Plaza Mayor from Salamanca, Spain

The construction of this square began in 1729, by order of Phillip V, with the square primarily intended for bull fights. Today, it is seen as one of the most beautiful squares in Spain and in the whole of Europe. The space offers a paradoxical optical illusion. From the ground it appears to be a perfect quadrangle, but when seen from an aerial photo, the shape is irregular. The baroque façades of the building, which surround and define the square’s perimeter, seem perfectly symmetrical at first glance, but in reality, none of them are the same height. Entire books have been written about this square in Salamanca, and, to this day, it is considered the absolute model of Spanish squares.

Domplatz from Passau, Germany

This urban structure was determined by its geographical position, one of the most spectacular in urban Europe. Passau is situated on a spit of land, at the confluence between the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz, each with differently coloured waters. The Domplatz lies at the highest point of the city, which serves to its advantage, as Passau is threatened by floods each year. The square was built in 1150, and in 1155, after donations by the Bishop Konrad von Babenberg, it became the property of the Cathedral, under the condition that clerical houses be built on its free sides. These 14 buildings were damaged by the great fires of 1662 and 1680, and then rebuilt by Italian architects in a late-Baroque style. In 1824, a statue of Emperor Maximilian I of Bavaria was placed in the square. Thus, for the first time in its history, the square became public, gaining the status of an official town square. It was renovated after 2013. Its pavement was replaced with fine gravel, pointing to its previous historical eras. Its lighting is spectacular, one of the finest in Europe. Highlighting the façade of the Cathedral, leaving the square and the rest of the buildings in half-light, it enngages in a subtle game of darkness and light, linking the past, when cities did not have public lighting, with the future. The effect is that of a scene from a Baroque play.

 

Hlavné námestie from Košice, Slovakia

Hlavné námestie means Great Square in Slovak, but the early history of this city and its central square is tied to the German colonists who arrived here in the mid-13th century, at the invitation of King Béla IV of Hungary. The city of Košice (Kaschau in German, Kassa in Hungarian, and Cașovia in the old Romanian chronicles), existed at the crossroads of great trade routes linking the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea; Poland with Transylvania; the east of Europe with the south of Europe. Its urban space is rigorously structured. Three parallel roads run from north to south, with the middle road becoming progressively wider until it meets the main east-west artery, forming a special, lens-shaped square. The lens shape is due to the construction of the square in a region that formerly functioned as a trade fair. The trade fair took place in a widened section of the road, halfway between a castle and an abbey, before any other buildings were constructed. The shape also comes from the unification, through a typical process of a synoecism, of two distinct pre-13th century settlements, whose borders were those of the present-day square. At its centre, where these two axes intersect, the German colonists erected a parish church. In the 14th century this church was replaced by the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Elisabeth, the largest Cathedral in Slovakia to this day. 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, creating a unique and unitary whole. The theatre, a Neo-Baroque jewel, was finalised in 1899. Gothic houses, Renaissance and Baroque palaces, and Art Nouveau buildings define the perimeter of the square. The contours of the old city walls are clearly visible along the circular paths of the adjacent streets. The lens-shaped square of Košice is the largest and most coherent urban ensemble of its kind, typical of eastern Slovakia.

Náměstí from Štramberk, Czech Republic

Similar to many other small, out-of-the-way places, this square is simply called “Square,” or Náměstí in Czech. Štramberk is yet another example of a place where the entire town is condensed into its square. Aside from the row of houses that line its perimeter, only two or three additional streets complete the map. Trúba, a cylindrical tower consisting of the remains of a castle about which few things are known, dominates this settlement, perched on a nearby wooded hillside. Everything here reminds one of a fairy tale, from the forests to the castle to the square. A large number of wooden houses from the 18th and 19th centuries also add to the local cultural heritage. The land where Štramberk is located is called Valašsko, from the name of the populace who migrated here in waves, along the Carpathians from Transylvania and, perhaps, from Bukovina. Though the language of the Vlachs was lost along the way, and these people were slavicised, some customs did survive, such as the traditional building techniques that were adapted by local Czech and German craftsmen. The wooden houses clearly bring to mind the wooden Romanian architecture from Transylvania. A number of local settlements had such centres, but the wooden houses have been replaced by stone ones, usually Baroque in style. Štramberk has the greatest number of Vlach-style wooden houses, as they are called here, creating an interesting architectural reservation. Its square is also linked to the preparation of local cakes called “Štramberk ears,” which legally can only be made here. It is said that they have this name because the people of medieval Štramberk thought they resembled the ears of captured Tatar soldiers, during the time of the Tatar raids.

[videnpro_vimeo id=’1468′]