The Tiled City

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

A view of Old Lisbon, painted on tile

“This reminds me of Korea.”

That’s what the lieutenant said as I drove him through a rural section of Utah in our military vehicle.  I assumed he meant Korea (the country) and not Chorea (disease characterized by jerky movements).

“It looks like this?” I asked, not having been there.  “Well, not exactly — just those hills over there are sort of… I don’t know, something about it…”  He trailed off and then changed the subject.

That was decades ago, but in the intervening years I’ve had similar experiences:  There’s something about a place that momentarily conjures up memories of another place.  They aren’t identical, but one is somehow evocative of the other.  Maybe I’m the only person who ever thought so, but Lisbon reminded me of San Francisco.

The two cities do have some physical similarities; both are built on hilly terrain.  Narrow, winding streets in Lisbon lead down to a bay — the Portuguese capital is located at the mouth of the Tagus River where it empties into the Atlantic.  Lisbon’s bay isn’t as vast as San Francisco’s, but there is a long, orange suspension bridge that crosses it.

Both cities have fine views (miradouros is what they call them in Portuguese) and expansive parks.  In one of Lisbon’s, we saw a young couple having sex, oblivious to the other park visitors all around them.  One might expect to see that sort of thing in San Francisco, too.

Well, some or all of these factors made the connection in my brain, but there are several ways in which Lisbon is distinctive.  The main one is the tile.

It’s everywhere:  The exterior walls of buildings are covered with it (and interior walls, for that matter).  Sidewalks and fountains and even some of the old streets are made of ceramic tile.  The tiles vary in size, but often are 4″x 4″, or 8″x 8″, like you may have in your bathroom.  However, the tile in your bathroom probably isn’t a mural of battle scenes or saints or landscapes.

Not all of the tile in Lisbon is representational art; much of it is in geometric patterns — interlocking chains and so forth.  Apartments buildings that are six or seven stories high sometimes alternate:  A couple of stories will have what looks like lacework, and then there will be one that depicts a voyage by one of Portugal’s famed explorers.

The tiles are in all colors, but the favorite seems to be a specific shade of blue (see photo).  I’m not an expert on all the degrees of the color wheel, but let’s call it deep azure.  That works as a sort of mnemonic, since in Portuguese, the tiles are called azulejos.

Another distinctive feature of Lisbon is fado music, which is melancholy songs about fate and lost love and regrets.  If you go to one of the fado clubs or restaurants, you may also have regrets about the high cover charge.

Console yourself with Lisbon’s butter, though; I don’t know what their secret is, but it’s the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Just don’t expect to put it on sourdough bread — that’s a specialty of San Francisco.

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One response to “The Tiled City

  1. Great post! Now I need to go to Lisbon.

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