The section of Venice enclosed by the lower loop of the Canal Grande – a rectangle smaller than 1000m by 500m – is, in essence, the Venice of the travel brochures. The plush hotels are concentrated here, in the sestiere of San Marco, as are the swankier shops and the best-known cultural attractions of the city.
“The finest drawing-room in Europe” was how Napoleon described its focal point, the Piazza San Marco – the only piazza in Venice, all other squares being campi or campielli. Less genteel phrases might seem appropriate on a suffocating summer afternoon, but the Piazza has been congested for centuries. Its parades, festivities and markets have always drawn visitors, the biggest attraction being the trade fair known as the Fiera della Sensa, which kept the Piazza buzzing for the fortnight following the Ascension Day ceremony of the Marriage of Venice to the Sea; nowadays the Piazza is the focal point of the Carnevale shenanigans. The coffee shops of the Piazza were a vital component of eighteenth-century high society, and the two survivors from that period – Florian and Quadri – are still the most expensive in town.