The land of Sun & Saudade

saudade noun
a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.


A few years ago, I did something I never did before. Instead of going to my usual summer vacation destination, Italy, and more specifically southern Italy, I booked a last-minute, end-of-summer holiday and went to Portugal. Okay, maybe this doesn’t seem too radical a decision, but for anyone who knows me and my very pronounced italo-phile tendencies…this was huge.

Besides a few short days in lively Lisbon, most of my time was spent in the spectacular south, better known as the Algarve.  I love a beach vacation, I love Italy…and now I love Portugal. Inspired by its rugged, natural beauty, extraordinary colours, and its mild-mannered people, inevitably my design taste buds were also piqued and satiated by the country’s architecture and unique design esthetic …Italy may be the land of frescoes, but Portugal is definitely the land of ceramic tiles.

Miles of Tiles

Known as azulejos, the term derives from the Arabic word azzulayj, which  means "polished stone.” The rise of the ceramic tile didn’t soar until well after the Moorish occupation though. In the 15th century, King Manuel I wanted to decorate his home in Sintra with the same dazzling ceramic tiles he saw in Spain so the first ones arrived in Portugal from Seville. By the 18th century, the art form had spread across Europe but no other European country was producing as many tiles for such a variety of purposes, and in so many different designs like Portugal… and  they are literally everywhere! The patterns and colours brighten everything from the walls of churches and palaces to street signs, park benches, subway stations and fountains.

The predominant colours are blue, yellow, green and white, but in all honesty, I saw tiles in most of the hues of the rainbow…NB. I even captured a building covered in pink tiles in the medieval town of Silves in the Algarve. Like all art forms, the patterns evolved from geometric and floral motifs to artists using the ceramic tiles to paint the story of Portugal on the azulejos. From navigators and ships to olive trees, these tiles capture the essence of Portugal and its depth of history. As a writer, I am a fan of any form of storytelling, and as an editor of a Toronto design magazine, I embrace the fact that that story is told via a common design element.  From my musings in the country, these tiles are the pages of a people and land who honour their past but are well immersed in the present, with their eye on the future. Lisbon, a dynamic cultural centre whose buildings have either been restored or are in the process of restoration,  welcome a 25 per cent spike in tourism. The pensione I stayed in was booked solid for three months!

I definitely could have stayed longer, next time I will! After a taste of its striking beauty, I long to go back (see Saudade definition at top, I am definitely feeling it!) and have made a promise to myself to return and start the tour in Porto, (the design capital of Portugal) and make my way down to the Algarve’s capital, Faro since I didn't make it that far east. Heck, I may have to cross the border and visit Spain, too!

Don't get me wrong, I still and will always love Italy...with a strong tie to my roots, it is a country that is part of my DNA and makes my heart beat but my unexpected trip to Portugal has left an indelible mark on my soul…like a lost love or time you want to recapture and experience again.