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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.