Tuesday, 22 August 2017
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calcadaThere is no doubt about it, the world’s most beautiful pavements are to be found in Lisbon. Along the city’s waterfront several kilometers of them are currently being renovated.

With their playful designs recalling the city’s maritime heritage, Lisbon’s pavements are one of its most delightful features. Their patterns offer an exuberant celebration of Portugal’s past as a great seafaring nation. In the streets and squares of the historic centre we discover ships, sea creatures and, in particular, waves, culminating in the great set piece of Rossio Square, covered by an entire ocean which rolls beneath our feet.

As a central feature of ambitious plans to renovate a major section of the city’s waterfront, new pavements based on traditional designs are currently being laid by teams of master pavers and their assistants.

Picking up the pieces after the earthquake

What should be done with all the rubble? This was one of the pressing questions facing the Marques de Pombal and his town planners after the earthquake of 1755. Why not create decorative pavements, a bit like Roman mosaics, someone suggested. These pavements would be a joyful symbol of the city’s renaissance. All over the city artisans soon began chiseling and hammering away, fitting together small limestone and basalt pieces, without the use of cement, to create a series of black and white patterns. By the end of the 18th century, the elegant new areas of Baixa and Chiado had been given a distinctive permanent exhibition, at ground level.

Surfing the wave

As time went by, these calçada portuguesa were emulated in other cities throughout the kingdom and eventually exported to the Portuguese colonies where they form an iconic reminder of Portuguese influence.

Shop names and logos, churches and all sorts of geometrical patterns were later added to the original maritime motifs, creating a very distinctive iconography.

An occasional stone might come loose, and when it rained the pavements could be treacherously slippery – particularly on more hilly streets – but overall the inhabitants of Lisbon were justifiably proud of their pavamentos. Not only were they beautiful but they also reflected Lisbon’s dazzling sunlight.

A city facing its future

Today, Lisbon is receiving more foreign visitors than it has seen for many centuries. The city is determined to wear its finest clothes to welcome them! The municipal authorities, in an impressive display of energy, are improving the road networks along the River Tagus waterfront. Everywhere armies of workers are installing new urban furniture, planting trees and creating gardens and … laying down new pavements.

With each paving stone individually “fitted” by human hand, this traditional technique comes at a high cost, however, way above that of asphalt or concrete. With defiant optimism, Lisbon is busy transforming itself into one of Europe’s most attractive smaller capitals. As it sails into the wind the city is preparing for the return of great days.

 

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The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website