Trg Peristil from Split, Croatia

Seen from above, the old town of Split appears like a rectangular box in which someone has placed buildings, streets and markets. Two of the markets in the citadel are large and, starting with the Middle Ages, had a key role in the history of the city, called Spalato in Italian, Narodni trg. The People’s Square, simply Pjaca for the locals, is mentioned already in the 13th century and has a number of superb gothic buildings. A bit further on, at the entrance in the citadel, lies Trg Braće Radić, called Voćni trg by the locals, meaning fruit market, in remembrance of her old, colourful role. Just outside the medieval walls there is the third great square, Republic Square. Newer, its architecture reminds one of the Venetian San Marco. It was built in a historicist style in the middle of the 19th century, in order to show that Split, long under Venetian rule, carries on the tradition. There are beautiful squares, each with a marked individuality, but the oldest and most interesting of the Split squares is by far Trg Peristril, smaller, yet seen by the locals as the historical heart of the area. Its history is special. In the beginning, the square was the interior courtyard of the palace built for the Roman emperor Diocletian in 305, on a huge, 300 square meter surface. In fact, half of the old city of Split lies within the palace walls, the best preserved Roman palace to survive to our time. After the Romans abandoned it, it will remain uninhabited for centuries, until the people of Salona take refuge from the Slavs, turning the former palace into a settlement. And a settlement it shall remain henceforth. John of Ravenna, the first local archbishop, decides the transformation of Diocletian’s mausoleum into a church. It is the moment when the palace courtyard officially becomes the cathedral square, with all the functions of a medieval square. Changes take place, but some features are kept, including the red porphyry columns.

Hlavné námestie from Košice, Slovakia

Hlavné námestie means Great Square in Slovak, but the early history of the city and of its central square is tied to German colonists, who arrive here at the middle of the 13th century, on the invitation of King Béla IV of Hungary. The city of Košice, called Kaschau in German, Kassa in Hungarian, Cașovia in old Romanian chronicles, existed at the crossroads of great trading routes linking the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, Poland to Transylvania, the east to the south of Europe. The urban space is rigorously structured. Three parallel roads follow the north-south direction, and the middle one becomes progressively wider towards the place where it meets the main east-west artery, thus giving birth to special, lens shaped square. The lens shape is due to the building of the square in the space that used to function as a trade fair. The trade fair existed in a widening of the road, halfway between the castle and the abbey, before any other building. The shape is also due to uniting, through a typical process of a synoecism, two distinct settlements before the 13th century, whose border was the square of the present. In the middle, right at the intersection point of these two axes, the German colonists raised a parish church. Its place is taken in the 14th century by the Gothic cathedral of Saint Elisabeth, to this day the largest cathedral in Slovakia. The tower of Saint Urban, containing a seven tonne bell, and the chapel of Saint Michael, both Gothic and built in the 14th century, flank the cathedral, resulting in a unique and unitary whole. The theatre, a Neo-Baroque jewel, was finalised in 1899. The Gothic houses, the Renaissance and Baroque palaces, Art Nouveau buildings define the perimeter of the square. The contour of the old walls is clearly visible in the circular track of nearby streets. The lens shaped square from Košice is the largest and most coherent urban ensemble of its kind, typical for eastern Slovakia.

Hauptplatz from Retz, Austria

In 1278, count Berthold von Rabenswal receives from Emperor Rudolph I von Habsburg the right of ownership over the Hardegg land. He begins at once the building of a new settlement next to an existing village, called Rezze. He will follow a regular plan, in the style of Bohemian burgs, around a square that remains to this day among the largest in Austria, although the current population of the settlement numbers only 4000 people. The square is beautiful, with Italian inspired Renaissance palaces, fountains and a Baroque column of the Holy Trinity. In the middle stands the city hall, a former church, repurposed in 1569. But the bigger surprise lies beneath the pavement: under the square, under the entire town and even beyond lies a labyrinth of interconnected cellars, where the inhabitants have deposited local wine. It is over 20 km long, far greater than the network of streets above.