The Footfall of Time: The cobblestone paying homage to history

Most people have a love-hate relationship with calçada. We love these traditional cobblestones on a sunny day when they gleam in the sun and remind us of Portugal’s ancient heritage. We hate it when it’s wet from rain or covered in car oil, making navigating it similar to skating onto an ice rink.

Portuguese calçadas, or pavements, have become part of Portugal’s identity and culture. They adorn many of the outdoor public spaces and add a unique charm and character, often paying homage to the country’s maritime heritage and fishing industry.

Maintaining it as part of the country’s heritage while navigating the modern need for health and safety is no easy task. This complicated symbiosis is managed in Lagos by Frederico Mendes Paula, the senior technician of the Multi-disciplinary Strategic Projects Team for the historic centre of Lagos. Among his other responsibilities, Frederico has the task of drawing up the Project for the Rehabilitation of Public Spaces in the Historic Centre. This project focuses on the main areas of the city’s pedestrian network. 

Frederico has been involved with the city’s historic centre and the restoration and safeguarding of its heritage since 1993, initially in collaboration with his father, architect Rui Paula. He told me about the fascinating history of this seemingly archaic stone paving. 

Calçada dates back to classical antiquity, namely the Roman period, with characteristics entirely different from the so-called calçada portuguesa used both on roads and in urban paving. In the Arab period itself, pavements were used in urban streets, and techniques were developed for laying the stones to create rainwater drainage systems. From the 16th century onwards, some commercial streets in Lisbon and Porto began to be paved, corresponding to the period of wealth generated by the Portuguese Discoveries, but it was during the reconstruction of the capital after the 1755 earthquake that cobblestone paving became widespread. 

Calçada portuguesa is a specific paving technique using small cubes of limestone and basalt to form decorative motifs. It only appeared in Lisbon in the mid-19th century, later becoming widespread throughout the country, using the stone materials of each region, such as granite and stones that arrived by ship from overseas having served as ballast.

These original pavements should not be confused with the small pavements used for pedestrian use. These appeared later with the specialisation of road traffic and applied to raised pavements, topped with kerbs, which protected them from the carriageways made up of Monchique granite cobblestones. “There are still old streets in Lagos paved with the traditional calçada, laid with blocks of white limestone and basalt, hidden under layers of asphalt,” explained Frederico. “The traditional way of laying these out was with side ditches, a central strip of white limestone and two strips of basalt in between. The use of basalt, which does not exist in the region, can be explained by the arrival of ships from the central Mediterranean, especially Italy, which brought this stone as ballast to later load fish for salting at the end of the 19th century.”

Mar Largo motive in Praça do Infante in the 70’s

The Art and Expertise of Portuguese Flooring was inscribed in 2021 by the Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage in the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, legally protecting Portuguese calçada as cultural heritage. The grounds for this inscription include, according to the text of announcement no. 172/2021 in the Diário da República, the recognition of calçada Portuguesa as a “specific technique in the first half of the 19th century”. The report goes on to highlight the need to “urgently safeguard this manifestation of intangible cultural heritage” while observing that the lack of “intergenerational transmission of this know-how” poses the risks of “the extinction of this craft practice in the medium or long term”. 

The same announcement emphasises “the safeguarding and enhancement measures recommended for the future viability of the event, specifically those relating to heritage, science, training and the economy.” Frederico believes, “This intention should be matched by concrete actions materialised in support for the training and enhancement of the profession of pavement worker and for the defence of calçada portuguesa as Portuguese cultural heritage.”

Calçada work in Rua da Porta de Portugal in the 90s, courtesy of Frederico Mendes Paula 

Most of the calçada paving in the centre of Lagos consisted of large limestone cubes applied to the entire surface. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the first examples of Portuguese pavement with decorative motifs appeared in the city’s main squares, such as Praça do Infante and Praça Luís de Camões. This became more widespread after the construction of Avenida dos Descobrimentos, with the famous Mar Largo motif in Praça do Infante standing out. 

The aim of the Lagos project Frederico is working on is to rehabilitate an area that was remodelled in 1985 and 1995. The project area includes five urban spaces: Praça Gil Eanes, Rua Garrett, Praça Luís de Camões, Rua da Porta de Portugal and Praça da Ribeira das Naus. Those original projects were drawn up by his father’s company Gabinete M. Paula Lda; however, they now need refurbishment due to the ageing and unsuitability of much of the street furniture and to facilitate easier maintenance. In this project, the Portuguese cobblestone pavements are particularly important, as they are now considered part of the city’s heritage, which should be preserved.

Frederico showing Paul a book with the projects of calçadas he and his father worked on.
The project intervention area and its actual calçada works

“In the projects I’ve already mentioned, carried out in 1985 and 1995, the main calçada portuguesa pavements that exist in the so-called pedestrian area of the city were created. I was responsible for designing them, combining their aesthetic effect with the principles for the use and management of public space.”

Calçada portuguesa, correctly constructed, is a material that is suitable for pedestrian use due to the regularity of the surfaces it creates and the existence of joints between the stone cubes that help to prevent it from being slippery. However, it requires regular maintenance to restore its levelling, which is altered by subsidence, the growth of tree roots or the action of undue traffic, and to avoid excessive polishing of the stone cubes, which makes the surfaces slippery in areas with a steeper slope. 

With the art of laying calçadas gradually dying out, maintenance and repair of the existing ones becomes challenging. For instance, Lagos council has just two pavers, known as calceteiros, at its disposal. It’s a profession that requires specialisation; it is hard work that is poorly paid, which means that there are no candidates for the job. 

In addition, solutions are needed for safety and the demands of traffic. The requirements of people with reduced mobility must also be considered. Frederico believes the answer is to introduce corridors in comfortable materials, such as granite slabs or bush-hammered limestone, reconciling them with existing designs, as has been the practice in many Portuguese cities.

So, the next time you walk along calçada, you may look down and consider its craftsmanship, history and the demands of helping it survive the modern world. You may then wish to remember the people, like Frederico, working hard to ensure it withstands the modern footfall for years to come.

Paul Gerace is a photographer originally from NYC, he retired to Costa Rica, where he lived for eight years, before moving to Lagos four years ago. While enjoying his new life in the Algarve he is relishing photographing the colourful birds, beautiful land and seascapes and capturing the life in his new town.

During his time photographing, he increasingly noted a common thread running through his photos. The calçadas Portuguesas. He says, “I love walking around town and seeing how life unfolds with those calçadas as a backdrop. I think it’s a subject that deserves attention as these calçadas have become part of Portugal’s cultural identity and many people are not aware of them or the hard work that the calceteiros do. It is becoming a disappearing art form.

Paul had kindly allowed us to use some of his photographs for this article.

His photo exhibition Celebrating the Calçadas Portuguesas of Lagos will be on display until 13 January at the Mercearia Bio Cafe near the bus station in Lagos. Closed Sundays.

You can view more images on his website:, and a youtube video that he recently created:


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