Entering the world of the lagoon

Even in January, Venice is filled with tourists. While the Piazza San Marco holds architectural wonders, we wanted to continue to enjoy the quiet nooks of Venice wherever possible.

Deserted islands in the lagoon

The Venetian lagoon, at 520 square kilometers, is the world’s largest wetland. The islands are mostly empty, sporting bits of crumbling masonry from centuries gone by. They are used by the local population for picnics and for fishing. But there are a few islands where people live and one very important island for the dead.

We started the day on Cimitero di San Michele, the cemetery island.

The church of San Michele in Isola
Cimitero di San Michele, a sculpture of the dead being ferried to the island in a gondola

The Roman Catholic church of San Michele in Isola was built on the island in 1469, on the site of an older church and in 1807, during the French occupation, the island was selected as the site for the city’s cemetery. Napoleon had decreed that it was unsanitary to have a cemetery within the city boundaries, so all cities had to move their burials plots outside of the city walls.

It is a beautiful and peaceful place, with tall cypress trees and large topiaries. There are different sections – the sad children’s section, the Greeks and Protestants, the war veterans, the gondoliers. There were fresh flowers on many of the graves, and we shared the early morning boat with Venetians paying their respects. Cimitero di San Michele is the final resting place for a number of famous people who died in Venice, including Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev.

Photo and pointe shoes on Diaghilev's tomb
Diaghilev's tomb

The pointe shoes on Diaghilev’s tomb were fresh and clean – clearly recently renewed.

From Cimitero, we took the boat to Murano, the glass island. In 1291, the Venetian’s decided to move all glass making production to the island of Murano, for fear of the effects of a possible fire from glass factories in the main city. The expertise of the craftsmen flourished and by the 16th & 17th centuries it was the world centre for glass production. Murano trained craftsmen were not permitted to leave the island – anyone doing so was proclaimed a traitor. Today, the island caters to the tourist trade, with tours of the glass blowing facilities and stores selling an overabundance of mass market glass beads and knick knacks. In and amongst these, however, there are still fine craftsmen, producing unique and collectable art.

Coming in the off-season, we were not harassed by glass salesmen and could enjoy walking around the island.

The Grand Canal in Murano

The Murano Grand Canal weaves lazily through the town. There’s a great museum on the history of glass, the Museo dell’Arte Vetrario, housed in the 17th century Palazzo Giustinian. With huge glass chandeliers, a great exhibit of early Roman glass, and fabulous contemporary pieces, the museum helped us to see past some of the tacky glass shops to the history and beauty of glass.

From Murano, we took the boat to the small island of Mazzorbo. Mazzorbo has no claim to fame, other than to be a quiet and tranquil place to live. It was settled around the 10thcentury, but is not at all built up.

The quiet church of Santa Caterina on Mazzorbo

There are quiet garden plots, and little fishing boats. The 14th Century church of Santa Caterina still has its original bell, dating from 1318, making it one of the oldest in Europe. Apparently Winston Churchill, amongst many others, came here regularly to paint. Yet you can walk through Mazzorbo in about 10 minutes, cross the lovely wooden bridge and arrive at the island of Burano.

Burano is the lace island. It had a thriving lace industry in the 16th century, and an important lace making school in the 18thcentury, but today is mostly known for it’s colourful houses.

Looking from Mazzorbo to the colourful houses on Burano

The apocryphal story is that local fishermen all painted their houses bright colours so that they could see them from out in the lagoon. Apparently the colours are highly regulated now, and owners must apply to the local government to find out which colour they are permitted to paint. Because we were visiting in the off-season, the island was even quieter than normal.

The colourful houses on the quiet canals of Burano

We found a great place to have some lunchtime pasta, but the charm of the island was mostly in the walking amidst such exuberant and vibrating colours.

From Burano we took the ferry to Torcello, said to be the birthplace of modern Venice.

Walking into quiet Torcello

It was founded in the 5th century by citizens of the town of Altino, fleeing from the mainland. In the 14thcentury there were 20,000 people living on the island. But it is the most boggy and marshy of the islands, and inhabitants suffered from the excessive mosquito population and thus plagues of malaria. Today the island is home to about 100 residents. In tourist season there are a couple of lovely places to eat, but when we arrived everything was closed and shuttered. It was late in the afternoon and we were just in time to enter the church of Santa Maria Assunta, one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the churches we saw in our time in Venice.

The church of Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta dates from 639 and has amazing floor, vault and wall mosaics dating from the 9th to the 12th century. A huge Romanesque/Byzantine wall mosaic of the Last Judgment covers one whole wall of the church and shows pictures of the blessed and damned, of heaven and hell. Sitting on the edge of a small, virtually deserted island, the church had a magical and spiritual feel that was stronger than all of the huge cathedrals in Venice combined.

Sunset over the canal of Torcello

We walked back to the vaporetto dock into a magnificent sunset. We left the deep, murky mysteries of the lagoon and headed back on into the city, “the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone.” –Erica Jong. We had travelled far.

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” –Giuseppe Verdi

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