Azulejo is a lovely Portuguese word that rolls off the tongue in a way that its English translation “tile” just doesn’t. But in Portugal the azulejo is much more than a tile, it is iconic of Portuguese culture. For centuries, azulejos have embellished Portuguese castles, churches, monasteries, palaces, fountains, parks and train stations. They are even honored in museum in Lisbon Museu Nacional do Azulejo.
Until I met my husband Terry, an American of Portuguese descent, I knew nothing at all about azulejos. As a child, Terry told me, he would spend holidays with his grandparents in their very old house house in Lisbon. He loved everything about it – including a wall panel of blue and white azulejos — a scene of cherubs, pillars, vases and vines. Cherubs weren’t really Terry’s thing but, given their provenance, he loved these.
When his grandmother died in 1980, her estate was divided among Terry’s mother and her siblings. Part of the inheritance was the panel of azulejos from the house in Lisbon–88 tiles in all–each individually wrapped and packed into five cardboard boxes.
Knowing how much Terry loved Portugal, his mother offered the azulejos to him–a gift he accepted gladly. Whether or not he had the appropriate wall for them was another matter. His rustic house in Vermont was hardly the place for 18th century tiles. So, he stored them in a closet until 1984, when he moved to California. He shipped the boxes to his new home, where he was sure he’d find a place for the panel. But the next several years were busy ones and the five boxes remained in the basement.
By 1996, Terry was ready to move back east. True to form, he shipped the azulejos along with everything else to his new house in Massachusetts. Surely he’d find a place for the cherubs on a wall in a house there. But in 2001, before he had a chance to mortar a single tile in place, Terry met me and life changed dramatically for both of us. Once again, he loaded a moving van with books, dishes, carpets, artwork, furniture and azulejos and joined me in a funny little ranch house in Silver Spring, Maryland, much too small to accommodate a wall panel from Portugal. So the tiles lived in the garage.
In 2005, Terry and I moved — taking Terry’s five boxes with us, of course–to Cumberland, Maryland, where we lived in what had been a dilapidated commercial building in the historic downtown. Before Terry had a chance to install the tiles, however, we moved again, this time to an old Amish farm in Pennsylvania. A beautiful, but small, farm house next to a red barn. Nothing about it called out for azulejos. Terry carted the tiles into storage, where he figured they’d probably remain forever. And then . .
In September 2019, while on a short vacation with friends in Portugal, we fell in love with a little Portuguese village in the Alentejo near the Spanish border– Porto da Espada. By December, we were shipping all our worldly goods, including, yes, five boxes of Portuguese tiles, to await our arrival the following April.
Then COVID-19 happened. While we waited for the world to return to normal, Terry’s azulejos were piled in a corner of the oficina – his basement workshop.
It was another year – mostly in lock-down — before we could get help with renovating the house. For weeks men were climbing scaffolding, troweling stucco, and painting.
As I stood looking up at the back of the house where work was taking place, Terry asked, smiling, “Where should we put the azulejos?” YES!! This was the house, the perfect site for a panel of blue and white tiles.
Stone masons (pedreiros) are in short supply, even in Portugal, and when you find them they are all busy. So it took a while to get any work started. But finally last week . . . Senhor Felipe and his crew appeared at our door early Sunday with mortar, buckets, drop cloths and trowels in hand. “Onde estão os azulejos?” Senhor Felipe asked. “So, where are the tiles?”
By dinner time, the panel of azulejos–cherubs, pillars, vases and vines–from Terry’s ancestral home were mortared onto the terrace wall of our little house in Portugal .
It took forty years, but the azulejos are at last where they belong, and . . . so is Terry.