Soaring symbol | Monocle

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Slim, streamlined and playful, the swallow is a constant feature of the Portuguese summer. On almost any warm evening you will be able to see a flight of them darting over terracotta rooftops in Lisbon’s old town, swooping across sunburnt wheat fields in Portugal’s interior or riding the sea breezes on the southern Algarve coast.

Partly because of their ubiquity and partly because they are both itinerant and faithful – the birds migrate long distances in the winter but return each summer to the same nesting place, and pairs of mated swallows are monogamous throughout their lives – swallows have struck a cultural chord with the Portuguese people. “Swallows have similarities with the Portuguese character,” says Catarina Portas, who is the founder of A Vida Portuguesa, a retailer that specialises in revitalising traditional Portuguese brands. “Like us they are small but courageous. They are adventurous and fly across the oceans but come back home each year. And they are joyful; when they fly at the end of the day it feels very playful.” Thanks to these cultural associations, a ceramic swallow design has come to represent something of a national icon in Portugal. They range in size from versions that are 3cm long to life-size pieces that are as big as a large hand span; you can also spot ceramic swallows on both the exteriors and interiors of many Portuguese homes.

“The swallow has been part of popular culture in Portugal since the early 20th century but it really became common in the 1960s, when emigration increased,” says Portas. “Just like swallows, our emigrants came home every year and before long people started hanging ceramic swallows inside their homes, on the façade and in the garden to represent this.”

There are several versions of the birds on the market but the most popular are those manufactured by Portuguese ceramics company Bordallo Pinheiro. The company was founded in 1884 by ceramicist and caricaturist Rafael Bordallo Pinheiro (1846-1905), who is himself something of an icon: his satire of many aspects of Portuguese life created characters that have become part of the country’s vernacular and you can find a museum entirely dedicated to his work in Lisbon.

In the late 19th century, Bordallo Pinheiro was commissioned to create interiors for the Tabacaria Mónaco in the capital. As part of the project he introduced a swallow motif – you can still spot metal versions of his birds flitting around the shop’s cornices – and in 1896 he created a ceramic version of the bird, which has been in continuous manufacture ever since thanks to his eponymous company in the western Portuguese town of Caldas da Rainha.

The Bordalho Pinheiro factory is a long two-storey building that is airy, bright and warmed by the large kilns that fire the company’s products. It employs about 170 people, who handmake the 30,000 swallows a year that the company now sells, alongside a range of other pieces including hyper-realistic plates shaped like cabbage leaves and bowls in the form of tomatoes.

The company still works from the original mould designed by Bordallo Pinheiro and each bird takes about three days to complete. Every piece is poured into a mould that can only be used a very limited number of times before it is judged to have lost the necessary details. After the clay has set, each piece is individually checked for quality and hand-finished before being fired for the first time. After cooling it is then painted before a final firing.

The attention to detail on each piece is remarkable. Run your fingers along the cream-coloured underside of the bird’s wings and you’ll feel the mark of individual quills; on the chocolate-coloured top, soft feather-like ridges are also pleasingly tactile. When hung on a wall, the shape is surprisingly lifelike: a bird wheeling in flight, one wing raised, head cocked to one side, navigating and investigating its surroundings.

Arminda Gaspar, 61, has worked at Bordallo Pinheiro for 43 years. Today she hand-paints the swallows, sitting at a large workstation in a well-lit space in the centre of the factory. Depending on the size of bird she can paint about 25 an hour. As she speaks her hands don’t stop moving, first using a small brush dipped in pale brown over the face and the edge of the wings, then changing to a larger brush with dark brown for the top of the wings and the tail.

For many years the swallow played second fiddle to the Rooster of Barcelos but the latter dropped from favour after it was adopted by the country’s fascist regime as a national symbol in the 1940s. “The rooster was an icon for many years,” says Portas. “But when I decided to open a shop about Portugal I chose the swallow as our logo. I wanted to sell swallows rather than the rooster. The rooster was a national symbol imposed by the regime but the swallow is a national symbol chosen by the people.”

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