You can’t help but look down when you walk in Portugal—it is like strolling on the walls of a museum. Sidewalks are not merely utilitarian; they are decorative works of art. As for the plazas and squares, we’re talking mosaic masterpieces.
Calcada Portuguesa is what they call it, Portuguese Pavement. The cultural art form enlivens block after block in the capital city of Lisbon and transforms movement in tiny villages from mundane trips to the banco or farmacia into scenic, hand-cobbled passages.
Calcada Portuguesa is a walk made with white/light gray stones only. Craftsmen use 5-inch cubes of limestone pavers, not tiles. The more decorative walkways add contrasting black basalt cubes and intricate patterns, and are called Calcada Portuguesa Artistica.
The story goes that Portugal’s first decorative stonework of came about as a result of an order given to prison inmates at Lisbon’s Castelo de Sao Jorge in 1842. The general wanted to keep the men busy, so he had them pave the courtyard in a zigzag pattern. Soon after that, Lisbon’s Rossio Square was paved in a wave pattern. Within 50 years, Lisbon’s town council made Calcada Portuguesa mandatory. From there, the cobblestone art spread throughout country and even to Portuguese colonies, from Rio de Janeiro to Macau.
The cobble design is practical—rainwater percolates into the ground rather than flooding city drains. It also allows for thermal expansion, and is easy to repair and excavate to access buried services. But Calcada Portuguesa has its downside. As the surface of the stones are worn down by pedestrians, they get slippery. Walking around Lisbon, especially on hills, I’d hold Marina’s arm and say, “I’d hate to walk on this when it is icy” and catch my lack of logic…Lisbon doesn’t have icy winters. Wearing high heels would be treacherous; I’m thinking Yaktrax might be a good strategy for a long-term stay.
Visually, the Calcada Portuguesa is captivating. As the daughter of a building contractor, I thought to myself, “I’d love to know how they make these sidewalks.”
In Odemira, I bumped into a wish come true.
We were looking for a Wi-Fi spot to make hotel arrangements and were pointed in the direction of the Biblioteca Municipal (town library) set high on a hill. At the base of the hill, there were men working on a walkway. They used pointed hammers to chip corners of the cobbles as they laid them by hand on a compacted bed of sand. Each stone was hammered into place. Another fellow would use a stiff push broom to spread damp sand over the top, filling in any spaces. I felt honored to photograph the calceteiros hard at work. Laurie Lynch