Lagoon dreams: Venice, Burano & Torcello

Saturday, October 20th, 2012. Filed under: Architecture Destination Guides Europe Italy Legendary Landscapes

A quiet Sunday morning in Venice, Italy.

I’ve dreamed of the lagoon since returning from Venice, dreamt of jade water shivering as it crosses sandbars, spangled with sun diamonds.

The Grand Canal, Venice, Italy

Though we rented a car for several days to explore, we left it at the hotel that Sunday morning and took Bus 19 (about a 15-minute ride, 1.30 Euro) from our hotel in Campalto into Venice. Riding over the causeway with anticipation, smelling the sea, we jumped off in Piazzale Roma and grabbed all-day all-island transit passes (18 Euro) at the vaporetto ticket booths near the new Calatrava Bridge. Then we were sailing down the Grand Canal, watching Venice wake up.

The Grand Canal near Rialto Bridge (1592).

Gothic houses along the Grand Canal.

Early morning scene on a September Sunday.

I had been to Venice before (in winter, best time to see paintings without heads in the way), Pat never. I wanted him to see the Basilica di San Marco early when the morning sun angles in and illuminates its 8500 square metres of gold mosaic. Tip: on Sunday mornings the church is only open for mass; visitors are welcome to attend mass but photography and roaming around are not permitted. It was well worth 5 Euro, though, to climb the narrow staircase to the Loggia dei Cavalli (balcony of the horses). Not only were there spectacular views of the square and the Doges’ Palace, we got a close-up view of the mosaics. I found myself at the feet of plum-robed Judas, hanging from his mosaic tree for over 950 years. Up close, the mosaics are even more impressive: 24-carat gold embedded in glass, the handmade tesserae so small the surface shimmers like precious sand.

Approaching St. Mark’s Square from the water.

The Doges’ Palace was built in Venetian Gothic style (begun 1340).

The Palazzo Ducale is faced with white Istrian stone and pink Veronese marble.

The Basilica di San Marco is a Byzantine design that took nearly 800 years to complete.

Mosaic detail, Basilica di San Marco.

On the Loggia dei Cavalli, Basilica di San Marco.

When two cruise ships dumped their passenger loads into St. Marks’ Square, we wandered two bridges over and jumped a boat headed for islands east: Burano and Torcello. It was a glorious September day and we enjoyed a dreamy hour’s chug through the lagoon. There were many pleasurecraft on the water and only later did we realize we’d happened upon the Sagra del Pesce (festival of fish) and the Burano Regatta. Always held the third Sunday in September, the Burano Regatta is the last boat race of the season and a great excuse for everyone to have a day out and stuff on fried seafood and white wine.

Getting away from it all on a vaporetto.

The island of Burano.

Houses on Burano are brightly painted to help fishermen find their way in the fog.

A long, lazy lunch later, we took a five-minute ride to little Torcello, once a Byzantine commercial centre of 20,000 inhabitants, now a grassy peaceful home to about two dozen people. Inside Santa Maria Assunta, a massive 12th-century mosaic of the Last Judgment offers both warning and reassurance: if you suffer death by wild elephant far from home or drown out on the lagoon, don’t worry, angels will come and find you. Lessons of the mosaic’s ‘hell’ corner are especially memorable, depicting gluttons chewing on their own hands (eek) and the angry drowning in black waves of their own wrath.

Burano is famous for its lace and everything inside Riva Rosa Ristorante is the hue of vintage lace, including the island’s signature dish, risotto made with broth of local Go fish.

A huge pile of fritto misto, then a boat ride to Torcello to see mosaic gluttons burn in hell.

As we strolled back along Torcello’s canal past Devil’s Bridge and the Locanda di Cipriani where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote, I mused on how I’d managed to end up at another Hemingway haunt, the fourth this year if I counted Toronto (where – at 20 years old – he was a reporter for the Toronto Star) along with Key West and Cuba.

Devil’s Bridge, the island of Torcello.

Vintage tunes played on a vintage Manfrini accordion, Sunday afternoon, Torcello.

The 12th century Church of Santa Fosca, Torcello.

Detail, Church of Santa Fosca, Torcello.

Despite warnings that the regatta would mess up our return via Burano, there seemed to be more carousing than boating going on and we managed to grab a sunset cruise back to Venice via Murano. Honestly, given the logistics, we were amazed at how well public transportation in Venice and around the lagoon worked, especially for a Sunday. Without any detailed plans or map, we made easy connections in Venice and around the lagoon, figuring out routes on the fly. A carefree afternoon on the dreamy Venetian lagoon.

If you’d like to learn to row, row, row your boat like a Venetian, Jane Caporal of Row Venice can teach you how. This prairie girl wasn’t inclined to attempt it but found out that women on the water are far from a recent development in Venice. The Museo Correr holds a 1794 portrait of Maria Boscola, mother of five and market gardener who regularly rowed her produce from Chioggia to the Rialto markets (about 25 km) in a caorlina (a six-oared vessel about 10 metres long). In the painting, by artist unknown, Maria holds pennants from five regattas she won between 1740 and 1784.

Portrait of famed rower Maria Boscola (1794 by unknown artist), Museo Correr, Venice

Venice is full of surprises. One of them is aqua alta, or high tide. Even in September there was an inch or two of water lapping at the door of St. Mark’s. Three weeks later, 10% of Venice was under water. When to go? Decide whether you’d rather wade through tourists or water. I loved Venice in the winter when fog filled empty piazzas and it was easy to find a quiet, budget room just a few streets from the train station. September was glorious but, this time around, I was very glad to have booked rooms outside of Venice, far from the maddening crowds and heartclutching high-season room rates.

Hotels: I thought Mestre (the classic alternate bedroom town) looked like a pile of concrete and smelled like traffic fumes. Much quieter was Campalto, about 15 minutes away from Venice by bus. The Hotel Marco Polo was an excellent budget find serving substantial breakfasts; the hotel is easy to find, it’s a large pink building on SS14, the bus route between Marco Polo airport and Venice. On our return from Sicily, we stayed at the Park Hotel Annia near the airport, enjoying a last cushy night in a two-level chalet-style room and good supper and breakfast on site. We would definitely book at both of these hotels again.

Car or public transit?  Venice was a stopover for us on our way to Sicily so we rented a car for a few days to explore and to facilitate transfers between Venice’s Marco Polo airport and the airport at Treviso (which Ryanair uses). We left the car at the hotel when we went into Venice; public transit in and out is the easier option. On our return from Italy, we used airport shuttles to get from Treviso into Venice’s Piazzale Roma where we bought tickets at a booth for the shuttle bound for Marco Polo airport. There, we were picked up by the Hotel Annia’s shuttle.  All in all, I’d say that unless you’re planning to explore the Veneto wine region or Palladio villas in the countryside, a car rental is not necessary in the Venice area. Venice has the most efficient public transit system I’ve experienced in Italy, comparatively inexpensive and surprisingly efficient considering they are dealing with boats, buses, airports and a huge tourist load. Despite 21st-century concerns, Venice sails on, still La Serenissima.

Venice’s gorgeous green lagoon.

And for tips on what to do in Venice when it rains, see Wandering Carol’s Luxury Travel Blog: Always a fun mix of hijinks and high style.

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