LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s traditional cobblestone pavements, a distinctive feature of the streets of Lisbon, are under threat as young people spurn the centuries-old craft because of low salaries.
Made using small black and white stones that are crafted into waves and geometric shapes, the pavements date back to the 15th century and have been exported across the world to Portugal’s former colonies, from Rio de Janeiro to Macau.
Jorge Duarte, a paver since 1988 who teaches at the Escola dos Calceteiros, the only school dedicated to the craft in Lisbon, is worried the tradition will die if wages are not raised to attract the young.
“I love what I do, it’s a beautiful profession and people don’t know how hard it is,” the 56-year-old said while hammering a black cobblestone. “Those in power still have time to save it but, if they keep on ignoring it, it’s over.”
Teresa Gouveia, a historian at the school, said the craft faces a crisis as there are just 10 pavers left in Lisbon now, compared to 400 in the 18th century.
“It is a difficult and underpaid profession so young people are much more likely to go into IT or new technologies than doing something artisanal,” Gouveia said.
With Lisbon becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, its artistic cobblestones are a special feature.
“It’s the city’s brand, it gives Lisbon its charm,” said Gouveia.
Most of the city’s pavers employed by Lisbon council earn the minimum wage of 580 euros a month.
The pavers’ school was created in 1986 in the hope of sustaining the tradition. But even though it has partnerships with job centres and runs courses through the year most of its students, especially the young, do not stay in the industry.
Luisa Dornellas, who is in charge of the school for Lisbon council, acknowledged salaries are low but defended the city’s efforts to preserve the craft.
“Lisbon municipality invests on the school because without professionals who know how to work the pavements, they won’t be well kept and will eventually degrade,” she said.
But Duarte and Gouveia fear that if steps are not taken quickly to support traditional crafts like paving they could disappear forever.
“I can’t guess what will happen but if there is no political decision to save the Portuguese pavement, it might become a relic,” Gouveia said.
Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Angus MacSwan