When walking through Lisbon or Porto for the first time, it won’t be possible to not notice the wonderful black and white mosaics on the floor. Almost everywhere in Portugal you will find these pavements instead of grey, boring concrete or asphalt which is used in other countries. And yes, the idea is so simple: Why shouldn’t you make something with such a strong presence impressive and remarkable instead of just letting it serve its purpose?
This is probably what King Dom Manuel I thought, whom the story of calçadas began with. The way of painstakingly paving the streets with small stones was heritage of the Roman culture. In 16th century, the king ordered the main road of Lisbon to be paved. At that time, this road was the commercial centre of the city and its name was Rua Nova dos Mercadores. More and more streets were paved and since Dom Manuel had always had a weakness for impressive and grand things, the pavements were constructed in a way that was not just simply functional. The pavements were built out of black and white stones that were arranged like mosaic stones to build meaningful pictures, ornaments or sayings. The white stones are mostly limestone while the black ones are basalt most of the time.
But it was only in the 19th century when the Portuguese paving experienced its heyday. In 1755, a massive earthquake destroyed most parts of Lisbon and the city needed to be reconstructed. Suddenly, pavements were basically everywhere. In the decades before, they were used mostly at main squares. But after the earthquake, the beautiful stones could be found in sidewalks, parks, pedestrian zones, squares, and sometimes even in private courtyards. The Portuguese did not get tired of introducing decorative elements into the paving. They used stuff from their daily life as inspiration. That is why you will find many maritime figures and pictures from Portuguese history when walking through e.g. Lisbon. If you take a guided tour through the city, you might be extra lucky and some of the ornaments in the pavements might be explained to you.
One of the most famous patterns is the one of Lisbon’s Rossio square. Built by engineer Eusebius Furtado, this pattern is called mar largo, the wide sea. It shows many gigantic and wide waves and – so they say – is also a commemoration to the 1755 earthquake and the tsunami which hit Lisbon a few minutes afterwards. The calçada pattern on Rossio square became so popular that the town council made it mandatory to use cobblestones as paving material for all new paving plans.
But the cobblestones of Portugal cannot only be found in the lusophone country. No, you can actually find and admire the calçada in most of the countries that once were a Portuguese colony and even more. This means, calçadas are to be found in cities such as Rio de Janeiro (the famous “Calçadão”), Luanda, Macao, Maputo and even New York. In Rio, you can admire wonderful examples of Portuguese pavements in the park next to the beach “Copacabana” (which is the work of Roberto Burle Marx, a famous architect) and on the former Avenida Central too.
But unfortunately, everything has its two sides, right? For the Portuguese calçada, the negative side is that it is rather insecure when it is raining (or snowing, as if that was happening in Portugal, haha!). Repeatedly, elder people report they slipped on the slippery calçada during rain. That is why many Portuguese cities are debating now, whether or not calçadas should still be renovated and renewed. Some say the time has come to invent something new. Others say the famous pavement of Portugal is part of cultural heritage and should not be removed. Another disadvantage is the fact that, as many handcrafts these days, there are not so many people anymore who are capable of maintaining the cobblestones. The number of professional pavers is drastically decreasing, though it is quite a renowned handcraft. Nevertheless, it is arduous and, unfortunately, low-paid. A school of pavers was opened in late 19th century in Lisbon, but unfortunately there are not as many students there as in the old days.
We were told by some Portuguese friends, if people from Portugal travel abroad they are somewhat shocked about how boring pavements seem in other countries. They wonder why there was never anybody who had the idea of making street walks as fascinating as in Portugal. To pay tribute to the so-called calçeteiro, the paver, Lisbon put up a unique monument in the old city nearby the church of Saint Nicolas.