Portuguese pavement: Black and white cobblestones in Lisbon

Lisbon’s most obvious cultural calling card – other than blue and white azulejo tiles, are under your feet, the black and white cobblestone Portuguese Pavement, or calçada Portuguesa in Portuguese.

Calçada Portuguesa covers much of Lisbon’s ground, and it can be found in towns all over Portugal.

The black and white stone usually comes from the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros region of central Portugal. In the Azores, basalt is the stone of choice, and the design background is usually black, whereas the details are in white – the opposite of mainland Portugal.

Today Portuguese pavement can be found all over the world, particularly in former Portuguese colonies – including Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, and Macau.  It even exists in Portuguese communities in the United States.

Typical motifs of Portuguese Pavement

Maritime themes are extremely common, celebrating Portugal’s history as a nation that dominated the seas in the 15th century.

This large black and white cobblestone fish mosaic is found in Lagos, Portugal
This large fish mosaic is found in Lagos, Portugal in the Algarve

Other common motifs are birds, sunflowers, rosettes, and the cross of Christ.

Calçada flower mosaic near São Pedro de Alcântara, Lisbon, Portugal
Flower mosaic near São Pedro de Alcântara

The crows and the caravel are symbols of Lisbon that appear on the city’s coat of arms. According to urban legend, St. Anthony’s body was brought back to rest in Lisbon, the ship was accompanied by two crows.

Black and white cobblestone mosaic of a caravel and crows on Lisbon's Avenida Almirante Reis

There are sea monsters on the ground at the Lisbon Oceanarium.

You might also notice that some of the patterns have small irregularities in them, or little additions.  You might see grapes, or a bird, or flowers, or a letter.  Perhaps this was the way that the calceteiro signed his work.  For the most part, these artists have been anonymous over the centuries.

How Portuguese Pavement is made

A shallow trench is filled with small rocks and clay.  Above this, a cement mixture is applied, and then the black and white cobblestones are laid by hand.  Workers use a wooden mold to fill in the darker shapes.

The tools of the trade include a hammer with two heads – one is sharp and pointed for chipping stone, and the other side is flat for tapping the stones into place.

The stone-workers also use a tool called a maço – a 45 pound weight on a stick that is used for pounding the mosaic into a level height.

A short stool also makes the difficult job a little more bareable for the artisans, who are known as calceteiros.

The history of Portuguese Pavement

The Portuguese were inspired by the Romans who paved the roads to their various colonies. Olisipo, today Lisbon, became a part of the Roman Republic in 138 BC. 

The first Calçada Portuguesa was laid by prisoners in the Castelo São Jorge in 1842. They were under the direction of General Eusébio Cândido Pinheiro Furtado, a military engineer.  This zig-zag mosaic no longer exists today.

Zig zag pattern of black and white cobblestones near Campo Pequeno in Lisbon
The first Portuguese pavement in Lisbon covering the parade ground at Castelo São Jorge resembled this zig zag pattern found near Campo Pequeno

The locals loved the mosaic and immediately decided that Praça Dom Pedro IV (Rossio Square) should be outfitted in black and white cobblestones as well.  This was done in 1848.

Black and white undulating wave patterns of Portuguese Pavement (calçada Portuguesa) at Lisbon's Rossio Square (Praça Dom Pedro IV)

Rossio Square, with its undulating black and white cobblestone waves, is perhaps the largest and most famous calçada Portuguesa in Lisbon.  Known as Mar Largo (Long Sea), the black and white cobblestone mosaic covers the 6000 square meter plaza.

Wavelike black and white cobblestones on the Mar Largo (Long Sea) on Lisbon's Rossio Square
Black and white cobblestone waves of the Mar Largo (Long Sea) on Rossio Square

Some of the best calçadas Portuguesas in Lisbon

Nearby you will also notice that the way to Praça do Comércio and the arch are also paved with black and white designs on the pedestrian boulevard Rua Augusta.

Praça do Comércio itself was once paved with black and white cobblestone as well, but it was removed.

Calçada Portuguesa paved mosaics on Lisbon's Rua Augusta

West of Praça do Comércio is the Municipal Square, home of Lisbon’s City Hall.  This square is paved with triangle patterns.

Lisbon's Praça do Município (Municipal Square) featuring the Pelourinho de Lisboa pillory
Lisbon’s Municipal Square (Praça do Município)

Nearby Chiado has some of the most beautiful designs.

Lisbon's Chiado Square
Chiado Square
Calçada Portuguesa in Lisbon's Chiado neighborhood
Calçada Portuguesa in the Chiado neighborhood

Portuguese pavement on Avenida da Liberdade

Calçada Portuguesa cobblestone Portuguese Pavement mosaic on Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon
A mile of beautiful mosaics on Avenida da Liberdade
Black and white cobblestone mosaic on Lisbon's Avenida da Liberdade

More fantastic Portuguese mosaics can be found on Avenida Liberdade, the central, upscale shopping street that runs north from Restauradores Square to the Marquês de Pombal roundabout.

Two bronze figures, one kneeling and the other standing are a Monument to the Pavers who laid the black and white cobblestone all over Lisbon, Portugal.  THe Monumento aos Calçeteiros by Sérgio Stichini stands in front of the Avenida Palace Hotel in Lisbon.
The two bronze figures in the center of the picture represent pavers at work

At Restauadores Square, there is a monument to the calceteiros at Restauradores Square next to the Avenida Palace Hotel. The bronze calceteiros were created in 2006 by  Sérgio Stichini. A plaque reads “A tribute from the city of Lisbon to the pavers who build the ground we tread.”

One of the most intricate cobblestone patterns in the city is a cooperative effort between the urban plastic artist VHILS (Alexandre Farto), Jorge Duarte – Lisbon’s master paver, and Lisbon’s calceteiros.  Together in 2015 they created this beautiful portrait of Fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.

Black and white cobblestone portrait of Fado star Amália Rodrigues created by artist Vhils and the calçeteiros  (pavers) of Lisbon.

The Amália Rodrigues portrait is located in the Alfama neighborhood.  It is roughly 40 meters uphill from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol viewpoint, behind a bus stop shelter on the opposite side of the street.

Lisbon's Monument to the Discoveries, with black and white cobblestone, calçada Portuguesa and compass rose tile mosaic in front

Another stunning design can be found in front of the Monument to the Discoveries.  This compass rose and map of the former Portuguese colonies were a gift to Portugal from the government of South Africa.

Compass rose and map of the former Portuguese colonies is a tile mosaic given by the government of South Africa as a gift to Portugal.  The mosaic is part of the Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon, Portugal.

The future of Portuguese Pavement

Jardim do Principe Real, Lisbon

While Calcada Portuguesa is beautiful and historically significant, there is a debate raging about whether of not to preserve or remove existing mosaics.

One factor is that there is not as much limestone available as there once was, and the stone has become more expensive while maintenance budgets have become smaller. Many of the sidewalks are in disrepair.

Another factor is that while there used to be hundreds of stone-workers, today there are only 10 in Lisbon.

In order to work on the city’s trademark black and white cobblestones, you have to be certified by the Escola Municipal de Calceteiros de Lisboa. 

The work is physically demanding.  So much of the day is spent squatting or kneeling, and the pay is only minimum wage.  Not many people complete the training program today, and even fewer stay on the job for long.

The biggest reason fueling the debate though, is that the cobblestone pavements can be dangerous. There are often potholes in the sidewalks.

Calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese pavement) is often hazardous and in disrepair, such as the potholes seen here
Don’t turn your ankle!

Reliable footwear with good grip is extremely important when navigating Lisbon’s sidewalks and hills. Wearing high-heals on the streets is a terrible idea.

The cobblestones become extremely slippery when wet, and it is quite easy to fall. In fact, as the stones age and wear, they become very smooth and slick. They are often slippery even when they are not wet.

Thank you for reading about Portuguese Pavement on my site. If Lisbon’s black and white cobblestone mosaics appeal to you, you might also be interested in reading more about Lisbon’s tiled houses – A tradition you will love Or you might really enjoy a visit to the National Tile Museum in Lisbon | A Quick Guide

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