How we came to love and loathe the Piazza San Marco, Venice
Do you know the feeling when you can’t wait to finally reach a destination, a place that you dreamed about all your life, that you have heard so many stories about, that you have seen in the movies and on TV? The build-up of excitement, the acceleration in your heartbeat, almost as if you were to go on a first date? You are counting down the months, the days, the minutes, to finally see the place in person, to experience it first-hand?
How cruel then, when you do finally arrive and your encounter turns out to be so very different from what you expected. How disappointing, if your desires and dreams are not met, when you are let down by reality.
This is exactly the feeling I had when I stumbled upon the Piazza San Marco, fabled centre of the eerily romantic, enchanted, elegant city of Venice. The city that is said to be the epitome of elegant decay, the stuff that Hollywood movies are made of. And all of this holds true for the inner core of the historic city, the tiny laneways, oftentimes not wider than a pair of shoulders, the dark and mysterious canals, the crumbling plaster on the ancient buildings.
Yet, when you finally reach the very core of Venice, the Piazza San Marco you run a risk of losing yourself in a crowd of hundreds of tourists from all over the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with tourists. When I travel I am mostly a tourist myself, and I think it would be wrong to look down on them. As a matter of fact, it’s not the fact that there are tourists in San Marco but it’s the fact that there are so many of them, hundreds, thousands.
So for all I care, I wouldn’t be less appalled if I had to face thousands of Venetians in the Piazza San Marco.
Call me naive but I wasn’t expecting that at all. The sheer number of people surrounding me, fiddling with their selfie sticks and queuing to get inside one of the buildings adjoining the piazza made me feel anxious. I consider myself pretty adaptable but I just couldn’t handle a crowd that big. To be honest, I don’t think the city of Venice is able to handle a crowd that big. I don’t think that a city should welcome so many tourists in high season, it cannot be healthy, no matter how well it fills the city’s coffers.
So as a travel blogger I can only advise you to visit the piazza whenever nobody else would think of visiting it – off-season and very early in the morning. And are you planning to see any of the museums or the basilica during your visit? Make sure you book yourself in early, get on a tour and skip the queues. Trust me, you don’t want to wait in the blistering sun for hours to get inside the Basilica San Marco. Neither did we. Alas, we failed to book a tour.
And so all I can share with you are a couple of photos from the outside. I think they are so pretty they need to be featured on the blog. The Basilica in particular is truly enchanting and just wonderful. A poster child for what Venice is all about – a city of seafarers, merchants, a crusader haven.
All of this is evident to the observing eye in the colourful facade of the church – the mismatch of marble columns, brought here from Byzantium and other ancient cities throughout the Mediterranean, the warrior saints guarding the towers, the Venetian winged lions which we did see not just here but also in other locations that we were going to visit on our tour of Europe, symbol of Venetian military power and cultural influence.
In our back there was the campanile, the bell tower. Ancient though it may look, this tower is just about a hundred years old, rebuilt after it had suffered a massive collapse in 1902. It is not the only building that we see in Venice that has struggled with unstable foundations – there is another leaning tower not far away on Burano island.
Next to the Basilica is the Gothic building of the Palazzo Ducale, the Duke’s Palace. Administrative centre of the city for centuries, when most of the European sea-trade was channeled through this very location. Here, as well as all over the city you can see influences from the Middle East, copies of architectural elements as you find them in Turkey, in Syria, in Cairo.
The basilica as well as the other surrounding buildings represent everything that Venice stands for, in a very iconic way. So, yes, there is a magic to this place that needs to be seen to be believed. In that sense, our expectations were met. On the other hand, Venice’s tourist appeal has gone so much overboard that we cannot help but warn you.
Napoleon Bonaparte called it endearingly “the drawing room of Europe”. The Piazza San Marco, as it is today, has lost its charm due to a constant presence of a massive crowd of international visitors, and unless there is a shift in local politics, things will not change for the better anytime soon. What a shame.
Have you been to the Piazza San Marco? Would be lovely to hear what your experiences were! Let me know in the comments.