I first spotted the distinctive patterned street mosaics on Senado Square in Macau, in 2009. Then again, a couple of years later, in Rio de Janeiro. They were strong reminders of the stories of the first global explorations, of the age of discoveries initiated by one of the largest colonial empires in history. It is surprising that Goa, the capital of the Portuguese empire in the Orient, or the other Portuguese influenced towns (including Mangalore) on the West coast of india, failed to hold on to this symbolic feature.
The emblematic art form – Calçada Portuguesa – is healthily abundant in much of Portugal. The streets of almost every historic city centre are paved with limestone mosaics with black basalt inserts ranging in pattern from simple repetitive lines or grids to some elaborate curlicues. In the Azores sidewalks the colours are reversed since they mine more basalt and need to import limestone from the mainland.
Calçada in its current form was first used in 1842, in the gardens of Sao Jorge castle designed by lieutenant-general Eusébio Pinheiro Furtado (then governor of the castle) and executed by captives in the castle prison. Six years later, lieutenant-general Furtado’s design for Rossio square (Praça de Dom Pedro IV ) – a series of mind-bending curves titled ‘The Wide Ocean’ – was approved by the city council. It was a matter of time before the mosaic paving spilled over onto the streets and pavements of Lisbon and of all Portugal.
The limestone paving worn shiny smooth with use, makes for treacherously slippery streets especially when wet. It is standard advice for visitors to Portugal – to Lisbon and Porto in particular – to wear ‘sensible’ shoes with proper grip. As on many previous trips, my pretty evening slip-ons with leather soles were only used twice during our entire visit, and then involved stepping with great caution. They’ll probably stay home on the next.