Tuesday, July 02, 2013


On our recent trip to Central Europe, I was drawn to cobblestones. Sure, they were unavoidable on these ancient, preserved streets, but they were also fascinating.

Cobblestones announce themselves underfoot. You feel them. They are reason enough to wear “sensible” shoes. Nothing is more no-nonsense than a cobblestone street.

We take paved sidewalks for granted. They become monotonous after a few steps.  We only miss the walkway at pavement’s end in mud or worse.

Cobblestones can’t be ignored even after you get used to their nobbyness. Weathered and rough, they remind us they have been around awhile, in some cases hundreds of years, before the machine age.

Flesh-and-blood human beings gathered these stones and then carefully put them in place. You are can almost imagine cobblers cobbling them together as you walk along.

These bent-over workers clearly took pride in their work. The stones aren’t simply put down in a sterile grid. There’s a plan, a design. The patterns are mandalas for walking meditation. They are often intersecting fans that meld into each other. Some present artistic mazes. You won’t get physically lost in them, but you might be sent on a mental side trip.

The workers also have created patterns using the stones’ varying hues and shapes. The streets and walkways are art. In Passau, one street was splotched with red.

Some of the more recent cobblestones, put down in the last 150 years or so, don’t fit the definition of rounded rocks. They are instead “setts,” flat-stones. Nevertheless, “cobblestone” has taken on a generic meaning that includes them.

The word “cob,” at the root of "cobble," must be old because it has several wildly different meanings. Here are  just a few:

n. A corncob: corn on the cob.
n. A male swan.
n. A thickset, stocky, short-legged horse.
n. A small lump or mass, as of coal.
n. A mixture of clay and straw used as a building material.

The meaning that most intrigues me as it relates to cobblestones is “corn on the cob.” Those rows of kernels are a yellow-cobblestone road on the round.

Turns out that cobblestones are making a return as tactile warnings to motorists that they are approaching pedestrian crossings. Whether intended or not, they also warn (and invite) pedestrians to watch and admire where they are going because it could be both dangerous and beautiful, two qualities often linked.

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