Famous Portuguese Tile: The Wonders of the Lisbon Tile Museum

You can barely get through Instagram without scrolling past a footsie on patterned tiles. Follow a number of design and travel grammers, and these footsies will happen to you. Boldly patterned tiles are trending. People are noticing them enough to photograph them. People are making even bigger commitments to these tiles. They’re putting bold patterns on their bathroom floors:

Trend Bold Tiles on Bathroom Floors

And on kitchen backsplashes:

Patterned Tile Kitchen Backsplashes

I’m in the camp of people who worry about resale value, to be honest. Lately I’ve been “beige-ing” my house, so there won’t be anything offensive to future open house visitors. But I still love a good strong bold pattern (just like I like my coffee). Moroccan tile. Turkish tile. Tile in Iran. So patterned, so colorful, so beautiful! Last year my flights to and from Marrakech were routed through Lisbon, Portugal. I had an overnight in Lisbon. (I recommend scheduling an overnight in a city while traveling — your flight could be cheaper and you get a taste of an additional place, if only for a day!) Lisbon is famous for its tiled facades. While searching for something to do in Lisbon, I discovered Portugal’s National Tile Museum (aka the Museu Nacional do Azulejo). Here are Portuguese mosaics you will see there:

Lisbon National Tile Museum

Portugal National Tile Museum

Pattern Play of Tile and Script in Lisbon Portugal

Tile is not as easy to make as you might think it is. You may think you take a slab of clay and just cut it in squares and just put some color on it, right? Oh no. Many years ago I took a tile-making class at the Ann Arbor Art Center, taught by Nawal Motawi of the famed Motawi Tileworks. (And, crap, I really miss living in Ann Arbor with easy access to things like that!) We learned the factors can make a tile go very wrong, very warped. And how to make things go right. You might have an idea in your mind of the color you want, but the tile can have a mind of its own when fired in the kiln. The glaze — the stuff that colors the tile — can do predictable things or weird things. Knowing the skill from start to finish of making tile made me appreciate Portugal’s National Tile Museum.

First, the setting of the museum. It makes your jaw drop in awe! It’s in an old crumbling convent attached to a church. The slight crumbliness meshes beautifully with the old tiles, as some tiles are chipped and marred just like the building:

Faucets in Portugal's National Tile Museum

Lisbon Tile Museum

Here are photos snapped as I strolled through the museum …

Lisbon National Tile Museum

You get glimpses of the tile mosaics across courtyards and through columns:

The National Tile Museum in Lisbon Portugal

Not all tiles are only geometric. Some showed interesting scenes. This is a tile mural called The Leopard Hunt, made in the 1660s:

The Leopard Hunt Tile Mural at Portugal National Tile Museum

The leopards look really worried, as they should. It’s just tile, but the feeling feels real:

The Leopard Hunt Tile Mural

Portuguese Tile Mural The Leopard Hunt

Ugh. It’s like they’re saying, go vegetarian, people! And light a fire for warmth, don’t steal my fur pelt!

This next mural was my favorite, also from the 1660s. “The Chicken’s Wedding.” Whaaat? I know. I don’t know!

The Chickens Wedding Tile Mural

Portuguese Tile Mural The Chickens Wedding

Okay, what is happening here?!? I had fun checking out every detail of this chicken wedding mural:

Fun at The Chicken Wedding

The Chicken Wedding Mural at National Tile Museum Lisbon

The chicken looks not too sure. Everyone else is having a good time. The only thing I know for certain about this story is, that mural was huge and it didn’t fit in one photo.

This gives you an idea of scale of some murals:

Lisbon Tile Museum

And here’s an idea of the realistic detail:

Tile Mural at the National Tile Museum Lisbon

I loved the designs on these modern day tiles by ceramics artist Cristina Bolborea. The description really resonated with me — they’re evocative of a journey of a traveler and his impressions of far off fairs and their products, with layers of carpets and fabrics, and Islamic influences. Perhaps elements that are the only survivors of a temple forgotten today:

Gallery at Lisbon National Tile Museum

Gallery at the Lisbon National Tile Museum

Cristina Bolborea Tile at Lisbon National Tile Museum

Cristina Bolborea Tile

I had just left Marrakech, so these tiles reminded me of the shapes, patterns, cabinets, and carpets I had just seen there.

Here are some contemporary tiles made in the 1980s, still working with blue:

Contemporary Tile at National Tile Museum Lisbon

Look right or look left, and you see this setting around the tile galleries. I loved this old/new contrast:

National Tile Museum Lisbon

How do I remember details more than a year after taking these photos?

a traveler’s photography tip:

When there are signs, first take a picture of the sign, then a picture of the art or tourist attraction. This way, you will always have all the information. It may be too small to read on your phone or camera, but you’ll be able to read it on a computer screen.

Photography Tip for Travelers

After enjoying the tiles, stop in the museum’s cafe for a jolt of Portuguese coffee. The best! I’m Googling today for more Portuguese coffee — we happened to buy Nicola coffee at HomeGoods of all places and we need more, more, more. So strong, so good. This coffee from a Lisbon cafe is what made me remember the Lisbon tiles, and that I hadn’t shared them here yet. Also enjoy museum cafe specialties like Codfish au Gratin with Pine Seeds and Raisins, maybe with a glass of Rioja, while viewing tiles that were once in a palace kitchen. So there, maybe putting these tiles in a kitchen is timeless despite our trends!

TripAdvisor has lots of traveler reviews of Lisbon’s National Tile Museum.

I walked there from the Baixa tourist area of Lisbon, but it was a long walk and I got off track and lost numerous times despite having a map that seemed clear. Usually I’m very good with directions; seriously this was the first time in life I got lost so much and I’m … uh, I’m not going to say how old I am but it’s a lot more years than you think because my profile photo is 10 years old. The older that photo gets, the more reluctant I am to change it! I was even able to navigate the Marrakech medina alone. But a seeming straight road in Lisbon really threw me. I was walking by myself and wondered a few times if I was making a big mistake that I’d be sorry for. And I’d call myself an “aware traveler” not a “worrying traveler.” It was a relief to finally see “azulejo” on a sign. You will be looking for this:

Lisbon National Tile Museum

On the way back, I stopped at the nearby train station (I think it’s the Santa Apolonia stop) and took the train back to the big square near the Baixa area. People will tell you that you can walk, but take a taxi or the train.

 

 





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