Island hopping

Away from the hustle of Venice, Peter Munro explores the Venetian Lagoon, where he finds artisans and quiet cafes.

The ticket-seller shoots me a queer look when I ask to visit Vignole, one of the lonelier islands of the Venetian Lagoon. "Why you want to go there? There is nothing," he says, before happily taking my fare. It's a hot and hazy morning in Venice and already there's a queue for the water bus. The picture-postcard streets are teeming with tourists turning maps, taking photos and feeding dirty pigeons.

The 30-minute ferry trip from Venice to Vignole is a lesson in death and life on the lagoon. First stop is the floating cemetery of San Michele, where a boatload of widows bearing scrubbing brushes and bouquets of daisies unloads in silence to tend the graves. The stocky old women wear their grief like sensible shoes, trotting up the gangplank in single file onto the island, the last stop for Venetians since the early 1800s.

Something about their thick stockings and dull, resigned faces reminds me of a church service. The island's dead are packed in behind high brick walls. Resting places for new residents are scarce. To make space, bodies are exhumed after a decade and burnt, and the ashes reinterred in compact slots in a wall.

The ferry motors on to the glass-making island of Murano, where the neat streets have been swept clean for the morning's tourist trade. Rough shards of glass - in red, purple, orange and green - are stuck to the tops of stone fences to stop intruders. It's probably the most colourful and vicious crime-prevention strategy I have seen.

Artistic glass has been made on Murano since the 13th century but tourism is the main trade today, says Matti Mian, who works for the local glass certification group. Most restaurants on the island open for lunch and close for dinner, when the tourists have floated back to Venice, he says.

As we walk along the main canal, past shops selling gaudy glassworks for €1 ($1.30) each, he points to where a hotel is being built on the site of an old glass factory. Perhaps it will tempt tourists to stay - but for now the island is like a fragile theme park that shuts overnight.

"When it is 6pm there is nothing to do, the island almost closes - it's pretty," he says. Mian's grandfather was a Murano glassmaker but his father instead became a wedding photographer and further bucked tradition by being cremated straight away at San Michele when he died, perhaps to save on time and fuss.

"Venice is ringed by a series of dead cities, each representing a Venetian possibility that aborted," the miserable American author Mary McCarthy once wrote of the lonelier islands of the lagoon.

Advertisement

I suspect she would have thought little of the saw-toothed island of Vignole, where the ferry stop is set between a narrow canal and empty green fields. Life here is not so much aborted as still-born. Walking ahead of me down a dirt path are three hairy builders hauling bags of concrete. One of them has a tattoo of a fallen angel on his right calf. Then they turn down a driveway and I am alone, listening to the lonely calls of howling dogs and sparrows.

There's no one in sight as I cross a small wooden bridge by a boarded-up church and turn right towards the Trattoria alle Vignole, one of only two restaurants on the island. Two days ago I had never heard of the island despite its position so close to Venice. A tip from a stranger one night about a restaurant popular with locals has brought me to this dirt path alongside patches of pumpkins and zucchini. The smell of fresh-cut grass and rosemary reminds me of Sunday mornings. Over the water drifts the pealing of the Venetian bells.

The view from the shore is of Venice's rear end, gusseted by working docks, building cranes and a naval base. It's a side of the city you rarely see.

Vignole is similarly dressed down for the day. Fishing boats are docked in mud at low tide, near where the bay opens to the Mediterranean Sea.

The trattoria lies behind a row of pine trees and potted geraniums. I order grilled fish and a glass of house white wine from a long counter and sit on a plastic chair at an empty wood table with a paper tablecloth. A mirror ball hangs from a tall green tree above but the setting is refreshingly short on glitz. After a short wait I hear my name called over a loudspeaker: my meal is ready.

There's something familiar about a meal being announced by speaker system - I could be waiting for a schnitzel at my local pub. But here the food is simple and fresh and good, and I could happily spend a day in the sun under the trees, within sight of Venice but nowhere near it at all.

But the tourist's temptation is to forever move on. The ferry continues from here to Sant'Erasmo, an island of motor scooters and fierce women who cut the queue at the small supermarket and dare you to complain. The island is ringed by a neat wall, scrubbed clean of moss and mildew. The streets are empty.

Better to take the ferry back to Murano and change for a slow boat to the outer islands of the lagoon. And so I do the next day.

Nobody seems to know how many people live on the sickle-shaped island of Torcello, the oldest continuously populated island in the Venetian lagoon. Locals debate just how low their stocks are. Akim Francesca pauses to think while keeping check on a dog as big as a pony by her family's Villa '600 restaurant, one of only a few restaurants dotted among the island's green marshes.

Torcello's population is 14, she says, finally. "We have many tourists in the hours of morning and afternoon but at six or seven everything closes. It's quiet, it's good for some people who want to live in peace," she says. "Everyone looks, looks, looks and goes away."

A waiter at the nearby Locanda Cipriani, where I stop for lunch, reckons on a different sum. "It's 17 or 19, I am not sure."

We agree to settle on fewer than 20 people - certainly it's no great number. A summer storm breaks as I settle on the back terrace, amid a lush garden of tulips, roses, dahlias and golden pomegranate trees. The big fat droplets of rain send well-dressed diners scurrying for cover. In the bathroom, a man in a cravat, striped shirt, navy slacks and boating shoes is stooped under the hand-dryer, tousling his damp hair in the heat.

At the bar is an old man channelling Hemingway, his white beard almost iridescent against boot-polish brown skin. Papa - who got around a bit, it must be said - stayed in one of the simple, handsome rooms upstairs in 1948 and passed the cold months duck-hunting and writing. His photo is framed on the wall by the bathroom next to Elton John's - two people I might never have expected to sit well together.

Mary McCarthy saved her worst scorn for this "pestilential island": "Only God, you feel, would have commanded a city to be set here on this flat, mournful prairie, barely afloat in the marshy lagoons."

But a lazy afternoon here is an earthy delight. The bread is nutty and good. Despite the restaurant's pedigree, lunch is pared back and fresh: scampi with an artichoke salad; pasta with scallops and zucchini; fish with grilled vegetables.

The sun has reappeared by the time dessert is served - a biscuity cone stuffed with mascarpone and strawberries.

Looming over the garden is the oldest building in the lagoon: the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 after Italians fled nearby mainland cities in retreat from barbarians and washed up here.

Eventually, they moved on to Venice, and Torcello was all but abandoned.

It's quiet here today, too. Beyond the church walls is an empty field of flowers and tall grass, which reminds me how little green you see in Venice, where most of the gardens are locked behind palace walls. But few Venetians would think of living somewhere like Torcello - it's too far, too quiet and too inconvenient, they tell me, with no shops, schools or people.

They could never imagine standing in an empty field and feeling content. The crowds of people, the tourists, the sound of suitcases rolling along pavers stained with chewing gum don't seem to bother Venetians. Tourist Venice, to them, is Venice - they seem to like living on show.

A short ferry ride from Torcello takes me to the island of Burano, which seems to exist only for the tourist trade. The bright-painted houses - which track back to a legend about fishermen needing to navigate their way home from sea at night - shine like a children's sweet shop in Disneyland. I can practically feel my teeth rotting as I walk through the main square, past short, simple buildings tarted up in bright blues, purples and greens.

People here dress as brightly as their homes, as if the buildings have bled into the locals. Tea towels drying on the clothes lines stretched between homes are glowing with colour.

I walk past a clothes shop called Neverland. And walking in Burano indeed feels like being lost in some fantastical confection. Two American women stop on a bridge over a canal to photograph the front of a freshly-coated candy pink house. "What colour would I choose? I would choose orange," says one.

I spy three old ladies making lace in the front door of a blue house, their chairs turned away from the street. But there are few locals in sight. Walking along empty side streets, I hear whispered conversations and televisions playing behind closed doors.

Perhaps there is life here that is not on show for tourists. I am told that many locals wait politely, like night birds, for the strange people to leave before coming out to play and eat and drink aperitifs in the gloaming. I reckon they might have wardrobes of grey and brown smocks ready for when they clock off, putting aside their rainbows for the next day's trade.

It seems a shame to have to return to Venice and miss the drab show.

Peter Munro travelled courtesy of Qatar Airways.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qatar Airways has a fare for about $2145 from Melbourne to Venice. You fly to Doha (14hr) and then to Venice (6hr 20min). Sydney passengers pay about $100 more and fly Virgin to connect.

Staying there

Locanda Cipriani, on the island of Torcello, has five simple but handsome rooms overlooking a beautiful garden and cathedral. Bed and breakfast rooms cost from €130 ($173) a person or €180 with dinner. See locandacipriani.com.

Hotel Saturnia, in Venice, is slightly shambolic but has good breakfasts and an excellent location five minutes' walk from Piazza San Marco. Rooms cost from €150. See hotelsaturnia.it.

Eating there

Trattoria alle Vignole, on the island of Vignole, is a rare treat removed from the crowds. On a fine day you can enjoy a no-fuss meal outdoors with good views across the water to Venice. Closed Mondays. See trattoriaallevignole.com.

Locanda Cipriani, on Torcello, is suitably famous for serving good, fresh food. The best tables are on the outdoor back terrace, near the vegetable garden, herbs and flowers. Closed Tuesdays. See locandacipriani.com.

Touring there

A 12-hour waterbus ticket, which covers all the islands, costs €16, or €18 for 24 hours. The best point of departure for the islands of Vignole, Torcello and Burano is Fond Nuove.

Comments