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An Eye On The Crowd

March 17, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan is The Times' urban design critic and

There have been times in my travels when I have felt that I simply could not take one more step. Whether it was after climbing the Seven Hills of Rome or hiking up Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, all I have wanted to do was to collapse into a chair or onto a bench.

But not merely any chair in any cafe, or any bench in any park or plaza. Finding the right place to catch your breath--or just wanting to sit down after a stroll--can offer a marvelous opportunity to absorb distinct flavors in any city. Indeed, it can even make you feel a part of the city rather than a transient observer.

It has had that effect on me.

Some of my most pleasant memories are of sitting in a particular cafe or plaza, enjoying a coffee or aperitif, immersing myself into the local scene and generally feeling very cosmopolitan watching the fascinating parade of people against a historical backdrop.

A list has emerged of favorite spots to which I keep returning each time I visit a particular city. There is something to be said of continuity and tradition, if only to help one judge time and change.

The list is select and arbitrary, leaning toward my prejudices--as an urban design critic--for vistas and historical landmarks, my love of cities, the animated scenes that lend them character and, not the least, my continuing affection for food and drink.

Leading this list is St. Mark's Square in Venice, the Piazza San Marco. Cliche as it may be, overrun by travelers as it has been for 500 years, the San Marco still has to be one of the greatest places in the world in which to sit while soaking up a sense of history and watching all shapes, sizes, colors, breeds and styles of mankind meander by.

Sitting in the piazza, sipping a cappuccino while indulging in a casual conversation with a companion, glancing at the Campanile--the 324-foot bell tower built in the 10th Century and wondering whether it will collapse again as it did in 1902--gives meaning to the inscription on select Venetian sundials: Horas non numero nisi serenas --"I count only the happy hours."

The piazza is particularly seductive at night from May through September, when sea breezes drift in off the Adriatic to cool the gathering crowd, lights play against the arcaded facades casting haunting shadows, and the sky above twinkles, as do the eyes of the strollers.

With no cars or motor scooters to mar the setting, it is easy to think of oneself as being transmitted back in time to when Venice was the greatest, most powerful city on earth and its citizens and visitors were privileged to be able to sit in the piazza and pass judgment on the world.

If only the competing small orchestras would confine their repertoire to the works of such period composers as Vivaldi, instead of pandering to tips by playing such tunes as "Peg o' My Heart." Perhaps they play such tunes merely to remind us that nothing is perfect in this imperfect world.

Of the various cafes in San Marco that extend into the piazza, my favorite is the Cafe Florian. My allegiance stems from the fact that the cafe was patronized by such notables as Rousseau, Byron, Goethe and George Sand and has an orchestra that leans toward Vivaldi. And, if it happens to drizzle or gets too cold, you can retreat into an interior that is pure 19th-Century glitz.

But when all the good tables at the Florian are taken, or if you merely want to get another perspective of the piazza and an overpriced dessert or drink elsewhere, the Cafe Quadri and the Grand Cafe are two fine alternatives. Find a seat, rest your feet, sigh, survey the grandeur of the piazza and let your hours there be happy ones.

In Rome, the Piazza Navonna with its three magnificent fountains may be grander, the Piazza del Popolo at the convergence of four of the city's busiest streets more vital, the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere friendlier and the Piazza dei Campidoglio (designed by Michelangelo) better detailed, but I prefer the Piazza della Rotunda.

It is not because I have a favorite cafe or bar there. None of the piazza's three or four is particularly distinctive. Their espressos and ice creams are about the same, which is to say that you can get much better quality for less money elsewhere. My preference is due to the Pantheon, which dominates the piazza. First constructed by order of Agrippa in 27 BC and rebuilt by Hadrian about 150 years later, the Pantheon is Rome's best-preserved classical building, having served a variety of gods for about 2,000 years. Its monumental entrance, framed by 16 towering granite columns, is one of architecture's most powerful statements. The building is, in a word, awesome, especially considering when it was built, what it has endured and what scenes must have transpired in and around it.

In addition to its view of the Pantheon, I like the piazza's more intimate scale. It makes for a good place to meet someone. You will not get lost looking for each other, as can happen in the much larger Navonna.

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