Masarykovo náměstí from Třeboň, Czech Republic

Třeboň, or Wittingau in German, has one of the best-preserved medieval squares in Bohemia. In fact, only its shape dates from medieval times, since its current form, with its Renaissance and Baroque houses, resulted from the flourishing fish trade of the 14th century. Beginning in the mid-14th century, the natural landscapes around the city were gradually transformed by human intervention. The marshlands gave way to a dense network of over 500 lakes, grouped into 16 aquatic systems, today a paradise returned to the wilderness and populated with rare species of plants and animals. The largest of these lakes is located right near the city and is tied to the Rosenberg family, owners of the medieval burg. Like all historical cities in Bohemia and Moravia, this square contains a plague column; a Renaissance fountain; and a tower building belonging to the City Hall.

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 A number of local settlements had such centres, but the wooden houses have been replaced by stone ones, usually Baroque in style.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.

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.

Piazza del Popolo & Piazza Garibaldi from Todi, Italy

Todi has three rows of fortified precincts. Following them towards the town’s interior, one climbs towards its square and descends into history, crossing medieval Roman and Etruscan walls. The square stands on the site of an old Roman forum, just as the Cathedral, which lies at the edge of the square and some steep steps, stands on the site of a temple to Jupiter. The Piazza del Popolo of Todi, a closed space dominated by massive crenellated buildings, conveys, along with its fortifications, a strong sense of protection. It is often cited in historical studies as the most convincing example of a medieval square. It is certainly beautiful and impressive. In the neighbouring Garibaldi Square, one crosses through a narrow passage that offers an unexpected surprise when it comes to the structure of the town. It shows the exact opposite: a side that is entirely open to the Umbrian hills.