Squares & centres

Last Updated 30 March 2013, 14:07 IST

Every city has a square for relaxing, where you can just sit and watch the world go by. Colin Todhunter lists a few such squares that are not necessarily well known, but ambient nevertheless.

If you are able to locate the ideal city square, you should cherish it. And the ideal square would be one where you are quite happy to sit and do nothing. A place where time doesn’t mean anything and a sense of conviviality counts for everything. The three following squares may not be the most well-known, but, in their own way, all demonstrate a certain palpable charm.

Where the action is

Tangiers: Nestled on a hill, overlooking Spain and the blue Mediterranean Sea, you will find what could be Morocco’s finest medina. Part seedy, part flaking paint, this sprawling labyrinth of a place houses the ‘little square’ or ‘petit socco’. It’s not so much of a square, but a place where a narrow arterial street widens and branches off in two directions to take you down toward the sea and ferry terminal. The immediate vicinity is a jumble of three to five storey old European-style colonial-era buildings housing various guest houses and hotels, some of which have seen better days and are of dubious repute. There’s a certain edginess to this medina. This is after all Tangiers.
In this almost claustrophobic square, a half dozen or so French-style pavement cafes predominate, serving pastries, cakes and super-strong black coffee. It is here that locals and day-trippers from Spain (35 minutes away by fast-ferry) mingle. It is here that mumbled conversations, the jingle-jangle of tea spoons in glasses and the click-clack of cups on saucers almost drown out the call to prayers from the local mosques. It is where the aromas of freshly made coffee and newly baked bread wafting on the sea breeze rejuvenate the senses.

This little square is where to imbibe in caffeine overload, with ‘café noir’ setting you back a third of what you might pay over in Spain. Notwithstanding what may or may not be going on behind the closed doors of the local hotels, homes and guest houses, nothing much happens in the square itself. It’s a place to watch people, catch the sea air and contemplate that while Europe may be virtually a stone’s throw away, it’s Islamic, Arabic and Berber cultures that matter here.

For Europeans, Tangiers is the gateway to Africa. It is also a city whose reputation during the last century as a home for spies, creatives, cut-throat characters and pleasure seekers somewhat precedes it. These days, however, the only dodgy people you may happen across are those ‘greeting’ tourists fresh off the boat. After walking up the hill from the ferry, there’s no better place to get acclimatised to the country by drinking in the genteel atmosphere of Tangiers’s tiny ‘little square’.

To the market...

Nijmegen: Straddling River Waal and not too far from the German border, you will find the charming Dutch city of Nijmegen. It’s a small place with a history that dates back 2,000 years when the Romans occupied the site. Today, old and new architecture exist side by side and the city bristles with youthful vigour. The recreational activities of the large student population have no doubt contributed towards the claim that the city has more bars per head of population than anywhere else in the Netherlands.

Nijmegen’s jewel in the crown is the ‘grote markt’ or market square, which displays an abundance of fine buildings in the Gelrian renaissance style. The square itself is triangular in shape and is overlooked by the sublime gothic spire of the 13th century St Stephen’s cathedral. And it’s beauty is not alone. Nearby is the 16th century town hall and a number of other architecturally splendid buildings from the same period.

Every Dutch town has a market square, but Nijmegen’s is a gem. It’s a place where historically people came to sell corn, meat, textiles, fish and various other goods. The old Weigh House (Waag) and meat market is a fine renaissance building from 1612, where all market wares were brought to the building by the tradesmen to get weighed. The left side of the building was used to slaughter animals and is called Het Vleeshuis (the meat house).

The buildings lining the square are well preserved, and if you catch the market day, you may have the chance to see wonderful Dutch cheeses and other sort of local products. The ‘grote markt’ is lined with eateries and coffee shops and neatly laid out tables and chairs. Whether it’s a cappuccino or a typical Dutch plate of herring and French fries with mayonnaise, it’s here to be had.

Adding to the square’s tangible charm is a statue of Mariken van Nieumeghen, the chief character in the 15th century mystery play of that name. According to legends, having entered into a league with the devil, she was fettered in iron rings. When her period of penitence was over, the rings somehow sprang open by themselves. Mariken is depicted holding the broken rings. Food for thought as you munch on those fries.

What’s in a name?

Cordoba: If Europeans do one thing well, it is city squares. There are thousands of great urban spaces across the continent. Many are old and quaint, some are modern and chic. For my third choice of relaxing squares, I could have opted to include St Mark’s in Venice or some other square drenched in history. Instead, I’ve chosen some obscure expanse of grey in Cordoba, Spain.

Cordoba was the capital of a Roman province and an Arab State and a Caliphate. Unsurprising then, that the sprawling historic part is a wonderful patchwork of intricate streets and enticing alleys and courtyards. But there is the newer part of town too, where few tourists venture. Meticulously and functionally laid out, it’s an area of streamlined trams and large solid-looking six and seven storey apartment blocks. In many ways, it is the exact antithesis of the old part of the city.

Strange then that I have chosen to showcase a large square hemmed in by apartment blocks in the modern part of town and located in what is a fairly indistinguishable neighbourhood. At ground level, the blocks play host to pavement cafes, newsagents, hairdressers and all manner of small businesses set up to serve the local community. With its grey concrete, kids’ playground, benches and steps to sit on, it would be easy to conclude that the square itself is nothing special, apart from the scattering of lovely palm trees. But that’s where you would be wrong.

Modern it may be. Lacking a sense of history, it certainly does. But, like a thousand similar European city squares, this one in Cordoba tells a story. And the narrative is that of everyday life, of community. The sounds of children playing, and of conversations to be heard over cups of coffee at the hundreds of tables lining the square. The sight of locals buying groceries, of the old walking their dogs and of Euro-chic fashion-conscious youth. No, it wasn’t orange blossom or the aroma of freshly brewed coffee that filled the air of this obscure Andalusian square in southern Spain when I accidentally stumbled into it. It was neighbourliness and conviviality.

And the name of this large square? I have no idea. Even Google Maps doesn’t give it a name. Sometimes in life, the best things are left unstated.

(Published 30 March 2013, 14:07 IST)

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