Thursday, 29 September 2011

Striking Town Squares

Striking Town Squares
Town squares aren’t always square. But even when they’re trapezoidal, as Venice’s St. Mark’s Square; oval, as Rome’s Piazza Navona; or square, as Krakow’s Stare Miasto, they share the same social function. They are spaces where locals can meet to do business, socialize and politic. For travelers, they're a central location to take in a city's history as well as its current vibe.

What’s underneath the Piazza Navona in Rome? It’s an ancient stadium built by the Emperor Domitian, which gives the piazza its unusual oval shape. The name also derives from this arena. Track and field competitions were called agones, a word corrupted to navona over the centuries. In the center of the modern piazza is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s extraordinary Fountain of the Four Rivers, representing the four major rivers of the known continents: the Nile (Africa), the Ganges (Asia), the Plate (the Americas), and the Danube (Europe). Two more lovely fountains anchor the ends of the piazza. Swarmed with trinket sellers, buskers and visitors year-round, Piazza Navona is likely Rome’s liveliest public space — no small accomplishment in this bustling city.
Capping the Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Concorde in Paris is a seamless arrangement of fountains and statues held together in the center by a 3,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, a gift from Egypt to France in 1829. Bordered by the Seine and the Tuileries Gardens, the square retains the bucolic flavor of its youth. When the square was constructed in 1763, it was at the very edge of the city, abutting rolling fields and gardens. Its elegance almost makes one forget its grisly history as the execution grounds for King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and such important French Revolution figures as Georges Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre.
It’s difficult to pick just one square to focus on in this lovely, square-rich city. Savannah has 24 of them, keeping the city green, open and wonderfully livable. But if one must be picked it should be Monterey Square. Dripping with Spanish moss and boasting a monument to Gen. Casimir Pulaski at its core, it’s home to both the historic Mercer Williams House and the country’s only Gothic synagogue, Congregation Mickve Israel.

Monterey Square gained fame through the book and movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
Piazza San Marco, Yes, Piazza San Marco in Venice is permanently mobbed by camera-clicking tourists. But they’re here for an excellent reason: to capture the city’s most celebrated attractions, the whimsical Basilica di San Marco and the urbane Palazzo Ducale, which dazzle side by side. Try to arrive for your first visit by boat so that your view of the square will unfurl in the stately manner it did when visiting dignitaries came here during the heady days of the Venetian Republic. Another suggestion: Splurge on a spritz, Venice's favorite cocktail, and enjoy a concert from one of the café-sponsored bands on the piazza — few Italian experiences are quite as magical.
The dominant color scheme here is not crimson, nor is Red Square named for Russia’s communist past. Instead, Red Square’s Russian name is Krásnaja Plóščaď, and Krásnaja can be interpreted as “beautiful” or “red.” It’s an apt title for this square, crowned as it is by the iconic, psychedelic onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Along with St. Basil’s, Red Square is home to Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum, the palaces and churches of the Kremlin and a famous department store. Over the past seven centuries, Red Square in Moscow has served as a marketplace, a coronation site for czars, a military parade ground for the Soviets and, recently, a stage for high-profile rock concerts.
Tragedy can sometimes give rise to greatness. After the central square in Brussels, Belgium, was destroyed in a 1695 battle with Louis XIV of France, the town fathers gathered, determined to create an even more harmonious, elegant Grand Place. To that end, they demanded that all buildings be of the same height and their facades in the fanciful Baroque style known as Italo-Flamand. The masterpiece one sees today, this enclosed plaza of gilded, sculpture-bedecked structures, was created in just four years of intense activity. Unlike most of the top architectural sites in Europe, the buildings here are secular, with nary a church among them, and include the town hall and guild houses for various professions.
Three decades ago, Washington Square Park in New York, then a run-down haven for drug dealers, might not have made this list. But restoration efforts, including extensive landscaping and centering the famous fountain, have restored the park’s former glamour. Visit it to listen to an impromptu jam session near the fountain, a gathering place for musicians of all stripes; to admire the longest unbroken string of Greek Revival townhouses in the U.S.; to test your skills in an outdoor chess game; or to see Stanford White’s monumental white marble arch. The history of the park is long and varied, encompassing hangings, protests, burials and parades. In 1837, inventor Samuel Morse coiled 1,700 feet of copper wire around the park to test the first wire dispatches.
Plaza Mayor in Antigua, Guatemala, is a square for all the senses. Your nose will be tickled by the aroma of locally grown coffee at the cafes on the shaded verandas of the Colonial houses lining the square. Tourist carriages clip-clop by, and the splashing of the risqué central fountain — water gushes from the breasts of four stone maidens — soothes the ears. Feel something soft brush your cheek? That’s likely a flower petal fallen from one of the square’s blooming trees. Eye candy? That’s in all directions, including the crumbling remains of the 15th-century Catedral Metropolitana and the vivid handwoven clothing worn by the Mayan vendors here.
The epic scale of Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran, elicits gasps from first-time visitors. It’s the second-largest square in the world, after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The Imam Mosque rivals the Taj Mahal in the looks department, with its turquoise minarets, majestic gateway and exquisite tiles. Visitors spend their time exploring it, the equally gorgeous Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, the Royal Palace and the bazaar that leads off the northern side of the square. They also while away the hours at one of the many tea shops lining the square,

watching the tiles on the buildings slide from color to color depending on the position of the sun.
Andrew Jackson, Jackson Square in New Orleans was originally called the Place d'Armes and then renamed in honor of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson Square has always been a place of arts, not arms. Musicians fill the air with jazz, and painters display their works for passers-by. Modeled on the handsome Place de Vosges in Paris, the square is bordered by historic 18th- and 19th-century buildings, including the St. Louis Cathedral; the Presbytere and the Cabildo, two of the buildings that make up the Louisiana State Museum; and the Lower and Upper Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the U.S.
Stand back, Times Square. For neon, humongous video screens and crowds, the Shibuya District in Tokyo can’t be topped. Though this isn’t a traditional square — it’s full of cars — it has a social feel. During Shibuya’s famed “scramble crossing,” red lights are given to the cars all at once so pedestrians can flood the streets. This oddball pedestrian surge was featured in the film “Lost in Translation.”
Every hour for the past 800 years or so, a trumpeter has played a warning call from the tower atop St. Mary’s Cathedral in Stare Miasto in Krakow, Poland. As the notes float over the square’s cafes and horse-drawn carriages, it’s easy to picture what Europe’s largest medieval square would have looked like in its heyday. Head to the Cloth Hall, a former trading spot in the square’s center, to shop for handmade lace, amber jewelry, rococo ornamental eggs and other souvenirs.
An awesome array of historic buildings line the Plaza in Santa Fe, including the Palace of the Governors, the country’s oldest continually occupied public building; the Loretto Chapel, with a spiral staircase, and St. Francis Cathedral, the only non-adobe structure on the square. Beyond the fine architecture, the plaza has retained its role as a traditional market, with Native American artisans peddling their wares both in the open on the verandah of the Palace of the Governors and indoors at the Santa Fe Arcade.
A harmonious hodgepodge of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic buildings front Old Town Square in Prague, a center of commerce for centuries, from medieval marketplace to the area where the privatization deals of the 1990s took place. At its heart is a statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer who was burned at the stake for his beliefs and sparked riots here in the 1400s. A favorite of visitors is the Astronomical Clock, which sets loose a parade of mechanical symbolic figures, from Vanity to Mortality, on the hour.
As imposing as the cathedral, federal district buildings and National Palace that guard its flanks, the Zocalo has been a center of life in Mexico City since Aztec times. In fact, right next to the cathedral are important excavations of Moctezuma’s palace and a museum showcasing what has been found. It’s not unusual to see modern-day Aztecs performing ancient purification rituals in front of the cathedral for passers-by. One of the largest squares in the world, the Zocalo has held crowds in the hundreds of thousands for both political protests and artistic events.

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