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Great Sidewalks

Written by  Professor Barry Goldsmith

BTHDT
While I usually recommend unknown buildings around the world; unknown museums, unknown palaces, unknown churches, even historic restaurants and hotels, now it's my turn to recommend the architectural feature that links them that's there for everyone to see. Unlike other frequently bypassed sites, you don't walk past them everyday, you walk on them, Great Sidewalks.

While I usually recommend unknown buildings around the world; unknown museums, unknown palaces, unknown churches, even historic restaurants and hotels, now it's my turn to recommend the architectural feature that links them that's there for everyone to see. Unlike other frequently bypassed sites, you don't walk past them everyday, you walk on them, Great Sidewalks.

You can tell a lot about a city by its sidewalks, even its place in history. When St. Petersburg was Leningrad the sidewalks on its main street, Nevsky Prospect, looked even shabbier than the shoes that walked on them. Today, Nevsky Prospect's sidewalks are a beautiful rose-tinged granite. You've heard of "actors chewing up the scenery." The sidewalk in one of the world's most magnificent squares, Palace Square St. Petersburg (home of the Winter Palace/Hermitage), chews up the scenery to
actually become the scenery!

Mosaic sidewalks - what I called "chips on the old block" - like mosaic floors, become self-standing (or rather self-walking) works of art. As if Prague doesn't already have enough great artistic sites, many of Prague's sidewalks, in fact, many of the Czech Republic's sidewalks, are mosaic works of art, which vie for attention with great Baroque Czech architecture.

Portugal, one of the world's smallest countries, has the most magnificent sidewalks, and not just in its capital, Lisbon. Even many small Portuguese towns have mosaic sidewalks composed of different colored stones forming an abstract pattern such as waves, or even forming realistic portraits such as the sidewalk with the personification of "Wisdom" on the sidewalk at Coimbra University.

If you love Portugal's sensational sidewalks and want to see similar sidewalks, travel to Portugal's former colonies Macau and Rio. In Rio, the Atlantic waves don't stop on the sands of Copacabana Beach, waves become the patterns of Copacabana's sidewalks. While modern Macao is the "Las Vegas of China" (but with much better architecture), visit Senado Square and you'll think you're back in Portugal

The best cities for uniform, citywide sidewalks are London and Paris. London even has a city law going back to 1766 creating sidewalks. No matter where you go in London, you'll see clean, identically sized rectangular dark-gray stone slabs in simple patterns.

Like London's sidewalks, Paris' are also dark-gray stone of slightly smaller slabs. Paris has the widest sidewalks in Europe, amply accommodating their many sidewalk cafes. The Champs Elysees, which was Paris' widest sidewalk, was even further widened in the 1990s paving over single-lane roads on both sides of the avenue. And fitting for Paris' most famous sidewalk, the Champs Elysees’ widened sidewalks are paved with premium granite-like stone. The French love strolling on their sidewalks so much that they even created a name for it,  "boulevardier."

Madrid's solution to hide ugly directional signs is to embed them into their beautiful sidewalks. The median sidewalk on Paseo del Prado directs pedestrians from the Thyssen Museum to the Prado to the Reina Sofia Museum. In Venice make sure the old, worn-out pavement signs directing tourists to stores, restaurants and hotels are for establishments that still exist. Boston's "Freedom Trail" embedded directions work well, except after a big snowfall. Signs embedded in sidewalks in lower Manhattan (near City Hall) celebrate the dates of Ticker-Tape Parades. Embedded signs can even be destinations, such as Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

My childhood memory of Rome conjures up a unique use of Rome's sidewalks as parking spaces for cars. Not so much today. Leave it to Italy to turn sidewalks into multi-dimensional art. The Compidoglio, designed by Michelangelo, one of Rome's most beautiful squares, has a unique sidewalk design that actually defines the space. The design of the piazza's sidewalk ties its three facades (facing the square) together into one total architectural unit almost like a room open on one side. It's so magnificent, it inspired the sidewalk in the main plaza of New York's Lincoln Center.

Sadly, the United States' sidewalks are among the worst. Sidewalks reflect politics as well as art. In most major European cities, the municipal government is responsible for sidewalks. In the United States, most sidewalks reflect a "laissez-faire" attitude; each building in charge of the sidewalk in front of it.

Colonial Williamsburg, with its uniform brick-patterned sidewalks tying the city together gave American sidewalks a great start. Today you'll see Main Streets' brick-patterned sidewalks in US towns that are already in decline –such as in my hometown, Smith Street in Perth Amboy, NJ. Those picturesque sidewalks should have been installed after WWII to save downtowns before businesses moved out.

Since the end of the 19th century, most American sidewalks were constructed of poured-in-place concrete, which shot its age. No wonder even New York City's most prestigious street, Fifth Avenue, looks like a hodgepodge of sidewalks of different colors, sizes and shapes. Farther uptown on Fifth Avenue, bordering Central Park, the decrepit sidewalk looks like a patchwork quilt with many patches missing.

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