Dear fellow travellers
This is the time of year when Europe rediscovers its town squares. Even if the weather pundits talk of snow for some of us next week, the first of the spring sunshine is an invitation for cafés to move to alfresco mode. For those of us not blessed with warm winters, the first outdoor cappuccino of the spring often serves to remind us just what a fine thing the town square is.
These are places for performance, for demonstrations (think Tiananmen Square or a dozen squares in eastern Europe in 1989), and for the evening passeggiata - a wonderful way of going nowhere. Squares are just great spots just to be! You would be surprised to find just how much of hidden europe is penned in amiable town squares across Europe: words crafted over a morning espresso or an early evening beer. At their best, squares are engaging spots, places that nurture the soul of a city.
Polish squares: Kraków, Zamosc and Poznan
Kraków's central square is much fêted, though it is a place perhaps too fully given over to tourists; for who else could afford the prices charged in the cafés that line the edges of this amiable piazza? Just as in Brussels' Grande Place or the Piazza San Marco in Venice, the only way to catch the real spark of the space is to be up with the lark (and the street cleaners) at dawn on a midsummer morning.
But Poland has many town squares apart from Kraków's; the country boasts some of Europe's most appealing city plazas. The Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square) in Warsaw, a fine bit of post-war reconstruction, is as happy a square as they come: just large enough to still catch the evening sun, but not so big as to overwhelm the visitor. And a good place to linger and feel a Warsaw morning develop. Kids playing by the old water pump, and the first meals of the day being served by waiters who know how to take a tip in a dozen languages.
Some of Poland's best town squares are off the beaten track: take Tykocin with its wooden houses, Darlowo on the Baltic coast or Zamosc close to the Ukrainian border. The square in Zamosc is one of the most breathtaking pieces of architecture in all Europe. The centre of Zamosc is a perfect example of a late sixteenth century Renaissance town, and its square, laid out by Bernardo Morando from Padua, is superb. It is a gentle blending of Mannerist taste and central European traditions. The open plaza, reminiscent of Kraków in some respects, is lined by arcaded galleries and houses that were once the homes of merchants from many nations: Armenians, Turks, Jews and more besides. Zamosc is one of Europe's most appealing urban spaces, a place with evident coherence.
Pushed to pick our favourite Polish square, we might look to Poznan. It may be nowhere near as picture-perfect as that in Zamosc, but it bubbles with activity: the organic heart of the city. The whole place is a colourful mixture, with burghers' houses, a weigh house, an oddball concrete art gallery thrown up in the post-war period and a fabulous town hall. Redesigned by Giovanni Battista di Quadro in the mid-sixteenth century, Poznan's town hall colourfully combines Italianate and Moorish elements. It is the centrepiece in a square that happily remains the hub of Poznan life, a good old style square not yet entirely given over to tourism.