Layers of history in the bright colours of Porto

Ellie Duncan is enchanted by the 'azulejos' of Portugal

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Capela das Almas, in Porto (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to Oxford architecture, the word ‘iconic’ is often used. The distinctive honey-coloured stones of the colleges and libraries, and the quaint pastel colours of New College Lane, all cultivate a charm and character reproduced in books and films through the ages. I have little claim to knowledge about architecture, but as living in Oxford has proven, I will very quickly take my physical surroundings to heart.

Cue July 2017, and I’m on holiday with friends in Porto, proudly clutching my pocket guide to the city, my Gateway to Knowledge about the coolest bars and best museums. (Who cares if my friends are consistently beating me to it on their phones, with their travel apps and Google directions: I’m standing up for print culture and fold-out maps!) And the book has another advantage. Its potted cultural histories and handy need-to-know sections are a treasure trove of facts that I can surreptitiously pass off as my own. Strolling through the medieval Jewish district, I spot a door knocker in the shape of a fist. ‘Ah,’ I remark, leading the pack towards it. ‘A good example of a bronze hamsa, or protective hand door knocker.’

Yet, there is one element of Porto architecture that can’t be briefly explained, one that doesn’t need revealing to the observant few. On every street, covering the walls of almost every building, azulejos (hand-painted tiles) are a visual delight. They are as various as they are ubiquitous, ranging from plain or vivid colours to geometric pattens and elaborate, detailed narrative designs. At São Bento station, azulejos inscribe Portuguese history into the tiled fabric of the city – the panels designed by Jorge Colaço in 1930 telling of historic battles and conquests. A distinctive blue and white style dapples the facades of chapels and churches all over the city, my own favourite being Capela das Almas, our first glimpse of Porto as we emerged from the metro. Later that evening, the deep blues of the Christian depictions had intensified in the glow of the setting sun.

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After only a day or two, I quickly became a tile aficionado, remarking on the recurrence of certain styles, musing on one building’s particular display of a lovely bottle-green. It occurred to me that I might want to do a little more research. Islamic influence in Spain, stretching back to the Middle Ages, introduced a sophisticated knowledge of ceramic techniques. The term ‘azulejo’ stems from Arabic, and a tradition of azulejo art first established itself in Portugal in the early sixteenth century, after King Manuel I first visited Seville, the centre of the tile industry at that time. Further down the centuries, the Portuguese azulejo tradition evolved in a multitude of ways, from waves of Italian influence later in the sixteenth century, to allegorical art-deco approaches such as those on display in Capela das Almas.  Now, the use of these iconic tiles can be seen in architecture all over Portugal, from churches to stations to ordinary housing blocks. Move over, Lonely Planet.

Of course, my trusty little book could direct us to particularly impressive and famous landmarks for viewing azulejos, but it is evident that individual stories of each building would vastly overspill the constraints of this tile tourist’s starter pack. Yet after a few days of walking around the city, the gradual feeling of orientation began to set in. Particular patterns etched themselves into my mental map, marking out supermarket locations and routes home. Everyone collected their favourites. Sometimes the buildings matched our clothes. Viewing the main part of the city from the opposite side of the Douro river, the multi-coloured facades stacked almost on top of each other are a testament to the continuous use of azulejos throughout Porto’s construction.

In its sheer variety, azulejo architecture in Porto hints at a wealth of stories – of choice, purpose, artistic talent. Its vibrancy and affinity to idiosyncrasy mark out the charm of a place to which I would love to return.