“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”
From the Rialto we took as direct a path as we could determine in the direction of St Mark’s Square, a route which took us through more twisting alleyways and distracting shopping streets that were become incrementally more expensive as we got closer to the famous piazza and then suddenly we were out of the tangled web of alleys and joined thousands of others in admiration of the unmistakable square.
Napoleon Bonaparte may or may not have called the Piazza San Marco “the finest drawing room in Europe” but whether he did or he didn’t it is indeed one of the finest squares in all of Europe. San Marco is the principal public square of Venice where it is generally known just as ‘the Piazza’. All other urban spaces in the city (except the Piazzetta) are called ‘campi’ (fields). The Piazzetta (the ‘little Piazza‘) is an extension of the Piazza towards the lagoon in its south east corner and the two spaces together form the social, religious and political centre of the city.
All visitors to Venice are drawn at some point to San Marco where they compete with thousands of pigeons to find a seat or a column or a piece of pavement stone to sit and rest and admire the magnificence of the place. Something however was different about the place from my previous visits and it took me a while to work this out – it was the absence of people snacking on the steps and the pavements because there is now a new law that makes this an offence and is punishable by a hefty fine.
This is part of an attempt to stop twenty million visitors or so feeding the estimated 140,000 pigeons which have made the Piazza their home and who are increasingly responsible for damage to the buildings by continuously pecking the marble façades in search of calcium. I cannot begin to imagine how they worked this out but it is estimated that it costs €23 a pigeon a year in clean up costs so tourists are no longer allowed to buy birdseed from street vendors who have themselves been chased off the square.
Venice is one of the modern wonders of the World, existing in the twilight zone between reality and fairy-tale, somewhere between an EPCOT Disney interpretation and a living museum. The Piazza is dominated at its eastern end by the great church of St Mark where the whole of the towering west façade with its great arches and marble decoration, the Romanesque carvings round the central doorway and, above all, the four bronze horses which preside over the whole piazza as potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice – such a symbol of pride and power that Napoleon, after he had conquered Venice, had them taken down and shipped all the way back to Paris.
Next door in the Piazzetta is the Doge’s Palace with Gothic arcades at ground level and an elaborate loggia on the floor above and a long queue of people waiting for their turn at the ticket office and opposite the Palace, standing free in the Piazza, is the red brick Campanile of St Mark’s church constructed in 1173, last restored in 1514 and faithfully rebuilt in 1912 after a total collapse in 1902.
Apparently Venetians woke up one morning to a pile of rubble where they were used to seeing the tower and we hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself today because we took the lift to the top and were rewarded with stunning views over all of the city and the islands of the lagoon. what was surprising however that from this elevation we couldn’t see a canal as the red roofs of the palaces crowded in and disguised the watery highways completely from view as though we were suddenly in Pisa or Siena.
Back at ground level we had to watch where we were walking now because parts of the Piazza were under water as the sea water made its way through the drainage system below the paving slabs and was spreading in puddles around people’s feet. Due to a number of complicated environmental reasons Venice is slowly sinking and at various times is prone to serious flooding and for this reason the doors of all of the shops and cafés around the square are protected by water boards which are quickly put in place when a flood is imminent.
This is called the Acqua Alta, the ‘high water’, from storm surges from the Adriatic or heavy rain and the place is quick to flood. Water pouring into the drains in the Piazza runs directly into the Grand Canal and this normally works well but, when the sea is high, it has the reverse effect, with water from the lagoon surging up into the square. The most dramatic floods are recorded on the brickwork of the Campanile and it was a bit disconcerting that some of the high water marks were above our heads.
Actually we were lucky because a couple of weeks after our visit there were a few days of continuous rain which resulted in waist high floods in St Marks Square which would have spoilt the visit for sure.
I like Venice and I adore St Mark’s Square but during the day it is too busy to be enjoyable as visitors push and shove, long queues snake around the buildings and the pigeons swoop and pester in competition for the dwindling supplies of food. It is estimated that on an average day sixty-thousand people visit Venice and this doubles the population. Venetians consider this to be too many and especially resent the people from the cruise ships who come ashore, take a few pictures and then return to the ship without spending any money.
So without staying too long we passed through the Piazzetta and down to the banks of the Canale di San Marco and moved away from the crowds and the flocks of culture vultures from the cruise ships to where gondolas were tied to their mooring poles and bobbing madly in the water as the boats and Vaporetti passed by and each one created a swell that disturbed the surface of the lagoon and then we walked east towards the quieter district of Castello.