Saturday, May 14, 2016
The Often Forgotten Oasis, and Picnic Site, Just Behind Piazza San Marco
If you're a visitor to Venice who really wants to be featured in the local papers all you need to do is spread out a picnic blanket in Piazza San Marco--either in the shade of a colonnade or the open sunlight--and settle down to enjoy a meal.
You won't be getting good press, as this really infuriates locals, but perhaps like certain celebrities you're one of those people who roll beneath the banner of "there's no such thing as bad publicity." If you really want to distinguish yourself as the ugliest of tourists you can even bring along a portable barbecue and grill up one of your favorite hometown dishes.
You won't be the first to do this kind of thing, but the locals react with fresh indignation to each new instance.
If you're not that kind of visitor, however--and as that kind of visitor is not the sort to do much research into a place before visiting you almost certainly are not if you're reading this or any similar site--then the only option you really have if you want to eat in Piazza San Marco is to plump for a seat at one of the various cafes there.
Indeed, the number of spots in which you can simply sit down gratis are extremely few--on the benches and ledges at the base of the campanile, for instance--and if the city has come up with any funds to pay the guardians of the Piazza you'll be shooed like pigeons from the low stairs surrounding the Piazza if you try to sit down on them.
However, a very, very short distance from the Piazza is a green, sometimes flowering space with no lack of actual benches, where you can sit down to a picnic without being bothered in the least. I mention it here because in a historic center almost entirely lacking in just benches--much less greenery--I'm always a bit surprised by how few people take advantage of this space, I Giardini Reali, or the Royal Gardens, created during Napoleon's rule over the city.
In those days it was the private garden for the foreign rulers of the city--first French, then Austrian: inaccessible except across a drawbridge from the palace (now the Mueso Correr) that borders it, and cut off from the populace by water on every other side.
Everyone can now reach it easily by foot from two directions, but it's still rather little used.*
Perhaps it's the long row of small stalls generally selling the gaudiest of trinkets and Chinese-made masks that stretch on either side of its entrance that put people off. Rolling your eyes at the crush of so much of what you've probably already seen elsewhere in the city center you could very well miss that there's a park behind those stalls.
To reach the park's entrance from the Piazza, you simply walk to the two massive columns looking out over the Bacino di San Marco, then turn and walk along the water front in the direction of the mouth of the Grand Canal. You cross a hardly-noticeable bridge and a short distance on your right is the entrance. If you come to the vaporetto stop for the number 2 line, you've missed it and gone too far.
Now, this is hardly a secret destination, and I hope all those who know it well already will forgive me for belaboring it, but I'm surprised by how little used it typically is. On the one hand, this is a pleasant thing for anyone who lives here and is looking for a break from the crowds of the centro storico. But on the other, it seems a real shame that those visitors looking only for a place to sit down and eat seem to know nothing about it and so, instead, try to settle down somewhere in Piazza San Marco and find themselves chased off--or the objects of local scorn.
The grounds aren't always kept as nicely as they could be--there's a dense arbor in its center whose entrances are blocked off as if it's a construction site--but whether you've been to Venice a number of times, or are here for the first time, it can provide a welcome respite.
*Though I can't recall at the moment the book from which I learned this fact--perhaps Jan Morris?--at one time in the 20th century it was a popular cruising site. I don't think it still is.