The curious case of the immortal European square

Six sides of the square…

What’s the single-most universal impression you carry home from European cities? For me, it has to be timelessness. Translated: continuity. And one of the best examples is reflected is the enigmatic town square. 

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Get arty at Piazza della Signoria, Florence

The European square offers the most scintillating peep into the fascinating big picture connecting the past with the present. Starting with the 6th-century Agora of Greece, public spaces have spread across the continent as everlasting symbols of the past. The Forum or Piazza (Italy), Markt (Netherlands), Place (France) Praça (Portugal), Platz (Germany), Námesti (Czech), Rynek (Poland) or Trg (Croatia), may be identified by different names, but their essence binds them together. Have you noticed the six common recurring themes that I have mapped out?

Of the heart and soul

The one common place that dominates the map of any city or town in Europe is the Old Town. And at the nerve centre of the Old Town, you’re sure to pin down the biggest draw…the inevitable town square, reverberating with original character. Traditional architecture, historic cafes, local specialities, explosion of arts-crafts and culture overload, all in a fully-pedestrian zone. Its literally like walking into a time capsule. Follow that human stream if you lose your way… 

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Outstanding Flemish architecture in Burg Square, Bruges  
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Savour lunch in the shadow of the Heiliggeistkirche Cathedral at Marktplatz, Heidelberg
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A ride into the past at Grote Markt, Antwerp
Designed for drama

There’s always the surprise element. Narrow, winding cobbled streets that end in a small entry, often an archway. Cross the threshold, and boom….you’re in a sunny, airy, wide open courtyard enclosed with medieval buildings on all sides. Walled in on four directions, with the sky as a ceiling, this sudden contrast of spaces can take a while to adjust to. But you love it, don’t you? What’s not to love?  

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Window to the world of Nazare’s main square
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Peek into Piazza Umberto I, Capri
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Generously proportioned Praça do Comércio, Lisbon
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Be seen at the celebrated Piazza San Marco, Venice
Star attraction

Look around for a unique feature, or an emblem from the past. You can’t miss it. Often, its a grand monument like a cathedral and a town hall (mostly both), a towering memorial, a fountain, or statue. Most of these squares, after all, have lineage in the medieval age, nearly 2000 years ago, when these were the central areas for religious, political, social and commercial gatherings. Even coronations and executions! 

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Age-old legacy

Public squares of the yesteryears continue to retain their glory as chosen sites for annual festivals, national celebrations, art performances and political protests in their cities even today. It is truly incredible how age-old traditions and rituals have not just survived, but also thrived through these squares scattered all over Europe. Nearly every event happens in a legendary square. They’re almost earmarked for this purpose. 

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Social hotspot, then to now

Squares have always been hubs for people to commune, gather, converse, collaborate, feel part of a social milieu. Ubiquitous canopied cafes line the sides. People bask in the sun, converse, drink and dine in the peaceful traffic-free zone, sheltered from the bustling web of streets around. Cutlery clinks, children feed pigeons, band of performers engage the crowds, outdoor exhibits liven up the area. Its one massive living room and you’re part of the guest list! Amid carousels and wedding shoots… 

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Square, you said?

The shape of a ‘square’ is defined by the buildings that surround it. Despite being rectangular, circular, oval, hexagon or even completely irregular, it still magically remains a square! Find a vantage point high above for observation, ideally the tower of a cathedral. There’s bound to be one in the vicinity, if not in the square itself.  

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Get over the fact that its oval. Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was once a colosseum
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Grandeur oozes from every pillar of the colonnades at the semi-circular St. Peter’s Square, Vatican

Modest or grandiose, hidden or legendary, blink-and-miss or monumental, in Europe, you would have to think twice before concluding that a square is a square is a square. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will certainly be here tomorrow too! 

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82 thoughts on “The curious case of the immortal European square

  1. Interesting post! True, those public squares in Europe have always fascinated me!
    The Piazza della Signoria is indeed any art lover’s paradise!
    But the square I loved the most was Milan Duomo’s square! It was fascinating!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. European cities or at the least parts of them do seem to be trapped in a time warp. They give this feeling of being transported to another time. They ooze with old world charm. The squares are definitely one of the fascinating aspects here, be it Rome, Paris or Zurich, they don’t fail to intrigue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a European (from Slovakia, so I should say Central European), I appreciated this reflection a lot. Keen eyes, even better words. The town square is the heart of every city, the ground zero of its life, the home of its soul. It’s where all journeys end and begin and end again.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Living in Europe –and less than a five minute walk from our central square– I appreciate your insights. I was likewise fascinated with how this seemingly European idea of a square was transplanted and has evolved in Latin America cities where Spanish colonialists built them. The feel is generally quite universal, with people from all walks and ranks of life coexisting.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A very very interesting post. I completely enjoyed reading it. I haven’t been to Europe till now, but your post gave me so many insights about the country.I felt that the square is a heart of a city and everything else revolves around it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love walking down random roads to see where they lead. The narrow, cobbled ones sometimes take you to magical and beautiful places – like these squares.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I had never thought of the significance of all the squares across Europe! They truly are an amazing gathering place and always so lively – thanks for sharing this perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “The Forum or Piazza (Italy), Markt (Netherlands), Place (France) Praça (Portugal), Platz (Germany), Námesti (Czech), Rynek (Poland) or Trg (Croatia), may be identified by different names, but their essence binds them together. Have you noticed the six common recurring themes that I have mapped out?”
    I was bamboozled by this!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great thing to call out – the wonderful Old Town squares in some of the most visited cities in the world. Such a lovely collection, I have visited and loved many of them. You are right that they are such a focus of many cities, with beautiful architecture, lots of history and often great places to while away some time.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I absolutely adore the town squares in Europe! I was a huge fan of them whilst touring France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland a few years ago. I’m really looking forward to moving back to the EU this autumn so I can enjoy them once again! Thanks for providing a bit of history and some great photos as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love hanging out in the local squares when I am in places. I spend a lot of times in south America and the local plaza is where everyone hangs out. They are always such great social areas and you are right, great buildings around with an old focal point. I really wish that the squares we have in England were the same and where people hang out. Unfortunately they only are if there is seating for a bar and the weather is good!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderful post Punita, and I must say I completely agree to it. For me also, these beautiful and old public squares have come to mean Europe in many ways. I visit at least a few of these squares in every European city I visit – always great for food and photography 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I am always mesmerised by the squares in the European countries. Being a history and architecture buff, it feels so great to just read about them, so I can understand that there is nothing not to love them once you have visited them!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve never given it much thought and you now made me remember some of the great squares of the cities I’ve visited. My favourite would be the colorful main squares of every Polish city especially Poznan and Wroclaw. It is true that almost every city’s exploration starts from the main square. You’ve gathered so many gorgeous photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. European squares are great! I often kick off exploring a city at a central square/market: there is always a great cafe for a coffee or beer, beautiful architecture and lively atmosphere.

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  16. I love this article so much because it puts into words what’s been in my heart for years: these squares are magic! I particularly love your description of the entrances: “Narrow, winding cobbled streets that end in a small entry, often an archway. Cross the threshold, and boom….you’re in a sunny, airy, wide open courtyard!” YES! That’s it exactly!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. The old town square is always the first place I look for in a new town. As you say it is a place to discover the real people and the charm as well. I have to say that it is not just a European thing as I have had similar experiences in Mexico and Peru.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Lovely article – I enjoyed your breakdown of the significance and history of squares! We loved relaxing at piazzas in Italy. Some you even mentioned and had pictures of, for example Florence and Venice. We hope to visit more squares in Europe in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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