Portugal museums: Patchworks of Lisbon

A night on the tiles takes on a whole new meaning for David Whitley.

A whim takes over on the train from the airport. Oriente station looks so bright and fascinating, that it's worth getting out way before the right stop.

The station is awash in coloured tiles. On them, weird, long-necked alien figures play the drums, cartoon pirates swashbuckle and coral polyps dominate space-like starry backgrounds.

The idea to turn a public transport hub into an art gallery came when the stations of the red line were built, just before Lisbon hosted Expo 98. At Oriente, artists from five continents were brought in and given a section of wall to work their magic on. There's a vague maritime theme but it's a gloriously jarring mishmash of styles.

The one constant is the material the works are displayed on. Portugal does tile art like nowhere else and the Metro's commitment to showcasing the best from modern artists offers a counterpoint to the geometric shapes found all over Lisbon.

The difference between tile art in Portugal and that of elsewhere is explained at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo.Elsewhere tiles are used as decoration but in Portugal they're used as a construction material. Entire walls will be covered in the painted azulejos, rather than carefully selected patches. And thus the term azulejo has a much stronger meaning than the rough translation of "tile art".

It also explains why some of the more spectacular pieces in the museum seem to have bits missing. They have been brought to the museum from churches and houses all over the country, and the absent sections are usually where a window or door originally was.

The history of the art form - it was introduced by Arabs in the Middle Ages - and techniques for making the tiles are covered, but it is the in-situ works that are truly spectacular. The museum is inside an old convent complex, and the central church is a masterpiece.

The blue and white azulejos spread across the walls, telling the stories of saints in the way friezes do elsewhere. The detail is worth getting lost in - lions prowl behind St Francis of Assisi, Moses' followers carry sheep over their shoulders.


But until the Metro stations gave azulejos a new lease of life, they were regarded as somewhat dowdy and old-fashioned. Now you can't commute without seeing inventive twists on the old ways. At Cais do Sodre station, giant Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbits seem to race across the tunnel walls.

At Restauradores, swirling renditions of cityscapes from Madrid to New York dominate. At Alameda, tales of Portugal's famous seafarers play out.

The resurgence of tile art is evident elsewhere.

The walls of public parks are decorated with scenes of children dancing or phoenixes rising from flames. Then there is the city's new Beer Museum. The huge bar area wasn't seen as being complete without azulejos, so Julio Pomar was commissioned to put together a work of galloping surreality.

Rabbits, watermelons, tubas and smiling parrots merge into a playful whole - the perfect accompaniment to a night on the tiles.

The writer was a guest of Turismo de Lisboa.



Emirates flies to Lisbon from Melbourne and Sydney via Dubai, with fares for about $1942 return. See emirates.com.


Double rooms at view-heavy Memmo Alfama cost from €131 ($194). See memmoalfama.com.


A one-day metro ticket costs €6. Museu Nacional do Azulejo's entrance fee is €5. See museudoazulejo.pt.