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Tile hunters

A muddy courtyard in Lisbon's old Moorish quarter conceals tile treasures in its muck.

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A mural in Porto, Portugal.

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The camera doesn't work.

I have finally arrived in Lisbon. This is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, the National Tile Museum, and I am standing in front of the most beautiful hand-painted tiles in the world.

Soft light falls from the vaulted ceiling onto the large panel. Moving closer, I long to touch this curlicue of cool green copper, that rough line of chocolate manganese, this shiny ridge where cobalt blue meets a deep pool of yellow lead. The guard shifts in his chair and cocks his head in warning. I step back, raise the camera, and shoot: Again, nothing happens.

"I tested it," claims my husband, Rob, as he lifts the camera strap gently from around my neck. He knows what this means to me: I'm a tilemaker, and these 16th-century beauties quiver with life. There is something about the design, the brush strokes, the slight impurities in the glaze: It's a perfect balance of plan and accident. At the moment, nothing else really matters, not even the fact that we are, after all, on our honeymoon.

The road here was long. Having met in recovery – from sad divorces and dead-end day jobs – we vowed to venture outside the lines. Leap day was the perfect wedding date, the start of a lifelong treasure hunt. In Lisbon, we weren't sure what we were looking for, but the search had taken us up the city's steep hills to churches filled with saints and angels on blue-and-white tile.

At Solar, an antique shop in Barrio Alto, the tiles were so expensive we could buy only one. Our fantasy of discovering wizened craftsmen practicing the art in the old way led us to the outskirts of the city during the worst rain in 40 years. The cabdriver gunned the car across a toppled chain-link fence to a certain studio, but the murals the artist unveiled would have looked better on velvet. Finally, after standing in the median of a six-lane road shouting "Madre de Deus?" at every bus that stopped, we found the convent that houses this museum.

But the camera isn't working. After interminable fiddling and clicking, Rob sighs and puts it away. "Stay here and sketch," he says. "I'll be back."

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