San Marco, Venice: “The Drawing-room of Europe”
Let’s face it, there can be few visitors to Piazza San Marco in Venice who have not experienced an almost magical feeling when, standing on the Piazetta with the Doges’ Palace on their left, the Campanile to their right, they first gaze out between the two slender pillars, one topped with a statue of St Theodore, the other with the winged lion of St Mark, over the waiting ranks of black, high-prowed gondolas to the lagoon beyond. It seems familiar somehow – scarcely surprising given it has been immortalised in so many thousand Canaletto reproductions on so many thousand walls…
Right in the Centre of Things
In San Marco you are right there in the centre of things, always just a couple minutes walk from the Grand Canal, and close enough to Piazza San Marco to stroll around "the most elegant drawing-room of Europe," as Napoleon famously called it, any time of the day or night. Bustling Campo San Stefano is close by, with Campo San Angelo, with its romantic leaning campanile, next door to that. And of course, there is always the Basilica di San Marco itself, with its marvellous (although now reproduction) quartet of gilded bronze horses – looted from Constantinople in 1204 – striding out into the square.
On the other hand, San Marco is the most touristy sestiere, and it can get very busy, especially during the day in the tourist season when the day-trippers stream in. Hotels nearer to Campo San Stefano and the Accademia Bridge tend to be quieter, but we’ve stayed very close to San Marco in the high season and after the trippers leave it’s not so crowded as many would have you believe.
The Busiest, Richest and Narrowest of Shopping Streets
Three main thoroughfares link the key points of San Marco, forming a rough triangle: one from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, one from the Rialto to the Accademia Bridge, and one from the Accademia to Piazza San Marco.
Piazza San Marco is linked to the Rialto by the busiest, richest and narrowest of shopping streets: the Mercerie. The name is plural, since it is divided into five parts: the Merceria dell’Orologio, di San Zulian, del Capitello, di San Salvador and ‘del 2 Aprile’.
Designer Shops – the Usual Suspects
If you are into designer shops you will find most of the usual suspects in San Marco, together with plenty of doubtful souvenirs, the rather overhyped Harry’s Bar (founded by Guiseppe Cipriani in 1931 and except for wartime, rarely short of Americans, including Ernest Hemingway, since) and an amazing number of Venetian glass galleries/shops with their brief glass-blowing demonstrations and never-ending stream of tourist groups.
Still, there are quite a few diamonds amongst the dross, with some marvellous specialty shops offering anything from Carnevale masks to hand-tooled leatherwear (last time I bought a particularly fine belt), together with bookstores and speciality stationers who sell handmade paper notebooks and other items – great gifts for those back home.
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