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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What makes a walk on these walls so wondrous?

Like every other place, Dubrovnik needs to be felt, not just seen…

Like all travellers compulsively well-informed about the destination they are headed to, my list of essential experiences was ready before we booked our tickets to Croatia. Apart from Plitvice National Parks, the high point would be walking the walls of Dubrovnik…touted as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience’.

Continue reading “What makes a walk on these walls so wondrous?”