on February 24, 2007
Truly the heart of Venice is the Piazza San Marco, St Mark's Square. The city's greatest church—the Basilica of St Mark—and the Palace of the Doges is situated around the square and its smaller offshoot, the Piazzetta. Napoleon himself described the square as "The finest drawing room in Europe".This statement should not be seen as an uncritical one however—it describes the lethargy and irrelevance that Venice had drifted into by the turn of the 19th century. A place to relax, yes, to chat and plan, yes; not a place for action. This can be seen today in the patrons supping at their over-priced coffees in the Caffes Florian, Quadri, and Lavena; the tourists slowly craning their necks up at the mosaics of the basilica, at the campanile, and trying to glimpse the 'Moors' atop the Torre dell'Orologio; and the languid couples strolling through at dusk.Apart from the basilica and Palazzo Ducale (reviewed separately) there are other things to see. For free there is the stroll down the Piazzetta to the Molo to see the patron saints of Venice atop the twin granite columns—the winged lion of St Mark, and the city's original patron, St Theodore. Turning left down the waterfront takes you past the entrance to the Doge's Palace, to a bridge, from where you can get your compulsory photo of the Ponte dei Sospiri—the Bridge of Sighs.Back in the Piazza, at 99m the Campanile is the tallest structure in the city. This particular version only actually dates from 1912—the original suddenly collapsed in 1902. Sixty cents allows you to ascend. The view from here has been enjoyed by many, including Galileo, Goethe, and Emperor Frederick III, who refused to dismount and instead rode his horse up to the top. For my money however a better view can be achieved by taking the vaporetto across to San Giorgio Maggiore and climbing the campanile there.To the north of the square is the Clock Tower, or Torre dell'Orologio. You cannot visit it, and the best view comes from the front balcony of the basilica. From here you can see the two bronze statues that strike the hour, colloquially known as 'The Moors' due to the dark patina of the metal.Surrounding the square we find the Procuratie. Essentially rather grand offices for the administration of the city when they were completed by Sansovino in the 16th century, they were converted into a palace by Napoleon's stepson upon his appointment as Viceroy of Italy, a redesign that involved tearing down Sansovino's church of San Geminiano at the square's western end and building a ballroom in its place. Nowadays, they are occupied by the Museo Correr and Museo Archeologico. Entry to these museums and the Palazzo Ducale is with the Musei di Piazza San Marco card (€11; half price for EU citizens under 30 or over 65) or the Venice Card (see Overview for details).
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