Beaumont entertainment writer Andy Coughlan visits Porto, Portugal


PORTO, Portugal — The early evening sun was low in the sky as we made our way down to the Douro riverfront. The Golden Hour glow reflected of the buildings, the colors brightening to seem more like art than reality.

The narrow hilly streets are lined with terraced buildings, a great many of them adorned with tiles that are a cultural signifier that one is in Portugal. The azulejo tiles are everywhere, representations of which are even found in the tourist merchandise (One should always check the source of the souvenir tiles to make sure they are not stolen from buildings around town. If there’s money to be made, there will always be those seeking to make a quick buck — or euro).

Azulejo comes from the Arabic word “az-zulayj,”meaning “little stone” or “small, polished stone.” Like much of the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain, Portugal was under Moorish rule, and they introduced the Azulejo tiles to the country. The original tiles featured geometric or floral designs as Islamic law forbids depiction of human forms.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the tiles were imported from Spain, but in the late 1500s Portugal began producing its own. Originally, the tiles were the traditional blue and white and placed in a checkerboard pattern. As the popularity grew, colors were added, and more complex pictures were created. At the height of the tiles’ popularity, from 1690 to 1750, tiles covered the exteriors and interiors of buildings.

However, the tiles are not simply for decoration. They also have practical qualities, as they kept the interiors of large houses and palaces cool in the height of the summer heat.

The beautiful tiles give the whole town a picture book quality. It is tempting to use the word quaint, but that implies the city is less than the bustling port and tourist city it is, especially in the areas that follow the river.

It is especially interesting to see the tiles on buildings that are, let’s say, slightly the worse for age. The juxtaposition between the color and the grime gives the city a lived-in feel. One is in a real place where people live and work. Modern and historical walk hand in hand.

The tiles are oven-baked before a glaze is applied. Each tile is then refired at temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees, which makes the tiles resistant to the elements. It is also what makes the colors shine so brightly.

The houses incorporate different colors on the terrace, creating a quilt-like patchwork around the city.

Of course, there are specific buildings that one should visit, including the Igreja do Carmo. The 18th century Baroque church features a blue and white illustrated scene designed by Silvestre Silvestri and painted by Carlos Branco. The tiles were installed in 1910. The picture illustrates the founding of the Carmelite religious order on Mount Carmel.

The church is most lovely at night. It stands silhouetted against the night sky with the bright lights illuminating the tiled image.

Another church that certainly fits into the picture book mode is the Igreja do Mirante, the headquarters of the Portuguese Methodist Church and the oldest Protestant church in the city. Portugal is 81% Catholic, and when Igreja do Mirante was inaugurated in 1877, it was still illegal for Portuguese to open a non-Catholic church. So, it was actually built by foreigners. It was not until the Carnation Revolution in 1974 that a new constitution separated church and state.

Igreja do Mirante sits between two bland modern buildings which only adds to its beauty.

While it is worth making an effort to track down the highly decorated churches and palaces in Porto, the best things, as the saying goes, are free. Just walking around the city is to be immersed in art history and culture. At any time of the day it is lovely, but at Golden Hour, Porto positively glows.

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