Like many people, I have a love / hate relationship with Venice. Of course the love part is way stronger than the hate part. And the hate part really more like an annoyed part, and only has to do with a few streets and squares in Venice that feel more like Times Square with its crowds, than the magical watery city that I love.
The epicenter of the Venice that I make a point of avoiding is, or course, Piazza San Marco. I know, I know. It’s supposed to be one of the great wonders of Italy. “The drawing room of Italy” according to Napoleon. And even if it is the size of, oh – I don’t know, 12? – foot ball fields, the fields are today overrun by the worst kind of tourists. I hate to say they seem like they all just stepped off a cruise ship for 3 hours to see the city, but they all seem like they just stepped off a cruise ship for three hours to see the city.
But there here are things that draw me to the square. And no, they’re not St. Mark’s Cathedral or the Doge’s palace.
The things I love about San Marco are the ancient cafes that hide beneath the sixteenth century porticos that wrap around the square. Cafe culture has always been a big deal in Venice, ever since coffee was discovered in Turkey in the 16th century. Imported by traders, the novelty drink began to be sold commercially in the early 17th century. Coffee houses – the first ones in Europe – began to spring up all over the city. I’ve already written about Grancaffe Quadri, and it’s recent introduction of impeccable cocktails to the square.
But it is Florian, the oldest coffee house not only in Venice, but probably in Europe, that steals my heart.
From the outside you’d never suspect the crumbly, peeling facade houses one of the city’s most elegant interiors. And while the exterior boasts a classical orchestra, wood and leather furniture and a drop dead view of the Cathedral, it’s the cozy rooms inside that beckon.
Although today the place is obviously frequented mostly by tourists, it played a huge role in the cultural life of Venice. Founded in 1720 it became the place to stop for coffee. People like Carlo Goldoni, Casanova, and Goethe mention coming here. Later it became a literary haunt with Marcel Proust, Lord Byron and Charles Dickens sipping away while they read the newspaper.
The original rooms where these notables hung out were restored and redecorated in the 19th century in the completely over the top, sumptuous style that survives – untouched – today.
Each of the four main rooms are decorated in a completely different style and boast different themes. Each is furnished with original marble topped tables, chairs and velvet covered banquets. All boast original oil paintings framed in sparkling gold, brilliant light fixtures and details including bronze statues, wooden paneling and worn marble floors.
Yet for all it’s sparking splendor, the rooms are beyond cozy. Low ceilings, intimate scale and soft lighting make this a place I want to hang out in forever.
While the setting and history would be plenty to draw me in, there is, of course, coffee to be drunk. Even if you can have a straightforward espresso, cappuccino or tea, it’s kind of impossible not to fall hard for one of Florian’s special hot drinks. On a cold and wet Venetian day what can be better than having a white-coated water arrive at your table bearing a shining silver tray with a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee laced with zabaione and whipped cream? The muses perched on clouds that surround you only make everything taste better.
Piazza San Marco