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Exploring the tiles and cobbles of Lisbon's pretty streets

One of the many quirks of Lisbon’s history is that its instantly-recognisable traditional flooring all started because of a rhino. Who knew?

If you can drag your gaze away from the city’s major sights and attractions and look downwards for a few moments, you’ll most likely notice you’re standing on a work of art or intricate pattern. The story of these hypnotic swirls and tiles begins in 1498, when King Manuel I ordered black granite from the Porto region in order to pave Lisbon’s streets in preparation for a rather important royal visit. Ganga, a white rhino given to King Manuel by King Modofar of Cambaia, India, was due to arrive in January as part of a huge birthday procession, and as the streets would have been muddy that time of year, the tiles were ordered to protect guests’ feet and clothes.

 

After a massive earthquake hit Lisbon in 1755, the original flooring was sadly destroyed, and was never replaced due to the expense of the materials. It was only in the following century, in 1842, that the calcareous flooring close to the one we know today began to be used on a large scale.

Look a little closer, and you’ll also spot secret signatures, usually small drawings made by the workmen making the flooring, without anyone knowing. Sometimes you’ll see flowers, boats, stars, clocks or simply small alterations in the pattern. The perpetrators are only identifiable by their peers, who are happy to keep this unique secret – like a stone graffiti – anonymous and illegal, yet fascinating.

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