Medieval passageways

If you’ve read Blyd and Pearce, you know that it takes place in Tangye, a city in a medieval fantasy setting. (And if you haven’t read it, why not?) Although I live in America—where few buildings predate the 19th century—I’ve been lucky to spend time in much older cities in Europe. Tangye is an amalgam of many of the features I’ve experienced in those places.

Today I wanted to talk about an architectural feature that was common in medieval and later architecture but is rarer now, at least in the US. That feature is the arched pass-through. It’s mentioned a time or two in Blyd and Pearce and there’s one on the cover. It functions as a way for people and traffic to get through a large building, often into the courtyard beyond. In some cases, these archways actually lead to other streets instead.

Here are some examples. I took all of these photos this March while I was wandering the upper town district of Zagreb, Croatia. As the name suggests, this part of the city is hilly. It’s also quite old, with parts of it dating to the 13th and 14th centuries.

(And also note that the upper town still uses gas lamps. I’ve several times seen the lamplighters at work.)

I especially like the photo above because it shows several interesting features. Not just archways, but also a church spire in the distance and a stairway (visible between the buildings) that’s actually a street. That white sign gives its name: Mlinska Stairs.

That’s probably the most famous archway in Zagreb, the Stone Gate. It passes through the original city wall, built in the 13th century. What’s cool about the stone gate is that although it’s a primary method of passing into the upper town, it also contains a Catholic shrine. Legend says the painting in there miraculously survived a fire in the 18th century. There are almost always a couple of people who have stopped inside to light candles and pray. Oh, and see that guy with the pole? He’d just lit that gas lamp.

Here’s a more recent version of the archway. This one is in the lower town, right off the main square, and was probably built in the 19th century. It allows pedestrians to pass from one street to another without having to go around the large block of buildings.

You can see another more modern archway in this aerial view of Zagreb’s main square. Click for the big version, then look at the ground floor of that yellow building in the center of the block beside the white canopies. That building was probably built circa 1887. The passageway is big enough to include storefronts; it leads to a small street behind. More importantly, though, it also leads to Dolac, Zagreb’s biggest public market, On the far left of the photo you can just make out some of the red umbrellas over the produce vendors at Dolac. (That tall church is Zagreb’s cathedral. They’ve been working on restoring it for a zillion years now.)

Does your city have similar archways?

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