Pretty pavements Velas, São Jorge island

Calçada Portuguesa: The Dangerous Beauty Of Portuguese Pavement Art

You don’t need to go far to find calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese pavement, or sidewalk) in Portugal. It’s a prominent feature all over the country from the pretty shopping streets of Loulé and Faro in the Algarve to Queen Saint Isabel at Coimbra University and the zig-zag patterns in Santa Cruz on the Azorean island of Flores.

While the intricate designs created by this artistic use of cobblestones brighten up city spaces, they are also problematic.

Watch your step! The streets are made of art with beautiful designs made from black and white cobblestones
Queen Saint Isabel, Coimbra’s patron saint, depicted in black and white cobblestones at Coimbra University.
Patterned pedestrian shopping streets in Faro
Patterned pedestrian shopping streets in Faro

What is calçada Portuguesa?

Simply put, the term calçada à Portuguesa refers to the use of regular-sized cobblestones, typically of white and black limestone, laid diagonally with a gap no greater than 2 mm (in theory). As you’ll see, there are many variations and degrees of unevenness but essentially, we’re talking mosaic paving.

In the volcanic islands of Madeira and the Azores, the ubiquitous basalt is used instead of Portuguese limestone. Sometimes, you’ll find red stones mixed in to add flair and colour to the patterned paving.

Calçada Portuguesa in black, white and red volcanic basalt. Fancy patterned pavement, Funchal Madeira
Fancy patterned pavement, Funchal, Madeira

This use of these coloured stones as large-scale mosaics was likely inspired by Portugal’s Roman heritage. However, the art of making pretty patterns on public pavements and squares began in Lisbon’s Rossio square in the mid-19th century and quickly spread.

Themed pavement art

Many of the cobblestone paving patterns you see in Lisbon streets pay homage to the city’s maritime heritage. It won’t take long for the repeating wave pattern of Rossio square to make your eyes go funny. The caravels in the pavement of Avenida Almirante Reis are easier to look at. Largo do Chiado’s swirls are best viewed from above while Avenida da Liberdade’s designs make a stroll down the central strip more pleasant.

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I’ve seen many wonderful and creative patterns on my travels in Portugal but I think overall winner for the best pavement art is the town of Velas in São Jorge island in the Azores.

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Calçada Portuguesa. A love hate relationship

While I am a huge fan of decorated streets on an aesthetic level, I am among the first to admit that they are not easy to walk on, especially not the poorly maintained limestone cobbles.

For a start, without regular treatment (i.e. grinding and levelling), they are lethally slippy when wet.

Add to that the general state of disrepair and lack of skilled craftspeople capable of properly repairing pavements and you’ve got accidents waiting to happen all over the country. Not only is is all too easy to stumble in an unfilled gap in the cobbles, many people, myself included, walk in the road and risk getting run over. In fact, this is the 3rd highest cause of road traffic accidents in Lisbon.

Uneven cobblestone sidewalks with potholes are also far from ideal for wheels of any size, whether we’re talking suitcases, buggies or wheelchairs.

And if you’re mad enough to venture out in high heels, the chances of coming a cropper when your stiletto gets wedged in a crack are perilously high. This is why I go on and on about packing non-slip, comfortable shoes without a spiked heel.

This cobbled pavement in Lisbon is lovely but only if you've got the right footwear.
This cobbled pavement in Lisbon is lovely but only if you’ve got the right footwear.

Replacement paving?

With an ageing population and an increasing number of tourists who are unused to such treacherous paving, the issue of whether to tear up Lisbon’s pavements in favour of safer surfaces is a hotly debated topic with passionate advocates on both sides of the argument.

Despite resistance, some progress has been made; Lisbon city council has already introduced strips of concrete on some sidewalks, such as Rua de Alcântara, and will be replacing the cobbled pavements on hills of a certain gradient with non-slip solutions.

As far as I’m concerned, unless there’s room to add a concrete strip, or they can be either coated or properly repaired and maintained, the plain limestone cobblestones used for general pavements can go, at least on steep streets. But not the pretty ones.

Portuguese pavements are not always pretty
Portuguese pavements are not always pretty

Artistic heritage worth preserving

Portugal’s black and white mosaic paving should not and will not be discarded lightly. The decision to replace the cobblestone tile pattern of Praça do Comércio with a rather boring but considerably safer surface would have gone down more easily had the black and white paving been preserved by moving it elsewhere.

According to an artist I met who paints miniature calçada tiles as souvenirs, that did not happen. Public outrage at such wanton destruction has led to the protection of decorative Portuguese patterns. Lisbon’s calçada Portuguesa, more specifically the technique of laying it, is currently being put forward to UNESCO for World Heritage classification. My hope is that by elevating its status, this skill will be revived and solutions to the safety issue found.

Portuguese paving as souvenirs

As well as the artist I mentioned before, there are several souvenir options that feature Portuguese pavement patterns. Most souvenir and craft shops will have something to offer but if you want to order online, you’ll find a range of products available from my own shop on Redbubble, like these.

Selection of products in Julie Dawn Fox's gift shop made from Swirly Pavement image
Selection of products made from Portuguese pavement image

Portuguese pavement exhibition

The Lisbon Museum has a temporary exhibition about the history and craft of Portuguese calçada until September 24th, 2017. Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 6 pm, €3. Located in the West Tower at the corner of Praça do Comércio.

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Walk on art. Pretty Portuguese pavements. Calçada Portuguesa from all around Portugal to love or hate.
Pretty Portuguese pavements
Calçada Portuguesa. Portuguese pavements. Dangerously beautiful
Calçada Portuguesa. Portuguese pavements

10 Comments

  1. Besides the obvious danger and discomfort for the walkers, what I hold most against this type of pavement is the type of work needed to repair and build them: on the workers’ knees.

    1. Author

      Good point, Carlos. That must be excruciating work.

  2. Hi Julie,
    I am so glad to see this article! I recently returned home from a two and a half week vacation to Portugal, during which I was plagued by severe foot pain. I am originally from New York, and still walk many miles in that city, with no problems. In Portugal, I found myself dreading each day of exploring, even in my super-cushioned Asics sneakers and double orthotics. Dragging my wheeled suitcase, in the intense heat, up cobbled hills, was not fun. It’s a beautiful country, but I felt like I was in boot camp!
    Thanks for all of your terrific articles.
    Karen

    1. Author

      You’re welcome, Karen. Hope you’re fully recovered from the unexpected physical challenges.

  3. As mentioned in the article, they are aesthetically beautiful and the craftsmanship is amazing. For wheelchairs they are totally very hard work and dangerous. If a front wheel gets caught in a gap – curtains. Is there not a type of non slip resin available that would preserve the paving and make it smooth enough not to be a problem ? Love your articles. Xx

    1. Author

      Thanks, Elaine. I can only imagine how treacherous they are for wheelchair users. It’s bad enough on foot, even with sensible shoes. Walking sticks are problematic too as sometimes the gaps are bigger than they should be and the stick gets stuck. A lot of work needs to be done to get them into a state where the pavements are safe for all to use and serve their purpose in giving pedestrians and non-vehicle users a place to keep away from the traffic.

  4. I agree with you Julie, they are very pretty but in a lot of places in need of repair and a danger to many people who aren’t used to them. I would hate to see them replaced though…

    1. Author

      I know what you mean, although some of them aren’t even that aesthetically pleasing anymore – they’re so bumpy and full of holes and cracks! I do hope a sensible solution is found quickly.

  5. Iberian pavements are generally lethal, regardless of whether they are part of a pattern or not, or modern or not. As a driver when we came on holiday and moved here first, I used to curse about all the pedestrians wandering about in the road. Now I do it myself, it`s the safest place to be. Whilst the cobbles and more modern tiled effects are very attractive, they are a nightmare for all the reasons Julie said. There is one near my local Spar shop that is like a booby trap just waiting for a victim, I always make a point of looking out for it, as it is lifted Just enough to make you go flying, but not enough to be obvious. Having mobility issues and having fallen many times in my own house I can say there are no soft landings in Iberia. That is why you see so many people in plaster, slings, on crutches and so on.
    But it is a mystery to me, why, with so many elderly people with sticks or poor mobility they have these pavements and an obsession with steps. There are many places that are off limits to me because I simply cannot get in. There are many places like churches and castles that you simply cannot deal with because of steps. When my friend comes to stay she goes in while I wait outside, takes loads of photos and downloads them for me when we get home. But its not the same as seeing it for yourself. It may be different in cities like Lisbon, but there is no automatic disability access like in the UK. Even the buses at Lisbon airport are disability unfriendly. I know from experience, having fallen trying to get on one (Step too high) and lying there floundering in the stairwell while my friend and a lady with a baby in her arms tried to get me up while the other passengers and the driver just watched, In fact I was terrified the driver was just going to move off and I would be flung out.
    Don`t want to sound negative, but it is something to consider if you have mobility issues or even little ones in buggies.
    I was perfectly fit when we moved here, the problems only started after I slipped on a flight of steps and broke my ankle, not once but twice. 3 times on one bone and a dislocated joint. Metal plate. Then months later the other bone just snapped, for no apparent reason. I suspect it was damaged but they didn`t pick up on it. Another metal plate. Haven`t walked properly since. It doesn`t half change your outlook. Things we don`t even notice when able bodied suddenly become glaringly obvious obstacles to the elderly, mothers with prams, carers with wheelchairs and so on. Why the Iberians don`t address them I have no idea.
    I am sure that there must be way to preserve these beautiful things but make them safer. A clear non slip surface over the top?

    1. Author

      Hi Shelagh, thanks for weighing in and sharing your experiences – sorry to hear about the problems you had, especially with the buses. As for the pavements, as you say, the problems that people with mobility issues face are not ones that most people take into consideration when defending the calçada. I know that the laws have changed regarding accessibility and things are slowly changing but it will take a long time and as you know, some places simply cannot be adapted for wheelchair users. I do hope they find a workable solution to the paving though.

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