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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Public space design in Portugal

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Calà§ada pavement in Figueira da Foz.

For as long as I can remember, my family has been going to Portugal for family reunions and vacations.  Every few years a silent yearning would start gnawing away at our sanity calling us back home.  I know it sounds silly, but this feeling must be similar to that unexplainable attachment many Canadians feel towards the cottage—your body and mind just won’t rest until you’re sitting by the lake.  So, my mom, dad, sister, and I would pack up our things, and jet off to the Iberian coast.

Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of photographs of the sights, landscape, and architecture that make Portugal unique.  And, in anticipation of Spacing’s ThinkToronto September 22nd deadline, I thought I would post some of the creative ways Portuguese cities beautify their public spaces as a way of inspiring the participants during the final stretch of the competition.

The following photographs were taken in central Portugal, primarily in the cities of Coimbra and Figueira da Foz, and the country village of Santana. Coimbra is one of the original university towns.  The Universidade de Coimbra that overlooks the city was founded in 1290, and is still in operation today.  Figueira da Foz, a coastal fishing city, is home to some magnificent beaches. And finally, Santana, my family’s home base, is a small farming village that was recently granted the title of civil parish.

I have decided to focus on three distinctive features of the Portuguese public space design: street signs, azulejo, and calà§ada.


Concrete cast street sign in suburbs.
Street signs may be attractive, but they are not practical.  The smallness of the font and the low height of the sign hearkens back to days when the primary mode of travel was by foot, rather than by car.

It is particularly interesting to note the materials that are used in street signs.  The sign posted above is from Moinhos da Gandara, a village neighbouring Santana.  Moinhos da Gandara has decided to use hand painted tiles to make their signs.  I especially like use of the village’s coat of arms as an added flair and sense of civic pride.


A weathered street sign and an updated version in the farming town of Santana.

Santana, on the other hand, has chosen to use marble slabs with the street names chiselled and painted into the stone.  The choice of marble over tile is certainly a reflection of wealth from one village to the next.

Now you are in Santana. 


Now you are out of Santana.

An interesting use of street signs that can be found all over Portugal (and I believe several other European countries as well) is the “welcome” and “bon voyage” metal signage that announces when one is entering or leaving a village.  Unlike the other signs posted above, these are meant to guide motorists.

These black and white signs are not attractive in any way, but they do serve a clear purpose.  There is a standard template, and no village, nor town, deviates from the design.  I especially like the sign with the red strike running diagonally across the text.  This sign is clear and effective in announcing that you are leaving a particular village.  The sign is also polite, in that it wishes motorists a “Boa Viagem” — the Portuguese equivalent of “Bon Voyage”.


Traditional azulejo in Coimbra.

Azulejo is a unique form of art using ceramic tiles.  It has been a part of Portuguese culture for hundreds of years. Like hieroglyphs and mosaics, azulejo is typically used to tell stories (often of Portugal’s colonial past) or as a decorative feature adorning walls.  Azulejo is most commonly used indoors, adorning cathedral walls or as wainscoting.  But, it is also frequently used outdoors.


Azulejo as public art in Coimbra.

For instance, this noise reduction wall along a busy street in Coimbra, uses azulejo to celebrate some of its noteworthy architecture.  The azulejo serves to make what would otherwise be a bland stone wall into a noteworthy merger of public art and the preservation of culture.


Use of azulejo to decorate park benches in Coimbra.

Azulejo is not simply relegated to walls; in this case, it has been used to flank the back of these park benches overlooking the Mondego River in Coimbra.  Although the benches are in desperate need of repair and the tile can use some restoration, the idea is still quite unique.  Not only are the benches built into wall that keeps the river out of the park, the tile adds whimsy and colour.


Azulejo is also used to announce tourist sites, like this sign in the town of Santa Clara.


Or, this sign, displaying the name of the ironically named Serra da Boa Viagem.  I say ironic because the name of on the sign roughly translates to “Mount of the Pleasant Voyage,” but the path up the mountain is anything but pleasant.  There is a narrow road that overlooks the jagged cliffs and roaring ocean.  The path does offer remarkable views of the ocean and beaches below, but this is at the expense of safety, as the road does not have any protective barrier to keep cars and pedestrians from falling to their unpleasant death.

Tile is used to cover the entire store front of Loja da Ilha, a crochet shop, in Figueira da Foz.

Azulejo is used to flank the window of this boutique in Coimbra.

Azulejo is also used to embellish store fronts.  The beauty of using tile is that it is rare to find two businesses with the same pattern and colour.


Coat of Arms inlaid in calà§ada in city of Mafra.

Calà§ada is a type of pavement used in Portugal and several of its former colonies like Brazil.  It is reminiscent of a blend between cobblestone paving practices and mosaic art.  The comparison to cobblestone comes from the way that the walking surface is made out of chiselled stones laid up against one another; and it is like a mosaic in that different tones are used to create an image

Flower pattern in small medieval town outside Figueira da Foz.

Compass rose in Coimbra.

Calà§ada is primarily used to pave sidewalks in urban centres and walking paths through parks. And, more often than not, it is laid out in a repetitive pattern, or recreates symbols that are evocative of Portugal’s nautical past.

Patterned sidewalk in Figueira da Foz.

Unfortunately, despite the artistic appeal of this type of pavement, calà§ada is not safe. The uneven surface makes it difficult to navigate in high heels, and it is extremely slippery and slick when wet.

Photos by Patricia Simoes.



  1. Fantastic article. Very charming, lovely, observant. Thank you, Patricia.

  2. Lisboa has some spectacular examples of calà§ada, especially in the public squares downtown and around the pedestrian-only areas. Your article makes me yearn to go back…

  3. I just came back from my Vacation to Portugal on Sunday. It was my first time and it won’t be my last. Excellent Article.

  4. It would be nice to see some calà§ada in Toronto’s own Little Portugal (Rua Acores).

    Maybe in a public square type setting.

  5. Another nice part about CALà‡ADA is that when they need to fix a pipe under the side walk they take out all the stones, fix the pipe, and but the stones back!

    None of these snakes of asphalt in the center of the sidewalk.

  6. Really beautiful.

    I was curious as to the origin of the name and art of azulejo, thinking that it might derive from “azure” (the blue found in many of the examples), but according to the wiki:

    “The word azulejo is derived from the Arabic word: الزليج (al zulayj) : Zellige, meaning “polished stone”…”