In many Portuguese homes, marble features in some form or another, whether it be on the floor inside, or outside in the garden, the steps to your apartment, kitchen surfaces, bathrooms or window sills. We probably take it for granted because it’s always been there, we walk over it every day or wipe it down in the kitchen and never give it a second thought.

Unlike wood, marble is impenetrable. Bugs, insects, and other creepy crawlies can’t burrow their way into a marble window sill to cause it to disintegrate for example, nor does it need repainting every few years after the relentless summer sunshine does its damage. Marble is the perfect material to repel water - with the proper sealant, water will bead right up and wipe clean, leaving no lasting marks that might otherwise stain - it’s great for preventing water damage, as any water will roll right off.

Marble is a metamorphic rock that forms when limestone is subjected to heat and pressure. It is composed primarily of the mineral calcite, and usually contains other minerals, such as micas, quartz, pyrite, iron oxides, clay minerals and graphite. That means that it’s tough and hard to destroy. It’s also heavy which makes it an ideal building material that can withstand the harshest conditions and still look as good as new. Marble quarries are astonishingly huge and really deep, and the marble is cut in ‘blocks’ from a vertical wall, the blocks usually weighing between 15,000 and 25,000 pounds, and is cut with diamond cables, drills and torches. It gives the appearance of huge containers stacked one on top of another with the machinery being dwarfed at the bottom.

But did you know that marble extraction in Portugal has a long history?

There are a surprising number of mines, but the greatest source of Portuguese marble is a world-famous geological area called the Estremoz Anticline, located in the Alentejo region. Briefly, (and without wishing to bore you!) anticlines are folded rock formations that have an upwards convex shape. They form from layers of rock that were originally horizontal and relatively flat, and earth movements have created a type of fold that is arch- shaped. This anticline presents in an elliptical shape (45×8 kilometres) stretching from the village of Cano in the northeast to the Alandroal Municipality in the southeast.

Portuguese Estremoz marble is renowned in the world for its physical and aesthetic qualities and is considered one of the best on the planet. And get this - such iconic projects as the entrance to Louvre Museum, interiors of ships such as Queen Mary II and the yacht of Russian magnate Roman Abramovich all used Portuguese marble.

Marble is one of the most admired materials for art and architecture, and the four countries where it is most prevalent are Italy, Spain, India and China. But the most prestigious famous white marble comes from Carrara, Italy. Carrara is quarried in abundance, and the luxurious Calacatta stone is similarly quarried, more specifically in the Apuan mountains of Italy, and has a lot more variation in colour than the Carrara. Statuario is too quarried in the same region, the stone has bright white background and thin to thick grey bold veining.

But for those who perhaps find their pockets aren’t deep enough for pure marble, there is a budget friendly substitute – engineered or cultured marble is recycled natural stone that has been crushed, pressed, heated and bonded with a very small amount of resin, and is an extremely hard-wearing substitute. Cultured marble sinks and backsplashes can be moulded into the countertop, and showers can have integrated shelving.

Real marble has unique colours, patterns, and a mirror-like shine with visual depth, and cultured marble colours can mimic marble but can look flat in comparison, and the gel-coat gloss can maybe look plastic. Both natural and faux marble can be scratched, stained, scorched, cracked or chemically damaged, and both have a similar level of care and cleaning requirements, although with one specific difference – real marble needs sealing but cultured marble does not.

So… as for the marbles you play with? Well, marbles can be made out of any hard material, for example, Native Americans reportedly used stones that had been polished smooth by a running river. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all played with marbles made of stone or polished nuts. But for centuries, they have been created by artisans out of glass, clay, stone, or even steel. But they have rarely been made of actual marble. Who would have thought it?


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan