Porto: Inspiration in the Tiles

Before I moved to Portugal, I knew I would write about it.

The writing’s a constant in my life, like breathing—from note-taking to texting to how I earn my keep, I use the process of putting observations into words as a way to understand the world. So, of course, I would write about Portugal.

I searched for an anchor for those ideas chasing each other around in my mind for a couple of years after I made the move. How to translate the experiences into a meaningful story for others to follow, even—or especially—if they’d never set foot in this glorious country?

I found my touchstone in an unexpected place, but not from an unexpected source.

We’d travelled up to Porto in September 2017 to witness the Red Bull Air Race, and visit with aviation friends who had come to compete in the circuit. Porto has been one of our favorite places from the beginning—in June 2015, I had my first grilled sardines on the Douro’s banks on the Gaia side—so this was a return trip. We stayed in a neighborhood where we’d rented a holiday apartment before, near Cais das Pedras. 

It turned out to be perfect for seeing the race and somewhat away from the main crowds. We could also hop on the bus easily out to Matosinhos to see the temporary runway where our pal’s team set up a hangar for his race plane—all gleaming white and black. Team Goulian wouldn’t win that round, but he came out in the money overall the next year. We were just so happy to see a friend enjoying Portugal in such a unique way—from the air, at 200 mph or more—in a Zviko Edge 540.

Away from the race, we wandered on foot up and down the hills into the heart of Porto, and found alleyways blessed by artists and sculptors, stairways and abandoned buildings to explore. I engaged in a tactile way with the tiles, finding them so much more beautiful in place than they would be if ripped from their rightful homes.

Even those broken tiles evoked emotions from me—more so, in fact, than the pristine, new ones gracing recent remodels or fresh construction. I understand well how old houses can be painful to keep up—I’ve owned one in Maryland that we called “the Medusa house” but that’s another story—but the romance has not faded for me.

Returning to our apartment one evening, I noticed the tiles in dire straits at the house wedged between our building block and the church next door. The patterns captured the essence of Portugal, and their state cried out to be noticed and appreciated for the years they had witnessed.

In the days to come, I thought about those tiles I’d taken quick photos of on my phone. When the time came to design these pages, I played around with the images in Prisma to transform them into a theme upon which to base the site. 

I knew what it would be called: Broken Azulejos.

In April 2019, we returned to that same neighborhood, to stay in that same apartment (The Yellow House). Construction had come to that corner of Porto: The house next door was under renovation. 

And the tiles? Still there. Cleaned up and somehow less…compelling. But we knew their story from before, and that’s how we’ll always remember them—and think of Portugal.