In Portugal, at Every Turn, the Glazed Tiles Called Azulejos

Reed Travel Features

LISBON, Portugal -- The colorful glazed tiles, azulejos, that make up the captivating designs and murals on public and private buildings throughout Portugal are the product of a decorative-arts tradition dating to the 15th century. Although the Portuguese did not invent the technique -- they were influenced by designs from Spain, Italy and the Netherlands -- the Portuguese tile craze started as long ago as the 1600s and flourishes today.

As visitors wander through the winding streets of Lisbon (or elsewhere in Portugal), they will discover that the Portuguese have covered everything from storefronts and fountains to private dwellings and monuments with azulejos. Azulejos, new and antique, also have become sought-after souvenirs, and hand-painted tiles and ceramics based on antique patterns can be found at ceramics stores and gift shops. Visitors in search of antique tiles should proceed with caution because, as a result of the demand, the sale of tiles that resemble antiques has become a big business here. Clients should do their homework, seek out reputable dealers and, if possible, take along someone who knows something about azulejos.

For those interested in immersing themselves in the world of azulejos, their history is traced at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. Just to see the museum's home, the 16th century Nossa Senhora da Madre de Deus church and convent, is reason enough for a visit. The chapel is decorated with a combination of gilt and blue-and-white tiles. The large cloister boasts a 118-foot blue-and-white tile panel depicting Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755. Other exhibits include tiles dating from the 15th century. Visitors should plan to spend at least an hour exploring the museum. Reproduction tiles, coffee-table books and other items are for sale in the lobby. The museum is open Tuesdays from 2 to 6 p.m. and Wednesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is about $2 for adults.

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