When you travel to Venice, it’s easy to tramp around the narrow streets of the historic centre, getting lost at every turn and not caring because everything you see is beautiful, magical and wonderfully old. And at the end of the day, if your feet are aching and your eyes are popping out with an overload of looking, you can sit in an outdoor café sipping on a Spritz or a Bellini and gaze out over the water of the lagoon to relax.
But the lagoon deserves a bit more attention than just that. It’s because of the lagoon and its many tiny islands that Venice is even here. Take time to hop on a boat and see a little more than just the Piazza San Marco.
Venice spreads over 118 islands. It has over 400 bridges. And a lot of boats. Vaporetto, the steadfast workhorse ferries; taxis, the expensive, wooden glamour queens; and barges carrying food in and garbage out, stacks of suitcases belonging to tourists, furniture belonging to relocating locals, and tree trunks to be sunk deep into the mud replacing rotting pylons and markers.
Speedboats, the Venetian family car, weave in and out, dogs surefooted on their decks, barking to signal ownership of the canals. Oh, and then there are the gondolas. None of them is privately owned anymore – the last was Peggy Guggenheim’s and she died in 1979. These days gondolas are an expensive tourist treat but the best way to see Venice as it has been seen for hundreds of years – from low on the water of the narrow canals. The palazzos turn their best face to the water. If you can’t afford a gondola ride take a Grand Canal boat tour or a tronchetto across the Grand Canal: slightly larger than a gondola, they’re just as much a Venetian tradition.
Venice day trip: Murano, Burano, Torcello
Further out into the lagoon, the main islands to visit are Murano, Burano and Torcello. You can get there by vaporetto, or take a tour. I took Viator’s half day tour to Murano, Burano & Torcello.
The boat left from the dock at San Marco near the Royal Gardens. These gardens are a great respite from the relentless stone of the city. Venice has trees but most of them are hidden away in private gardens or up the other end at the Giardini so the Royal Gardens tucked beside San Marco are a godsend for those of us who like cool leafy respite from the hot summer sun.
You have to a bit alert: the tour guide wasn’t about to look for stragglers. She appeared on the dock, gave one barely decipherable shout-out and headed back to the boat where she herded us on board. The boat left immediately.
Unfortunately there was no outside seating – we were all shut in the cabin. Probably so we could hear her commentary. And also the boat was small compared to a vaporetto and hit higher speeds when we reached further into the lagoon so we all would have got a good soaking.
I’m always impressed by how many languages everyone in Europe can speak. The guide said everything in Italian, English and German – and managed to send many SMS at the same time! This multi-tasking did leave her a little unable to veer outside the standard travelogue of information but there was plenty to look at along the way. Although it would have been nice to have a little more information about what some of it was…
One of the greatest surprises was a huge elephant (mastodon?) raising its trunk on the tip of one island we passed. Then I remembered the art Biennale was on and figured it was part of that. I don’t think Venice was home to a lot elephants, although who knows what Marco Polo brought back from his travels.
First stop: Murano
Our first stop was Murano, the island famous for its glass factories. They used to be on the mainland but set fire to too much of the city too many times so were exiled to this island in 1291.
Nowadays Murano is home to about 4,000 people. In its heyday, around the 16th century, it had 30 000 residents and was the summer retreats for rich Venetians who built their holiday palaces and lush gardens here. In fact, Murano had Italy’s first botanical gardens.
Our boat pulled up at a dock right outside one of the glass foundries and we went inside. A couple of glass blowers gave us a demonstration and it was amazing. Blogs of molten glass were taken out of the fire, rolled in gold leaf, pulled with pliers, blown through a long pipe and suddenly we were looking at a delicate branch for a chandelier! Another man made a beautiful blue and red vase but accidentally broke it just as he was finishing it off: we all groaned.
But it showed just how fragile these things are. To make up for it, he took a blob of clear glass and pulled it like toffee until it made a leaping horse. To really impress us, he put a piece of paper against it when he finished and smoke rose as the paper burst into flames – that’s how hot this stuff is!
It takes 10 years to master the art of making proper Venetian glass. It’s such a specialised art that in centuries past glassmakers were forbidden to leave Venice, and if they looked likely to betray industry secrets they were killed!
These days the handmade glass is expensive and the industry is dying out. We were shown through to the shop and encouraged to spend to help keep the industry alive. I bought a ring. The chandelier I liked just wouldn’t fit into my bag.
Next stop: Torcello
Immediately we were back on the boat and on the way to our next stop: Torcello. If you go to Murano by vaporetto you’ll have time to explore the island itself, well worthwhile. There are couple of lovely churches, other glass workshops to visit, and streets and gardens to explore. And you can stop by the cemetery island San Michele to pay homage to those Venetians not interred in the churches. It’s a quick and easy ride so you can do this even if you’ve already taken an islands tour.
Torcello is the island of the original settlement, where fisherman escaping the marauding Germanic peoples at the end of the Western Roman Empire took refuge around AD 421. More people moved to the safety of the swampy islands as the Huns under Attila headed their way along with the Lombards. Even then, everyone was heading to Venice!
Torcello is low lying and grassy giving an idea of what the islands of the lagoon looked like before they were covered with grand palazzo. And what Venetians looked like before they wore suits and carried briefcases! Sun-weathered men wearing old cut off jeans were digging a vegetable garden and looking like they would not have been out of place in a painting by Titian.
From the boat dock it’s about a five to ten minute walk to the cathedral and church. Once this island had a population of 20 000, its own bishop, shipyards and laws. These days it has 21 residents, a couple of restaurants – which look lovely with peaceful shaded courtyards – a museum, and some houses scattered around. Oh, and good clean public restrooms – keep some coins in your pocket for entry.
The cathedral, the Basilica S. Maria Assunta is the oldest building in the lagoon. It costs 4 euros to go inside – the next door church is free – but it’s worth it, although we didn’t have long to look around. The raw brickwork, wooden ceilings and old, old artworks are a contrast to the ornate churches in central Venice.
Last stop: Burano
In Burano we had a little more time to absorb the atmosphere. Our guide took us to a lace shop to watch an old lady making an intricate design with a traditional lace stitch. It takes months to make even the smallest piece and each lace-maker specialises in a particular stitch. Not surprising then that a lot of the lace currently for sale in Venice is knocked up in factories far far away. Another example of Venice’s traditional crafts becoming too expensive for the modern world.
Burano’s other claim to fame is its colour: every house is painted a bright shade of blue, yellow, pink, purple. Put this with the washing flapping in the breeze, the window boxes of red geraniums, and the painted saints in their wall niches and you feel like you’re at a permanent festival.
I was lucky to see inside the church before it closed at noon. The tour boat pulled in about five minutes before, so rush to the church if you want a chance to look before the priest throws you out. Then I just wandered. And got totally lost as you do in Venice; luckily Burano is small and I didn’t miss my boat back.
Returning to the main city, about a 40-minute ride, we saw Venice as it’s meant to be seen: rising from the sea. The main churches cluster here: San Marco and the Doges’ Palace, Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore, and Il Redentore, welcoming and impressing seafarers.
Then it was back into the winding cluster of streets. But with a much better idea of what this must have looked like 500 years ago. And the pleasant feeling of having had a bit of wind in my hair and sea air in my lungs.