PORTO, Portugal — As the early evening sun began to set, casting a low golden glow over the city, we found ourselves strolling along the Douro riverfront in Porto. The vibrant colors reflected off the buildings, transforming the facades into magnificent works of art. It was as if we had stepped into a painting rather than reality.
The narrow, hilly streets of Porto are adorned with terraced buildings, many of which are embellished with azulejo tiles. These decorative tiles, which are a cultural symbol of Portugal, can be found everywhere in the city. They are even replicated in tourist merchandise, although it is important to ensure that these souvenirs are not stolen from the actual buildings around town. Unfortunately, where there is profit to be made, there will always be those looking for an easy euro.
The term “azulejo” originates from the Arabic word “az-zulayj,” meaning “little stone” or “small, polished stone.” Like much of the Iberian Peninsula, including Spain, Portugal was once under Moorish influence, and it was the Moors who introduced these unique tiles to the country. Originally, the tiles featured geometric or floral patterns, as Islamic law prohibits the depiction of human forms.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal imported tiles from Spain, but in the late 1500s, the country began producing its own. Initially, the tiles were traditionally blue and white, arranged in a checkerboard pattern. As their popularity grew, more colors were added, and intricate designs emerged. From 1690 to 1750, during the height of their popularity, azulejo tiles adorned the exteriors and interiors of buildings.
Not only are these tiles aesthetically pleasing, but they also serve a practical purpose. The tiles help keep the interiors of large houses and palaces cool during the scorching summer months. Their beauty gives the entire city of Porto a fairytale-like quality, although it would be misleading to label it as merely “quaint.” Porto is a bustling port and tourist city, especially in the areas along the river, where modernity and history seamlessly intertwine.
What makes the tiles even more intriguing is when they adorn buildings that have aged over time. The contrast between the vibrant colors and the accumulated grime adds a sense of authenticity to the city. Porto is a real place, where people live and work. It beautifully captures the essence of blending past and present.
To withstand the elements, the tiles undergo an oven-baking process before a glaze is applied. Each tile is then fired at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees, ensuring their durability. This high-heat process is also responsible for the tiles’ brilliant shine, captivating the eyes of all who encounter them.
As one roams the streets of Porto, it’s worth seeking out specific buildings that showcase extraordinary examples of azulejo artistry. The Igreja do Carmo, an 18th-century Baroque church, boasts a mesmerizing blue and white illustrated scene designed by Silvestre Silvestri and painted by Carlos Branco. These tiles were installed in 1910, and the depiction illustrates the founding of the Carmelite religious order on Mount Carmel. Seeing the church at night, with its silhouette against the darkened sky and the illuminated tiled image, is particularly enchanting.
Another church that perfectly fits the picturesque narrative is the Igreja do Mirante, which serves as the headquarters of the Portuguese Methodist Church and stands as the oldest Protestant church in Porto. Given that Portugal is 81% Catholic, it was once illegal for Portuguese citizens to open a non-Catholic church. Consequently, the Igreja do Mirante was built by foreigners. It wasn’t until the Carnation Revolution in 1974 that a new constitution finally separated church and state, allowing for religious diversity. The church’s location between two unremarkable modern buildings only enhances its beauty and historical significance.
However, the true essence of Porto can be found by simply wandering through the city. Every corner offers a glimpse into art history and culture. Whether it’s day or night, Porto’s charm is undeniable, but it’s during the Golden Hour that the city truly comes alive, radiating a captivating glow that captivates all who witness it.
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