Learn the Tradition of Painting Azulejos in Portugal

One of the most striking characteristics of Portuguese cities and towns are its colourful indoor and outdoor walls decorated with painted tiles, or ‘azulejos’. On a 5-star Scenic truly all-inclusive river cruise through Portugal, guests can try their hand at this artform that dates back centuries.  

The Origins of Azulejos 

On church walls, the sides of cafes, in laneways and marketplaces, eye-catching azulejos, or painted tiles, can be seen throughout the cities of Portugal. The decorative art form is believed to have been introduced to the Iberian coast in the 13th century when the Moors from the Middle East invaded the lands that now belong to Spain and Portugal. Originally, it was developed to mimic Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The word azulejo stems from Arabic roots, meaning ‘small, polished stone’. 

It was in Seville, Spain where some of Europe’s earliest samples were first created. After a visit to Seville in 1503 the Portuguese King Manuel grew fond of the technique and introduced it in Portugal where it was adopted into Portuguese culture.  Widely used in the Sintra National Palace outside of Lisbon, the colourful and polished tile technique grew in popularity from there.  

The tiles were used to cover up the large areas of blank wall that were common inside buildings during the Gothic period. Antique azulejos were decorated in a simple colour palate, dominated by blues and whites. It is believed that these colours were influenced by the Age of Discoveries (15th–18th centuries) and considered fashionable at the time. The other colours that appeared were yellow (sometimes appearing gold) and green. 

After their introduction into Portugal, simple geometric shapes were replaced by more ornate decoration. It was (and still is) typical for the Portuguese to tell stories about their history, religion, and culture through this decorative means; they soon became pieces of public artwork. 
While visiting a church or cathedral in Portugal, visitors should pay as much attention to the alters as the interior and exterior walls. Many are decorated in azulejos. Birds and leaves were frequently symbols used as decoration, possibly inspired by Asian fabrics. 

During the last couple of centuries, the use of azulejos exploded. Today, it is common to see them adorning churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, railway and subway stations, palaces, and regular homes. They are also used extensively in interior decoration. 

Tile Painting on Scenic Azure 

Guests on a Scenic Douro river cruise in Portugal can enjoy a hands-on experience painting their own azulejos with Maria Kocas, an expert tile painter and instructor who will come on board Scenic Azure, to lead the interactive class.  

Here, we speak with Maria to learn more about this traditional, local artform.  

Q: Can you tell us about this wonderful traditional tile painting on board Scenic Azure and what guests can expect?  

Tile painting is a traditional craft in Portugal and is a very popular activity for our guests on our Douro river cruises. They love the hands-on lesson. I host the workshop early on during the cruise itinerary. Stencils can be used or free-hand techniques of painting on clay tiles that are marked for each guest in the class. I then take the tiles back to my studio, where they are fired in a kiln overnight. Guests receive their own tiles back the following day when the ship returns to Porto. These can be taken home as great mementoes from the cruise. 

Q: When did you start painting on tiles?   

I attended the Decorative Art school Soares dos Reis in Porto, where I took decorative ceramic classes and this is where I painted my first tiles. I thought that it was such a delicate and beautiful art that I was immediately convinced that I was meant to do this for a living. It’s now been 26 years since I started painting. 

Q: What makes a good hand-painted tile? Are there usual motifs that we can find on these tiles? 

A good tile needs to be thick, brilliant (shiny), have a firm trace and especially some contrast between the various layers of blue – both shadows and the principal colour. When looking to a tile, you just need to realise it was painted with “your soul.” These are the elements that need to be on a tile – the actual motifs can be whatever you want. 

Q: Azulejos are found across Portugal, but there are not that many places that still produce them. What happened to this industry? 

Nowadays with new contemporary challenges and new technologies, there are alternative ways to construct a building without the need for tiles, so they are not produced as much. Unfortunately, many contemporary architects do not include tiles in their designs and instead, look for other cheaper materials, which are often not as durable as tiles. 

Q: What are your favourite tiled locations in Portugal?  

Old houses in Porto still have good examples. Our São Bento station is a must for the art of tiles and of course the railway station is Pinhão. Scenic guests will see both these sites during their journey. They can also see them in they take the Scenic Freechoice excursion to Mateus Palace. 

Learn more about Scenic’s Portugal river cruises