Calçadas Portuguesas: A Look at Portugal’s Picturesque Pavements

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes

As you wander through the vibrant streets of Portuguese cities, your eyes might be drawn to the colourful doors, the intricate street art, and the exquisite tiles that adorn the buildings. Yet, more beauty often lies right beneath your feet, on the traditional cobblestone pavement known as “calçada portuguesa.”

The “calçada portuguesa” is more than just a method of paving; it is a symbol of Portuguese culture and history, deeply integrated into the fabric of the country’s beautiful historical centers. Crafted from small, hand-cut stones, these pavements are laid down in intricate patterns and designs, ranging from simple geometric shapes to complex mosaics depicting historical and cultural scenes.

Despite its aesthetic appeal, the “calçada portuguesa” is not without its practical considerations. Its uneven surface can be slippery when wet, adding a layer of adventure to your stroll through Portugal’s rainy streets. Yet, even these challenges contribute to the charm and character of Portuguese cities, making every walk a unique experience.

The influence of “calçada portuguesa” extends far beyond Portugal’s borders, marking its presence in former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, Brazil, and Macau. Notable examples include the iconic Portuguese pavement of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, where the swirling black and white patterns have become synonymous with the beach’s identity, and the Senado Square in Macau, where the pavement adds to the historic and cultural ambiance of the area.

Walking on these cobblestone streets invites you to slow down and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you, including the art beneath your feet. The “calçada portuguesa” encourages a more leisurely pace of life, reminding us to savor the moment and the environment. It’s an invitation to enjoy the view without haste, to immerse oneself fully in the experience of being in one of the world’s most picturesque urban landscapes.

What is a calçada portuguesa?

“Calçada portuguesa” translates literally to Portuguese pavement, however “calçada portuguesa” normally refers not just to any sidewalk but to those that are meticulously crafted with black and white square-shaped cobbles, arranged in beautiful, artistic patterns.

This method utilises regular-sized cobblestones, usually crafted from black and white limestone, which are placed in diagonal patterns. One of the key characteristics of this technique is the precision with which these stones are laid; ideally, the gap between them should not exceed 2 mm, demonstrating the meticulous craftsmanship required to achieve the desired effect.

In regions where limestone is not as readily available, such as the volcanic islands of Madeira and the Azores, local materials are used to maintain this cultural practice. Basalt, a dark volcanic rock that is abundant in these areas, substitutes the traditional limestone, allowing the continuation of “calçada à Portuguesa” while also reflecting the local geology. To add vibrancy and depth to the patterns, red stones are occasionally incorporated into the designs.

The technique of laying down these pavements involves a high degree of skill and artistry, typically carried out by craftsmen known as “calceteiros.” These artisans are adept at shaping and fitting small stones into elaborate designs, ranging from geometric patterns to detailed images that can depict historical, cultural, or natural themes.

History

The origins of “calçada portuguesa,” the iconic Portuguese pavement, can be traced back to a significant moment in Lisbon’s history, within the walls of São Jorge Castle in 1842. Under the command of Lieutenant General Eusébio Cândido Cordeiro Pinheiro Furtado, a military base at the time, an innovative design was ordered to pave part of the stronghold. This design, a zigzag pattern crafted from black and white stones, was brought to life by the prisoners of the fort, who involuntarily became the first practitioners of what would evolve into the esteemed craft of the “calceteiros.”

This initial experiment, although the original pattern no longer exists, was met with widespread acclaim among the people of Lisbon, marking the beginning of a new era in urban aesthetics for Portugal. The success of this endeavor led to the first large-scale application of “calçada portuguesa” at Rossio Square in Lisbon, under the direction of the same Lieutenant General Eusébio Furtado. The square was adorned with a wave pattern, known as “Mar Largo,” symbolizing the vastness of the sea, a theme deeply ingrained in Portuguese culture.

The transformation of Rossio Square set a precedent, and soon, squares and sidewalks across Lisbon and beyond began to feature the intricate limestone mosaics that are now synonymous with Portuguese urban landscapes. The technique was quickly adopted in other Portuguese cities and eventually spread to the Portuguese colonies.

Praça do Rossio
Praça do Rossio – © Portugalist

Typical Designs

The most common themes pay homage to Portugal’s deep connection with the sea, a nod to the explorers and sailors who played a pivotal role in Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Among these patterns, motifs of ships and dolphins stand out, symbolising the adventurous spirit and the maritime prowess of the city.

Rosettes and the Cross of Christ are also prevalent, both deeply intertwined with Portugal’s seafaring legacy, reflecting the historical significance of the Order of Christ in the country’s naval expeditions.

Beyond the maritime themes, the cobblestone artworks of Lisbon also draw inspiration from the natural world, featuring representations of birds and flowers. These designs pay homage to the diverse flora and fauna of Portugal, celebrating the beauty of nature that enriches the country’s landscape.

A tribute to fado singer Amália Rodrigues – © Portugalist

Practical Issues

The limestone cobbles, though stunning, can become extremely slippery when wet, posing a significant risk to pedestrians. This slipperiness is not just a minor inconvenience; it can be very dangerous, leading to falls and injuries.

The gaps between the stones or any cracks that may have formed over time can easily catch stiletto heels, making the likelihood of tripping or twisting an ankle alarmingly high.

Moreover, the uneven and sometimes pothole-ridden condition of the cobblestone sidewalks can create significant obstacles for anyone using wheels to get around. Suitcases, buggies, and wheelchairs all struggle on such surfaces, making it difficult for travelers, parents with young children, and individuals with mobility impairments to navigate the city with ease.

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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