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TILES. An unexpected bonus for visitors in Lisbon

Nobody had said, before we went to Portugal, that ``you'll love the decorative tiles in Lisbon.'' So it was a surprise to notice them on our first day here. Once these decorative touches caught our attention, we began to see more and more, and eventually ceramic tiles became an almost consuming interest - a theme, shall we say, for our stay. On our first outing, my husband and I saw the tile street signs embedded on the corners of buildings, much like the ones in Paris or Madrid. Next, we observed a scene, a decorative inlaid rectangular section of tiles, over a doorway, then over a window. The scene was usually done in blue and white, though occasionally in polychrome.

We arranged for an afternoon bus trip to the Estoril coast, a tour that follows the tip of the peninsula from Lisbon to the town of Estoril, 16 miles west. Estoril has a lovely park overlooking a beach and the Atlantic Ocean. That day, with the autumn sun sparkling on the water and warming the park - with its tropical palm trees, flowering bougainvillea, and formal gardens - looked typical of a spot somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea.

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Beyond Estoril, the tour continued to the coastal community of Cascais. We enjoyed a snack of tiny meat pies and a cold drink at a sidewalk caf'e and watched the ambling Sunday afternoon crowd. In summer, the beach is lined with droves of tourists and wooden boats, which local fishermen use right off the shore.

Many of the homeowners live here year round, with some coming only during the warmer months. An efficient train service connects the area with Lisbon for a short commute.

In this seaside community of whitewashed houses, tiles caught our attention again. But here, the entire fa,cade of a house was decorated with blue tiles, just as we might see shingles or clapboards back home in New England.

On another house, the whole front was a scene, like a painting, made up individual tiles with a white background and various colors.

In the neighborhood are found some older houses, but the abundance of newer ones shows that the status symbol of Cascais is definitely to have some type of tile decoration on your house.

From the motorcoach window we saw interesting changes, the more usual rectangular tile scene on the corner of a house was replaced by cornices over the front windows or tiles framing each window. Occasionally we noticed a horizontal decorative border just below the roofline.

Tile-watching on the tour peaked in the town of Sintra, 16 miles northwest of Lisbon. It's a quaint old resort town with many hills, reached by a winding, tree-shaded road.

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From the main square you have a fabulous view across to the Royal Palace and beyond, to pretentious homes settled into the surrounding hillsides. You can look up to a walled Moorish castle hovering over the town - and down to the sea in the far distance.

A major attraction in Sintra is the Royal Palace, a summer home for Portuguese kings since the 14th century. Inside are some of the finest examples of old azulejos (tiles) in Portugal since the palace was begun in the 10th century.

But outside in the square, a visitor can stand and turn on the spot just looking for uses of ceramic tiles: a robin's-egg-blue tiled-front restaurant, to the left across the street; a tiled front on a shop specializing in fine Portuguese porcelains; plus decorative touches on most other buildings.

A few of Sintra's shops specialize in ceramics, selling nicely crafted pottery in place settings or serving pieces, and fine porcelains. They also offer individual tiles, as well as packaged scenic sets ready to frame or be set into plaster walls. The colors are mostly blue and white, and the designs tend toward seafaring scenes. Prices are about $6 for a 6-by-6-inch tile. Most scenes are made up of 12 tiles. It's possible to have them packed or crated for safe carrying or shipping back home.

By the time we left Sintra, we were firmly caught up in a search for other decorative tiles back in Lisbon. Late at night, we joined a group going to a restaurant for dinner and to listen to fado (lamenting Portuguese folk songs featured in almost all of Lisbon's nightspots). To our delight, the white plaster backdrop for the performers included antique blue-and-white scenic tiles.

Even in the little sidewalk caf'es that line the streets in the downtown district called Rossio, tiles decorate walls. In fact, we decided that the relative success of a business could be determined by the abundance of its tilework.

The Alfama section of the city is loaded with tiles. This area dates back to the Middle Ages and the influx of the Moors. Here we observed the probable beginning of the tradition of tiles in Portugal. The Alfama is the only section of Lisbon not destroyed by a major earthquake in 1755, after which the rest of the city was redesigned and rebuilt.

It retains its Moorish influence in the narrow streets and alleyways like a casbah, which can best be navigated by foot in a single line, and preferably with a guide.

Here, you pick your way through crowds of women buying fresh vegetables from carts attached to tiny donkeys bedecked with yarn decorations. Or women carrying baskets of clothes to and from the community laundry rooms; children chasing balls; and dogs barking ferociously from cages on overhead balconies. Here you can pick out ancient houses covered with tiles in unusual colors. Some are not very pretty, though, and all are in different states of disrepair.

By now, we were committed to our theme. A check of the guidebook showed that there is a museum devoted totally to tiles, the Museu do Azulejo, in the Convent of the Mother of God. We gave the address to the taxi driver and let him take us to this spot, beyond the usual tourist perimeters.

The convent was built in the 16th century and then rebuilt in the 18th century after the 1755 earthquake. It has fine two-story cloisters in its center and grand private rooms, once occupied by the head of the convent.

Unfortunately, the guides speak little English, and we speak no Portuguese. But the ceramic art tells a strong visual story.

You soon realize why the museum is in this building. Long corridors are decorated from floor to mid-wall with original blue and white tiles.

And perhaps the most interesting display is a blue-and-white scene (more than 100 feet long) of Lisbon as it looked from the Tagus River 25 years before the earthquake.

The museum's collection includes some 12,000 tiles ranging from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Unfortunately, the museum has no guidebook in English.

Of course, there are galleries to which panels, tile scenes, and examples of tiles have been brought from other locations for safekeeping.

Among these, an impressive wall-size one shows a farm scene at harvesttime with warm autumn colors in the field grain, the loaded wagon, the horses, and people. This is one of a set depicting the four seasons.

Little did we suspect that our last look would be the best. It was in the church adjoining the museum. When the church was rebuilt, it was decorated with blue-and-white 18th-century scenic tiles covering most of the walls. It even has tiles alternating with oil paintings on the white-and-gold-paneled ceiling.

The effect is almost overpowering - a fitting climax to our search in Lisbon.

Now we say to travelers heading for Portugal, ``Look for the tiles when you go to Lisbon. You won't be disappointed.''

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