugalAs you wander, you’ll see cartoonish style tile paintings that depict country scenes, and grand 2-story tile mosaics that adorn one of the many chapels and monasteries of the Old City.

Our final stop was the Beaux-Arts train station whose grand hall is covered, floor to ceiling, 360*, with tiles that painstakingly depict the history of the old land. My point-and-shoot camera was so inadequate to capture the grandness of this surround-scene, that I simply took a selfie.

 

Check out all these style details in our video below:  the famous Azulejos (or tiles) or Porto

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