Main squares of most cities are beautifully maintained and landscaped spaces that you can spot immediately. But, a brief glance usually doesn’t reveal what is most interesting about them — a background story. So, if you take a thorough look at the landmarks, works of art and other accompanying features, you can learn a great deal about the square, city and country. City and town squares are usually open public spaces in the heart of a settlement. Read on and find out why the main squares of Paris, Prague, Vienna, Belgrade and Timișoara are so exceptional.
Place de la Concorde, Paris, France
The name of Paris’s square, which can be translated as the “Square of the Agreement”, explains a lot about its history. But, first thing’s first. The area occupied today by one of Europe’s most historic squares was a swamp until the second half of the 18th century, when King Louis XV had it commissioned. The Place de la Concorde was designed to accommodate the large statue of the king himself, becoming (and remaining) one of the largest European squares.
The square’s centerpiece is Cleopatra’s Needle, the oldest monument in Europe that formerly decorated the entrance into one of the Luxor’s temples in Egypt. The monument was a gift from Egypt to France, and its shape symbolizes Ra, the sun god who appeared as a ray of sun. Two fountains at the opposite sides of Cleopatra’s Needle are other masterpieces you should take a closer look at. Designed to symbolize French seas and rivers, these were the inspiration for other public fountains that have decorated Paris’ squares since the 1830s. By taking a closer look into the fountains’ works of art, you can find out the former major industries of France. The eight monuments flanking the Place de la Concorde (one of them is in the photo’s forefront) are dedicated to the main cities in France.
As for the Place de la Concorde’s name, a history of brutal occurrences accompanies it. Shortly after the Louis XV Square was laid out, the French Revolution (1789–1799) broke out and the square was chosen, due to its size, as a place for mass executions of the counter-revolutionists and their sympathizers. Approximately where Cleopatra’s Needle stands today, the Black Widow guillotine was placed. Thousands of people were beheaded by it, with King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette among them. Due to a heavy stench of blood, it is said that even a herd of cattle refused to pass through the square at one point. Once the large-scale confrontation was over, the Square of the Agreement assumed its name honoring the national reconciliation.
Staroměstské náměstí, Prague, the Czech Republic
The Staroměstské náměstí has been the main market of Prague throughout the last millennium, and although it was a stage of various tragic events, it’s nothing compared with the Place de la Concorde. The popular Old Town Square’s main landmarks are the Astronomical Clock and the Tyn Church, which is said to have served as an inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. This Gothic masterpiece is the resting place of Tycho Brahe, an astronomer whose conclusions about the universe (the 16th century) laid the foundation for scientific breakthroughs in the following centuries in this area.
Aside from the Astronomical Clock’s performance, which is another main draw of the Staroměstské náměstí, you can climb the adjacent Old Town Hall and enjoy the views over the square and Old Prague. The Rococo-style Kinsky Palace (the reddish building in the photo) is a subsidiary of the Prague National Gallery, exhibiting works of art originated from Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. The monument in front of the Kinsky Palace honors Jan Hus, after whom the fateful Hussite Wars were named. The Czech Republic (former Bohemia) has a turbulent history as well, and the monument is a symbol of Czech resistance to foreign repression.
Last but certainly not least, Saint Nicholas Church, boasting marvelous Baroque style, is the focal point for outstanding classical concerts. The present tradition was initiated by Mozart’s performance in the 18th century. To fully appreciate the spirit of the past, when the Staroměstské náměstí was the trade center, visit the square during the Christmas market.
Heldenplatz, Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s Heldenplatz, the Square of Heroes, was intended to be the center of the Kaiserforum (the Imperial Forum) that was never fully completed. The Kaiserforum was supposed to be one of the largest construction projects of the Habsburg Dynasty, one of the longest ruling dynasties in Europe, but its fall following the conclusion of the First World War (1914–1918) prevented its completion.
The Renaissance-style Natural History Museum and History of Art Museum, facing each other across the Ringstrasse (the boulevard that separates those structures from the Heldenplatz), reflect each other as if seen in the mirror - hinting the designer’s aim. The semicircular building of the Neue Burg (New Castle), which extends from the Hofburg complex toward the Ringstrasse, was meant to face another exact structure that never got to be completed (to look as though it was reflected).
Besides the Neue Burg (completed in 1913), two equestrian statues, credited for the square’s name, dominate the Heldenplatz. The statue in the photo is dedicated to Archduke Karl, who would doubtlessly have had a much more successful military career had he not had the brilliant Napoleon Bonaparte as his principal adversary. Even so, the Austrian forces led by the archduke managed to defeat Napoleon I in the Battle of Aspern-Essling in 1809. However, a rematch followed at Wagram, in the following year.
The other statue, next to the Neue Burg, honors Prince Eugene de Savoy, a French commander in service of the Austrian crown during the Turkish expansion throughout southern and central Europe. The prince was nicknamed the “Scourge of the Turks” for rerouting the Islamic invaders from Central Europe. The foremost achievement of the prince’s military successes at the turn of the 18th century was the capture of Belgrade, in the Balkans. Prior to everything, the formidable commander’s services were all too easily rejected by Louis XIV, the Sun King of France.
Trg Republike, Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade’s Republic Square is flanked by a couple of cafés and boasts a few architectural jewels. The square, while pleasant today, was formerly a stage of terrible events during the Turkish reign over the present Serbian capital city. One of the main gates of the fortified Kalemegdan fortress used to be just in front of the National Museum (the structure in the background), called the Stambol Gate. The road starting at the gate led to Istanbul in Turkey, hence the name.
Once the Turks regained Belgrade after de Savoy’s conquests (following the prince’s death), the space in front of the Stambol Gate was used for torture and impalement of the people who opposed them and aided the Austrians. During the First Serbian Uprising (1804–1813), the Serbian insurgents broke through the notorious gate in 1806 and seized the Kalemegdan fortress. Following the ultimate ousting of the Turks from the Principality of Serbia in 1867 under the rule of the Prince Mihailo Obrenovic, the infamous gate was torn down and the National Museum was erected. The prince himself is honored by the only equestrian statue in Belgrade, errected in front of the National Museum.
The National Theatre, another principal building of the Trg Republike, is a stage for outstanding theatrical performances. Originally conceived as a Renaissance structure, the venue’s 19th century appearance significantly changed in various reconstructions following the 20th century’s great wars, involving Secessionist and Baroque elements.
As for the National Museum, one of the most significant cultural establishments of the Balkans and the symbol of the Serbian freedom has been under the supposed reconstruction under governmental jurisdiction since the early 2000s.
Piata Victoriei, Timișoara, Romania
Timișoara isn’t Romania’s capital, but is the capital of the region of Banat. The Piata Victoriei (the Victory Square) is one of its three major squares, featuring the Romanian National Opera (in the background), the marvelous Orthodox Christian Cathedral and a couple of very interesting facts.
As you can see in the related photo, the Piata Victoriei has structures flanking its sides that can’t be more different. It’s because the left side of the street used to be inhabited by wealthy people, while poor people resided on the right side. And not just that, each social class stayed on its side of the square, never passing the other.
The stretch of greenery in the middle combines beautifully designed floral patterns with low overgrowth and walking paths. What you cannot see is an interesting fountain and a monument illustrating the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, nursed by a she-wolf. The monument was a gift from Rome in 1926, when they were twin cities.
As for the “Fish Fountain”, you’ll wish to take an interest in it only as a piece of art. God forbid that you meet an attractive local lady or gentleman in Timișoara and they schedule a meeting with you at the fountain. Don’t bother coming at the appointed time (or at all) because s(he) won’t. Meeting at the fish fountain means “leave me alone” in Timișoara.
There is always more
Each and every square is a deep well of information to which various legends and other interesting facts are attached. For example, from Neue Burg’s terrace, overlooking the Heldenplatz, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss, an annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938. Or, did you know that Cleopatra’s Needle, adorning the Place de la Concorde, was a token of Egyptian gratitude to France for its part in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs? So, when visiting main squares of European cities and towns, keep your eyes and ears open and find out infinitely more.
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