All aboard for a day at sea, stopping off at the islands of the Venetian lagoon that surround the world’s most ravishing city…
Venice is made up of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges, so island-hopping is possible on foot. But when you’ve seen the best of the centre, it’s time to make the most of Venice’s excellent public transport network and see the outer islands of the Venetian lagoon.
In Venice, the canals are the roads, so instead of cars, buses and taxis the way to get around is by waterbus, or vaporetto. These long, slim and always rammed barge-like boats cost a pricey €6.50 for a single ticket, but it makes sense to buy a pass in advance from www.veniceconnected.com to make huge savings. This is a rare example of value in such an expensive city. A 24 hour unlimited pass costs around €18 or for 48 hours it’s just €28. Get yourself a pass and a vaporetto map, and go exploring.
San Giorgio Maggiore
For the best views of central Venice, head to the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore. You can get here from the busy S. Zaccaria vaporetto stop on the waterfront beside St. Mark’s in about five minutes – it’s refreshing how quiet it is out here compared to the madness across the Canal Grande. The island has its own belltower and the queue to ascend it in a lift is well worth the wait and the €3 fee – you’ll pay more and wait longer for the belltower in St. Mark’s and you won’t get anywhere near as good a view.
Central Venice is split into six regions known as sestiere. From Fondamente Nove in the northern sestiere of Cannaregio, vaporetti leave for the northern islands. First stop is the cemetery island of San Michele.
Burials are forbidden in central Venice, so they take place on this designated graveyard at sea. As space is scarce, the bodies only remain here for a decade (unless a relative is prepared to pay for a longer term lease), after which they are dug up and removed to make space for the newly deceased. There are a few famous graves here, amongst them that of Helenio Herrera, the legendary manager who won the European Cup with Internazionale and Barcelona – his gravestone is in the shape of the trophy. I felt a bit uncomfortable walking round and taking photos while grieving families got off public boats to attend funerals, so it was time to move on…
Next stop is Murano – there are several vaporetto stops here so take your pick. The island is pleasant enough but as it’s so close to central Venice, it is over-run with daytrippers from the cruise ships which visit. The island is famous for its glass blowing and there are loads of shops selling glass souvenirs, many of which ominously have placards on their doors saying “We do not sell Chinese glass”. When you’ve had enough of Murano, make your way to Faro vaporetto stop next to the lighthouse – there’s a good cafe with a terrace if you have to wait a while for the boat for the next leg of your trip.
After leaving Murano, it’s a 50 minute journey to Burano – I don’t know what the safety record of vaporetti is like, but I’m pretty sure if ours had run into trouble I’d never get off alive – we were all standing and packed in like sardines so it’s not a comfortable trip.
But it’s worth it – you are unlikely to find a prettier island anywhere than Burano, with its brightly coloured houses in shades of pink, red, green and blue. Legend has it that years ago fishermen painted their houses so they could spot them when out at sea. Fishing is still pretty important here, almost as much as tourism, and you get the impression walking around the peaceful island that not a lot has changed here for centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the elderly Buranese have never set foot in central Venice, being so far away. The island is extremely popular but is still really quiet – there are canals here like on central Venice, so walking around and getting lost in side streets is a nice way to idle away an hour or so before settling down for a peroni in the main square, Piazza Galuppi.
Although the vaporetto to Burano is always packed, few people bother with its neighbour, sleepy Mazzorbo making it just about as close to off-the-beaten-track as you can get in the lagoon. It’s linked to Burano by a long wooden footbridge from where there are good views of the towers of Venice in the distance.
Torcello can only be reached by vaporetto from Burano, making it one of the more remote islands in the lagoon. But don’t let that make you think you’ll have it to yourself. It’s hard to believe Torcello had a population of 20,000 in the 14th century. Malaria struck and killed everyone – now there are only a handful of residents as well as the daily boatloads of tourists who walk along the island’s single track from the vaporetto stop to the cathedral and back. I’d have liked to have stayed here for longer, maybe enjoying a spritz (Venice’s signature drink – white wine, bitter Campari and sparkling water) in the sun at one of the few bars on the island. But there aren’t too many vaporetti out here, and I didn’t fancy swimming back to Venice.