Museums often leave me cold—even the ones covering topics in which I have great interest. In fact, these must engage me more: no dusty relics encased in glass, just making me sad for them. If only I could reach in and touch them! That’s why, for example, aviation museums need to give you the feeling you could turn around to answer a call from an officer tossing you the “keys,” so that you could take that airplane you’ve dreamed of flying up for a flight—out of its shackles and into the sky.
Like flying, I fell in love with Portugal’s tiles—the azulejos—instantly upon that first encounter. For the tiles, it was when I came to visit—and my engagement with the tiles is similarly immediate and tactile. I collect those pieces I find in the dirt, I seek out hand-painted tiles to use around the house, and I capture photos of the especially attractive ones gracing houses and streets along my runs and walks around town.
So, I’ll be honest. I was skeptical about burning a day at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, even though you’d think I would have headed straight for its front doors (of the former Convento e Igreja da Madre de Deus).
Instead, I waited a year, two years, for a dreary, rainy winter day—midweek—when I hoped its halls would be quietest. And it was, though I was far from the only person there. In several of the rooms, I found myself alone, and this let me contemplate the tiles at my own pace.
Because the tiles, those beauties—most weren’t housed in glass, except for the most ancient. No, most of the panels hung on the walls much as you’d see them in their natural state, on the buildings and walls of Portugal. They stood out proudly, in high relief, showing their nicks and chips like honestly won scars. I can’t recall any that were “restored”—the older ones had faded places and sometimes entire corners missing. All of this patina evoked their proper age more discreetly and completely than any “wall talker” could.
Within the museum, the entirety of the convent’s chapels (Capela de Santo António and Capela da Rainha D Leonor) are preserved, so that you can appreciate what it would have been like to take a pew, go up on your knees, and send your prayers up to the blue “sky” of tiles, gilded and gleaming. Pictorial scenes tend towards the heavenly or the pastoral for these tiles of antiquity.
But modern tiles also take their place, in the arcades around the courtyard. A modern angel, but also roses, morning glories, and grasshoppers in bold shapes and colorful patterns. The current artist’s interpretations take up rooms of their own, showing the creative freedom possible when given a square, and shade of blue, as parameters within which to express yourself.
For me, the main reason I broke through my hesitation to visit was the panorama of tiles depicting the vista of Lisboa, as seen from the Tejo. This monumental work not only shows gorgeous, meticulous craftsmanship, but also serves as a time capsule: It was created around 1700, 50 years before the great city was leveled by the earthquake in 1755. They believe the panorama was made for a palace near the Sé of Lisboa, its main cathedral. It represents 14 km of coastline, stretching over 23 meters of tiles.
I had the room mostly to myself on that January day last year, and because those tiles sit under gentle lamps, their texture gives them life that fills the space. You could spend an hour picking out details of daily living captured on them, for Lisboa (then, as now) was full of uma vida vibrante, as a crossroads of an empire and a cozy, intimate homeland. If you only visit the Museu Nacional do Azulejo to witness this history, you will leave with a greater understanding of Lisbon, and of Portugal.
Admission: normally €5 for adults; half price for seniors, students, and families; free on Sundays and holidays (except those when it’s closed) after 14H.
Open mainly from Tuesday through Sunday; closed on Monday, and on Easter Sunday, New Year’s, Christmas Day, May 1 (Labor Day), and June 13 (Festa do São Martinho).
Rua da Madre de Deus, nº 4 | 1900-312 Lisboa
Telf: (+351) 218 100 340
Julie’s Leftover Octopus Salad
Salada do Polvo da Julie
A great way to use leftover polvo from a polvo do lageiro, or buy precooked, or confit your own in olive oil.
About 250 grams or 1/2 pound cooked octopus, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 small red onion, finely diced
3 or 4 radishes, finely diced
1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced (or a hotter pepper, if you like it spicy)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
pinch of ground coriander (or grind a few seeds in a pestle)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
handful of chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Combine the octopus pieces, onion, radishes, and red pepper in a medium bowl and toss well.
- Pour the oil and vinegar into a small bowl, and season with a pinch of coriander and salt, and a twist or two of ground pepper. Using a fork or whisk, aerate to suspend the vinegar and seasoning in the oil to make a quick vinaigrette dressing.
- Pour the dressing over the octopus mixture and toss to coat everything well.
- Garnish with the cilantro leaves, and toss to combine.
- Serve cold or room temperature, within an hour or so.