Singing the Blues in Portugal

Wednesday, September 21, 2016, 15:14

General view of the entrance to Sao Bento Station

Of course, you don't need me to tell you that in the photo before us we have a picture of heroic deeds; knights in armour charging each other, lances at the ready and pennants flying, but where do you think this historic scene of blood, guts and glory is to be found? And what message does it bring?

If you don't already know, have a guess and then click here to see if you are right!

Azulejos - Portuguese wall tiles - are found everywhere; for example, telling Biblical stories in churches, decorating the walls of civic buildings with local tales of derring-do and enhancing people's unpretentious homes with protective pictures of the virgin Mary and the saints.

(Before I go on I should perhaps say here that I like plain surfaces. I love Portuguese manor houses built with grey granite edgings and white-washed walls, a combination I find satisfying and elegant, but I do realise that if everything were monochrome the world would be infinitely duller than it is. So, as tiles are such a feature of Portuguese architecture I'm going to give you some examples. I'll tell you what I think but I leave you to make up your own minds about them.)

On the positive side, tiles are useful in that they don't deteriorate in the same way as paint so by just giving them a quick swill down now and again you will save time, energy and money in the long run. In fact, when they are used in combination with other traditional elements and when the colours are tasteful, I often quite like them.

Tiled house in Valenca do Minho  Castle

What do you think of this house in Valença? It has a traditional wrought iron balcony and granite window surrounds with the spaces between filled in with high relief, blue and white tiles. I actively like these tiles and I don't mind the house so, for me, this combination adds something positive to the

Or what about this one in Viana do Castelo? I think this house too has charm – though I wonder how much I am influenced by the wrought iron. (I love good wrought iron and one day I'll write a blog about it.)

Tiled house in Viana do Castelo

There are times, though, when the only word I can come up with to describe the tiles on some houses is... ugly!

For example, when they are a muddy brown – that is the polite description: there is a more colourful expression I would only use amongst friends - I find myself thinking, "Well those must have been a cheap job lot on sale somewhere or why else would anyone have bought them?"

Brown tiled house in Arcozelo

I challenge you to say that you would buy these tiles for your house!

Of others, a New Zealand friend remarked, "It looks as if they've put lino on their walls." And he's right. The designs are such as are mopped daily on a thousand 1960s kitchen and bathroom floors all over Europe and maybe beyond. Does this wall from a house near Arcos de Valdevez look familiar? Those tiles wouldn't be my choice of wall covering. Would they be yours?

Lino-style tiles in Arcos de Valdevez

In São Bento station, though, I really am impressed. These azulejos are magnificent. The picture above tells the story of one of the most crucial confrontations on the Iberian peninsula since it represents the birth of a nation. Afonso Henriques – also known as Afonso I of Portugal – took on his cousin Alfonso VII of Leon by invading Galicia. They eventually met by the River Vez and, as was custom in those days, apparently, each king chose his best knights to joust rather than engaging in a full pitched battle.

Known in Portuguese as the Torneio de Arcos de Valdevez, - The Tournament of Arcos de Valdevez - it seems that by the laws of chivalry, Afonso Henriques gained the upper hand and was deemed to have won. The 'battle area' is to this day known as the Veiga or Campo da Matança– the Killing Field - which is something of a paradox as it is recorded that because of the restricted nature of the conflict, many prisoners were taken but few lives were lost. The outcome of the struggle led to an armistice known later as the Treaty of Zamora, which brought to an end Portugal's first War of Independence. To commemorate this great event, the town has taken as its slogan, "Arcos de Valdevez onde Portugal se fez" – Arcos de Valdevez, birthplace of Portugal!" (It sounds better in Portuguese because it rhymes.)

What more inspiring subject could you devise to illustrate the past glories of Portugal and, perhaps, to urge on the people of today to create an equally inspiring future? 

The azulejos below tell of another great event in Portugal's history.

Doa Joao I and Philppa of Lancaster enter Porto

This picture shows the arrival of the king Dom Joao I in Porto to celebrate his marriage to Philippa of Lancaster. This was, in effect, the dawn of Portugal's great age of discoveries when brave sailors set out into the unknown in small, fragile wooden ships to discover the rest of the world. Philippa was the mother of several distinguished sons including the one we know as Henry the Navigator. Though he himself never sailed forth to make great discoveries he was the intellectual force behind the discoveries – what today we might call a 'mover and shaker'.

Blue and white, for me, is the most satisfying combination of colours in traditional Portuguese tiles and the azulejos of São Bento station are among the most delightful examples of them at their best. If you would like to see more, visit the station in Porto and gaze at the scenes of traditional Portuguese life as well as the grand historical pageants.

Here we have countryside pursuits; fruit picking in the orchards and trading on a river, probably the Douro.

Rural scenes picking fruit and on the river

Or what about this glorious panel over a doorway

Feast day in a village with sing, dancing eating and drinking

For me Portugal is at its best when everyone comes together for the 'festa' - the feast day. On the right there is lots of simple, inexpensive entertainment. You can see the local folklore group. Accordion and guitar players are playing their instruments; men and women in their traditional costumes are whirling to the music. (This not just a picture of the past on wall tiles. It happens today in Ponte de Lima where we sometimes enter into the fun.)

On the left, the other mainstay of the festa is taking place. Families are carousing around trestle tables and a huge barrel of wine while those who have eaten, drunk or danced too much are fast asleep and snoring. As the phrase is today: "What's not to like?"

Perhaps you are of a more serious turn of mind, though. Then pop up the road to see the equally impressive, azulejo-covered chapel of Santa Catarina (Capela das Almas de Santa Catarina) on the Rua de Santa Catarina, one of Porto's main shopping streets. The chapel itself is eighteenth century but the tiles, showing scenes from the lives of St Francis of Assisi and St Catherine and produced by a ceramics factory in Lamego, were added in 1929.

Chapel of Santa Catarina

I think Portuguese tiles are an acquired taste. It takes time and increased awareness to appreciate them. In many cases, I'm coming to like them better - even love them - but there are some, mostly on domestic buildings, that I'll never, ever, come to terms with.

And now, I want to let you into a secret. When our house is finished, we are going to look for a craftsman painter of azulejos and order a panel for the wall of our house, maybe by the front door. What subject shall we choose? We're not sure yet but perhaps a mountain scene with a village espigueiro, a couple of Minhoto cattle and a little old lady in traditional clothes holding a pitchfork or mattock.

What do you think of wall tiles? Are you a fan? Your opinion is just as important and valid as mine. In fact, you may think I'm completely wrong. And do you have better ideas about an azulejo panel for our house? Do write in and give us your views. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

David wrote:
Saturday, September 24, 2016, 11:46
Gorgeous in detail if weird in overall efffect - maybe that's the Anglo Saxon response; we don't do that sort of thing here! Interesting that they are in the "blue and white" tradition of willow-pattern plates; the blue must be an easily made colour.
Margaret wrote:
Saturday, September 24, 2016, 20:12
The willow pattern tradition is, I think, essentially Chinese whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) tiles are almost certainly in the tradition of Arab/Moslem tiling as Spain was colonised for several centuries and Portugal for a couple. I agree that for Anglo-Saxons such wall coverings are foreign to us but I wonder if our ancestors, who were used to brightly painted stone on our cathedrals and churches, would have found them more immediately sympathetic.
Coursework Help wrote:
Tuesday, April 18, 2017, 11:03
Thanks for your recommendations! It’s actually nice house. Design of tiles are also amazing. Loved reading this beautiful content on singing the Blues in Portugal.
Margaret wrote:
Wednesday, April 19, 2017, 11:30
I am glad you liked it.
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