Nights on the tiles | Why I’m not moving to Lisbon just yet


Mark C. O’Flaherty is azulejo obsessed. But are fancy tiles and the promise of hot fresh nata every morning enough to relocate to Lisbon?

Nights on the tiles | Why I’m not moving to Lisbon just yet

Some years ago, when I launched Civilian, I made a list of things it would be and not be. Included on the latter: “political.” But I wrote that manifesto in a very different world. So, let me express a divisive opinion. While I spend half of every year not-in-London, it is still my city. I am a Londoner first, European second, second-generation Irish third, and English last. I was born and raised in SE20, social-climbed to SW4 and have been in N16 for 15 years. I had wanted to die in London at some point in the (infinitely) distant future. But then Brexit happened. And while I can travel on an Irish passport, so I won’t feel like I’m carrying the equivalent of a swastika on whatever colour of passport the UK conjures up next, my emotional response to what’s been unfolding has been: just go. And for a variety of reasons, I decided recently that I’d move to Lisbon.

I want to live in a world entirely covered in Portuguese tiles. I want a kitchen that’s an azujelo fiesta

Apart from so many “fashion friends” heading there in the last couple of years (“It’s the new Berlin!”), Lisbon’s main draw boils down to one thing: azulejo tiles. I am obsessed with the weathered Moorish-inspired ceramics that cover everything, lining the city tram routes, avenues and alleyways. I want to live in a world entirely covered in Portuguese tiles. I want a kitchen that’s an azujelo fiesta, and hallways lined with geometric wonders from floor to ceiling. Life is better with fancy tiles. And everyone loves Lisbon, right? Do you know anyone who didn’t go for a city break in the last six months? It’s hot, hot, hot.

With all that in mind, the first stop on my relocation reccy was a stay at the Palacio Belmonte – apparently Christian Louboutin’s favourite hotel in the world. It’s so deep in the heart of the historic centre that the hotel staff provide you with a special code which you then give to the taxi drive so you can be driven through the set of electronic barriers half a mile down the street. As for getting picked up at the hotel, forget it. Mission Impossible. Get ready to drag your cases down the cobbled hill. But within the Palacio Belmonte itself, you’re immersed in a dream of centuries old azulejo-covered everything.

Palacio Belmonte, Lisbon

The Palacio Belmonte is built into the walls of the medieval Sao Jorge castle, and the spatial qualities of the maze-like halls and rooms are as impressive as that sounds, albeit tarnished with some weird contemporary design touches. I’d like to have a banquet followed by a giant ball that went on all weekend here. Although there are only 10 suites (all different, all charming) there are also huge communal spaces, a beautiful terrace and garden with pool, surrounded by fragrant orange trees. This was a family residence in the 15th century. Lucky family. Later residents lived in even greater splendour, after commissioning tile master Manuel dos Santos in the 1700s to painstakingly decorate every room. The place begs for fancy dress crinolines and frolics.

O’Flaherty at the National Tile Museum

Over several days I spent hour upon hour photographing dos Santos’ blue tiling details at different times of day, capturing different lighting effects. I was lucky enough to be in the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso Suite, which has the most dramatic and generous arrangement of tiles. It also has one of the most peculiar bathrooms I’ve ever experienced – all marble, with a toilet hidden at the end of the room behind a waist-high slab of dark Carrara marble. You think for a moment they’ve forgotten to include it. Your shower area is a little too discoverable, being overlooked by someone else’s balcony, which requires careful use of the supplied folding screen. As I discovered. But that’s another story …

A pianist. At breakfast. Playing the love theme to Tootsie

I spent an afternoon at the National Tile Museum, because how could I not? The earliest examples tell the story of how the azulejo developed from the arrival of the Moors to become an omnipresent decoration around the country. There are weird folkloric tales depicted in certain murals (“The Chicken’s Wedding” from the 1660s is my personal absurdist favourite), and a ravishing chapel that’s also a visual mess – all those cool blue and white ceramics juxtaposed against so much rococo gold.

The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz

Lisbon’s streets are more satisfying for the full-on tile experience than the Museum. Every block, I hit a new cascade of gorgeous ceramics. Famously, graffiti artist André Saraiva unveiled a mural with 50,000 tiling elements in it back in 2016, but I think it’s contemporary and trite – a bit Boxpark. My tastes veer towards the traditional and faded. My favourite walk was from A Cevicheria – the restaurant that served me by far the best meal I had in the city (and with a fabulous tiled floor, albeit brand new) –down Rua da Rosa, towards the banks of the Tagus. This was where I instantly knew I’d want to live: ramshackle, chic and queer, with some of the best tiled façades around. I loved how knackered so many of these frontages were: architectural salvage yet to be salvaged, much of it on buildings that appeared to be derelict.

The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz

For the second half of my time in Lisbon I stayed at the mid-century Hotel Ritz, now a Four Seasons. It is as much a historical landmark as the Palacio Belmonte, and though it’s by no means old-fashioned I like it infinitely more than I do so many hyper-modern luxury hotels. The exterior is a joy. The design by Porfirio Pardal Monteiro, under the auspices of dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar is ravishing Modernism.  The building is long, graphic and linear, and if you want to get close to the classic RITZ lettering on top of the building, you can head upstairs to the jogging track on the roof. The interior of the hotel is as fantastic as the exterior – substantial and elegant, with hallways to the rooms that are almost absurdly wide. The offbeat colour palette is one that few designers would brave today: there are weird terracotta/caramel rooms, and the interior of the restaurant is a fabulously ugly green. It’s Regency with attitude, wearing flares and smoking a cigar. Exquisite, for real. You couldn’t carry it off without all the other retro-luxe interior trappings on show here. And the pièce de résistance? A pianist. At breakfast. Playing the love theme to Tootsie. As I bit into something that I can only describe as cake-with-ham-in-it, and the first chords took me back to 1983, I felt a unique kind of bliss. Oh, and yes there are tiles. How could I forget? Come out of the hotel, turn right and take the road to the park, and the whole side of the Four Seasons Lisbon is covered in azujelos. Of course. Even mid-century modernist chic must have tiles!

Tiles on Rua da Rosa

But I won’t be moving to Lisbon any time soon. I made the decision on my first night there. Why? Well, I don’t love being offered drugs every ten minutes in the street – don’t they have the dark web in Portugal? And while I had some sensational food (in addition to A Cevicheria, the Japanese-inspired dishes at Taberna da Rua des Flores were amazing), I also had a lot of crushingly mediocre dinners. And the service at many places is as bad as it was in 1980s London before the capital transformed into a European hub (tears are welling-up in me as I type, pondering what might happen after 2019). Among the lowlights of Lisbon: Páteo at Bairro do Avillez, which could be run with more efficiency by barely trained chimps. And lunch at Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa, one of the city’s fanciest and most celebrated dining rooms, where the waiter knocked a glass of champagne over my trousers and then tried to charge me for it. The clincher, though, came before all of this. That first night I went to 100 Maieras for a drink at the bar. I sat there, basking in the wonders of this beautiful city, and loving everything about where I was – the interior, the cocktail I was drinking, the overall fabulousness of the city Madonna now calls home, all distilled into one small space and moment. And then: “What the hell is going on?” I demanded of the barman, pointing over at the corner from which my least favourite stench in the whole world was emanating. “It’s the smoking area,” he explained. “All the non-smoking bars have them.” And just like that, my Lisbon dream went up in – well, you know. C


Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon, Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca, 88, 1099-039, Lisbon, Portugal
(+351 21 381 1400;

Palacio Belmonte, Pátio de Dom Fradique 14, 1100-160 Lisbon, Portugal
(+351 21 886 0431;