Maria Manuel was returning from the supermarket when she slipped on the sidewalk, lost her balance, and fell outside her apartment building. It happened almost 30 years ago, but Manuel still remembers how the lemons she’d bought scattered as she hit the ground with a thud, breaking her leg. She was in a cast for months. 

Such injuries are harrowingly commonplace in Lisbon, the graceful Portuguese capital perched on seven hills that’s renown for its tile-covered buildings and mosaic-inlaid sidewalks, known in Portuguese as calçada portuguesa. Unlike the smooth surface of standard-issue cement sidewalks the world over, the calçada portuguesa is uneven, made out small cubes of limestone. The sidewalks are a thing of beauty — uniquely decorative and luminous, they reflect the glowing golden light the city is known for.

The calçada portuguesa at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, in Lisbon, viewed from above.

But the calçada also has its downside: worn ice-slick in patches and riddled with gaping holes in others, it can be a downright safety hazard. Still, despite their treacherousness, the sidewalks are a source of real pride for Lisboetas: In a city without a iconic monument such as the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, the sidewalks have become something of a calling card: The sidewalks’ black-and-white patterns are now printed all over the wares that fill the souvenir shops that have mushroomed across the city in recent years. “Sure, I broke a bone on account of the calçada", said Manuel, now age 63. “But still really love them. They’re so much a part of our heritage.”

The origins of Lisbon’s sidewalks are a bit murky. Some historians trace the city’s first mosaic walkways to the tail end of the 15th century, during the rein King Manuel I, the monarch who presided over the start of the vertiginous colonial expansion that would see this tiny country establish itself in territories from Japan to Brazil. Legend has it Manuel was planning a birthday bash for himself that would include a parade featuring a white rhinoceros named Ganga. Captured in India, Ganga was gifted to King Manuel by the governor of Goa, Portugal’s enclave on the subcontinent. Ganga is thought to have been the first rhino in Europe, and, kitted out in full regalia of silks and feathers, was to be the main draw at the monarch’s over-the-top birthday celebration. There was just one problem – the animal wasn’t potty trained, meaning that the monarch’s party risked being sullied by a giant, steaming rhinoceros patty. The royal advisors came up with an ingenious solution: To disguise any possible rhino droppings, they would put in an ornate black-and-white mosaic of paving stones all along the parade route.

Photo: João Paulo Dias

Thus was born the calçada portuguesa, although it wouldn’t become widespread in Lisbon until the mid-19th Century, as Lisbon was still recovering from the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the city. In 1842, the administrator in charge of the Castelo São Jorge, a sprawling hilltop fortress built by the Moors, ordered prisoners under his command to put in a mosaic footpath in an eye-catching zigzag pattern. Word of the path spread, and soon it became something of a tourist destination, attracting visitors from across the city. The administrator was commissioned to design grander mosaics in other parts of the city, and before long the style spread, first covering nearly all the sidewalks in Lisbon, and then those in other Portuguese cities.

Ipanema's calçada portuguesa boardwalk, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Bruno Veiga

Calçada portuguesa fever would later spread to Portuguese colonies in Africa, Asia and South America. (The iconic wave pattern first laid down on Lisbon’s Rossio square in 1848 also graces sidewalks in Macau, the Mozambican capital, Maputo, and the Brazilian Amazonia city of Manaus. But the squiggly pattern has become synonymous with Rio de Janeiro after the design was put down along Copacabana Beach in 1900.)    

A calceteiro lays out the Lisbon sidewalk by hand. Photo: João Paulo Dias

But for all their visual appeal, the calçadas are not practical. Their maintenance is a Sisyphean task. No sooner have crews of specialized workers, known as calceteiros, finished the arduous job of breaking limestone into bits of the proper shape, laying them out like puzzle pieces and hammering them into place, do the stones start popping out. A single missing stone can trigger a snowball effect, causing others to fall out and leaving lurking holes that trip up distracted passersby and twist ankles.

Even when they’re impeccably maintained, (an ever more difficult task, given the steep decline in the ranks of calceteiros, who numbered around 400 in the 50s, compared with under two dozen today) the calçada can be treacherous. Foot traffic quickly wears the stones to perilous slipperiness. Heels are downright impossible here, and in the face of such slickness, even the most sensible Tevas can’t guarantee your safety.

The dizzying designs of the Largo do Chiado, in Lisbon's historical city center. Photo: Katarzyna Jaskiewicz

Falls are common place, even when dry. During the rainy months, the sidewalks become nothing short of a public safety hazard: Sprained ankles and broken wrists are classic Lisboeta afflictions, and doctors here quietly acknowledge that death by sidewalk is also a reality. A 2011 survey of elderly residents put the sidewalks at the top of their list of things they most fear.

With Lisbon now a top tourism hotspot, and millions of visitors descending on this city of 500,000 inhabitants each year, City Hall has opted to replace a few stretches of the calçada with concrete – a sensible decision that has sparked outrage in certain quarters. “The calçada is part of our heritage. We have to keep it — even if it means a few broken bones,” said Manuel, the Lisbon teacher who whose quick trip to the market ended in a cast.