Traditional Portuguese cobblestone pavement, known as "calçada portuguesa", can be a nuisance to walk on high-heeled or to race across on rainy days, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful forms of urban art in Portugal. A symbol of the country's beautiful historical centres, "calçada portuguesa" is, after all, made for walking and enjoying the view without haste… including the one beneath your feet!
If you walk through the historical centre of any Portuguese city or town, you will quickly realize that art is not only present in the facades of buildings or statues present in the streets and roundabouts. If you look down you will see that the love of the Portuguese people for beautiful things and pride in preserving their century-old culture and history is equally present under our feet.
History of Portuguese Cobblestone Pavement
As the name reveals, “calçada portuguesa” was created in Portugal, although in a different form from what we know today. The first records of this traditional form of cobblestone pavement dates back to 1498, when a few streets of Lisbon were paved with granite from the region of Porto, in northern Portugal. The intention was to make way for the King of Portugal’s annual birthday parade, which included a giant white rhinoceros (the King didn’t want the magnificent animal to drag mud on his giant paws!).
With the destruction caused by the great earthquake of 1755, which practically destroyed Lisbon, the city was rebuilt but without this type of pavement, which was too expensive for such trying times.
It was only in the following century that Lisbon's pavements and squares were once again adorned with limestone pavement, with a design much closer to what we know today as "calçada portuguesa". The first example was done in 1842, by the inmates inside the Castle of São Jorge, which at the time was a prison. The zigzag design applied was so unusual, that it aroused great enthusiasm in the press.
After the success of this first venture, funds were granted for the same inmates to also pave the Praça do Rossio, in what is still today one of Lisbon's best known squares and examples of "calçada portuguesa".
This original style of pavement quickly spread throughout Portugal and also to the Portuguese colonies, where designs inspired by the Age of the Discoveries included motifs resembling caravels, wind roses, shells, fish, stars and sea waves, among others.
To this day, traditional Portuguese cobblestone designs can still be found in Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, India or Timor. And not only outdoors! Portuguese cobblestone is also used in interior spaces, both private and public, as well as in commercial areas and offices.
How Portuguese traditional cobblestones are applied
With a construction method and a historical heritage similar to Roman mosaics, Portuguese cobblestone is applied piece by piece, by hand, in order to correctly position the irregularly cut stone cubes, following geometric patterns.
Made entirely of natural stone, usually white or black limestone, as well as basalt, each stone is applied by hand to form different decorative patterns.
The first task of the "calceteiros" is to compact the floor, applying a layer of "tout-venant" (stone dust) which is then compacted. Then another layer of stone dust or sand is placed, where the pavement will be embedded.
The cobblers use a hammer to make small adjustments to the shape of each stone, so that it fits in line with the space available. In some cases, moulds are used to help form different geometric patterns and designs in a cumbersome and time-consuming process.
After the application of the stones, the pavement is then covered with another layer of stone dust, sand and sometimes also a percentage of cement, and this mixture is swept so that it fills the spaces between the stones as much as possible. Finally, the pavement is again compacted manually with a mallet or mechanically with a vibratory plate compactor.
Traditional Portuguese cobblestone pavement may also receive other types of finishings, such as polishing, which is used on "calçada" pavements applied inside buildings — a process that is costly and normally done only in luxury environments.
Although around the globe some historical centres are slowly replacing their cobblestone pavements with other cheaper and easier to apply alternatives, in Portugal the tradition and pride of “calçada Portuguesa” pavement remains strong. Only a few areas of the cities of Lisbon and Porto have replaced this pavement for safety reasons.
In private and residential sectors the popularity of traditional Portuguese cobblestone pavement also remains high, being a durable — and beautiful — solution to bringing a bit of Portuguese history and heritage to everyday life!
Using traditional Portuguese cobblestone pavement in modern construction
If you’d like to know more about the use of traditional Portuguese materials in modern architecture or construction in Portugal, visit Presprop - Portugal Construction’s website...