Venice Stories and Tips

Piazza San Marco - 'The finest drawing room in Europe'

The Procuraties - northern side Photo, Venice, Italy

The centre of the world? The Venetians certainly thought so and a visit here to the most famous square in the world explains why. You've heard all the hyperbole before, but until you stand in the Piazza with the pigeons fluttering around you, the marble of the Procuraties enclosing you, and the bells of the Campanile rolling across the square - you won't truly belive how beautiful the place is. No movie, brochure picture or guidebook platitude can truly do credit to it. And again and again you will find yourself gravitating to the largest open space in this ancient city. A city which boasts hundreds of elegant Campo's - but only one space that qualifies for the grand title of Piazza.

All vaporettos, traghettos, gondolas and alleyways lead to Piaza San Marco. When the tourists disembark from the Stazione or their Cruiseships 90% of them sprint for here and click their cameras at Basilica San Marco. It is also the most expensive part of Venice and the famous cafes Quadri and Florians really do charge 'an arm and a leg' for the privilege of drinking their coffee. But it is also the most classy part of Venice - the floor is white marble, the restaurants have purple velvet curtains across their windows and the super-rich disembark from their speedboats on the Molo. But for the simple-daytripper or tourist, the vaporetto #1 or #82 travels from the Ferrovia (train station) along the Grande Canale to San Marco or Valleresso and stops where the hordes disembark. On foot, the Calle Larg 22 Marga enters from the west under the Procuraties and from the north the tourist-swamped Mercerie leads from the north and spills out at the Torre Orological.

The Piazza is immense, the size of two football pitches. Unusually it stretches west and is covered on three sides - the western, southern and northern by the white marble Procuraties. Its eastern end is taken up by the extravagant domes, decorations and mosaics of the Basilica San Marco. On its southern side it opens up with a great piazza leading to the Adriatic - this is the Piazetta and where it hits the lagoon - the Molo. Opposite the Basilica on the corner is the tallest building in Venice - the Campanile. The Piazetta is the route most people traverse to the Piazza. On its eastern side is the incredible Doge's palace where 'La Serenissima' was ruled by its dukes for a thousand years. Before the Molo are two 50 ft granite columns topped by the lion of St Mark and St Theodore who was Venice's first patron saint. Extending from the Molo is the spectacular Riva degli Schiavoni - the opulent waterfront promenade which contains the 'Bridge of Sighs'. You are now in the very heart of tourist Venice and it's almost an impossible choice to decide what to see first.

No doubt you will rush to see Basilica San Marco and join its queues. But at some point it is good just to traverse the Piazza and Molo and just enjoy the spectacle. It is even better at night when the whole place is floodlit and accompanied by classical orchestras. The best place to start, I think, is the western edge of the Piazza, underneath the Musei Correr. The great Procuraties stretch away before you (see photo) and you can enjoy the sight of the hundreds of tourists being led by the nose by tour guides or Japanese visitors squealing when hundreds of pigeons descend on them. The Procuraties (see photo) are renaissance buildings and were where the civil servants ran the Venetian Empire. At the eastern end is Torre Orological, a great clock dating back to 1497 where figures beat out the hours. It was through this clockface (currently under scaffolding) that James Bond ejected Draxs' manservant Chang in "Moonraker". Please don't ask me why I remember such rubbish, I just do...

A visit to the Piazza cannot be a visit without a look at the world-famous cafes - Florian and Quadri. These are the notorious cafes that tourists are always mention costs you $6 for a cup of coffee. But you are not paying for just a pretty view - you are visiting a Venetian historic monument. These cafes have been here for hundreds of years and during the Austrian occupation Quadri, along the north side, catered to occupying troops while patriotic Venetians frequented Florians. At night, the entire Piazza vibrates with classical music when chamber orchestras in each cafe try to outdo each other with Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers dressed in full evening wear. The cry of the violin solo as you wander the colonnades in the evening can be very haunting...

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