In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ll say it again: Bilbao proved a little piece of heaven when it came to supplying a multitude of exciting grounds on which to wait, stand, walk, linger, skip and trot.
Among them all, nothing came closer to fulfilling my
obsession with quest for surfaces that are not only visually exciting but are tightly connected to the place than the ubiquitous Baldosa de Bilbao tiles*.
When I say ubiquitous, I really mean it: they could be seen literally everywhere. If you are walking around Bilbao and at any given moment you decide to look downwards, chances are that the ground beneath your feet will be paved with those particular baldosas. Virtually all the sidewalks were paved with some version of the recognizable rosette motif – its carved channels mostly serving a utilitarian purpose, which I will explain in a bit, though sometimes the flower design was simply stamped onto them with nothing but a decorative function.
The design is linked so strongly to Bilbao’s identity that museum and souvenir shops were stocked with ceramic mugs, posters, soaps, t-shirts, shoes, ties, towels, key chains, pastries and all other kinds of imaginable tourist tchotchkes, all featuring the rosette tile design. They even have a facebook page dedicated to them!!!
Initially, considering its iconic status, I thought the tile design was adopted from something else. But in fact, it is just, and always was, simply that: a tile design. The manufacture of the tiles started sometime during the first half of the twentieth century (some reports date their first production to the 1920s and 1930s, while others say they came about in the 1940s and 1950s). Their design was aimed at making pedestrians a little safer in Bilbao’s rainy climate (which I experienced first hand and which is captured in almost all the photos), by allowing the water to drain into the carved channels and away from the surface of the tile, thus making it less slippery. Initially, the baldosas were made using concrete and coarse sand, with a covering of iron shavings in a 15 x 15 cm format, though this kind of material didn’t adhere well to the ground and left many pedestrians who stepped on loose tiles soaked up to the waste in rain water (not unlike Sofia’s current residents). Nowadays, almost all of the old tiles have been removed and replaced with new ones that are manufactured with cement at a standard size of 30 x 30 cm, although other, both smaller and larger, formats can be seen occasionally.
Initially endemic to Bilbao, the tile design was eventually exported to many cities throughout Spain and some South American countries. In Barcelona, one of the more popular tile designs, although clearly outnumbered by the simpler square and circle tiles, looks quite similar. Upon closer inspection, however, it seems to be lacking the channels that drain the water away from the tile. But then again, Barcelona isn’t nearly as rainy as Bilbao (as testified by the dryness in the below photo).
*Note: The term baldosa, it turns out, doesn’t refer to this specific kind of Bilbao tile, but rather is the word for any kind of tile in Spanish, making the term ‘Baldosa de Bilbao tile’ somewhat superfluous.