I don’t know many things. One thing I do know, though, is that most things in life make sense looking back. Or, at the very least, they begin to make sense the moment I don’t look at them too closely. By taking a few steps back, I often have a better grasp of the whole picture. Distance affords clarity.
One day I realised that the cluster of islands that have become known as Native Venice are really no different. As a concept, they begin to take shape as you leave them behind on the Vaporetto n. 12. Even more so if you’re sitting in the back patio, on the seats that would normally be facing the inside of the boat. I know this is very specific now, but trust me. If you have the chance, sit there, and then turn around. Sit there and observe the boat as it makes its way through the Mazzorbo Canal towards the Fondamente Nove. You’ll soon begin to see these islands – Mazzorbo, Burano, and Torcello – not as separate entities but as a system. It’s hard to see this when you’re on the islands. But by gaining some distance, you notice how very interconnected they are, how very close, and, on the other hand, how many light-years exist between these and Venice. Again, this will only make sense as you leave them behind. The assumption, then, is that you’d spent some time exploring them first. The journey back can act as a moment of synthesis of what you experienced. So, let’s experience them first.
As it departs the main island, the number 12 takes an ample U-turn that unsettles the standers. It gains velocity as it passes the monumental cemetery of S. Michele and stretches its legs in the open water. Sitting by the window, I watch the lagoon sprawling and splashing down below, deep green and mirror-like, impenetrable to my eyes. A fable breeze comes in through the open windows in different degrees of pleasantness depending on where you stand on the whole colpo d’aria theory. A couple of ladies in front of me discuss the price of sardines at the Rialto market before moving on to vaccines. I let their rolling Venetian R’s lull me as I close my eyes and immerse myself in the thought of my upcoming destination.
Half an hour goes by before my stop is finally announced: Mazzorbo. Unsurprisingly, I am the only person to get off. The island is hardly a tourist hotspot – save for Venissa, where the fame of the cloistered vineyards, the quality of the cuisine and the quaint charm of the verdant outdoors has made heads turn over the years. From the vaporetto stop, I walk along the wide paved bank of Santa Caterina until I reach a gate, walk past the threshold and am surprised by a stretch of greenery that feels perfectly novel for Venice – a welcome change, not just of scenery, but of pace. Following the tiled pathway, I catch sight of fruits and flowers dangling from scattered trees, vines with cheerful foliage and tall grass between the rows. A medieval crooked bell tower looms over the garden like a quiet blessing, its shadow a sundial that sets the rhythm of life on the property.
I stroll through the allotment that is tended by the local community. At this time of year there are artichokes and the first hint of peas, both traditional products from these islands made better by the salt concentration in the soil. Exiting the property on the opposite side, I am faced with a long wood bridge that connects Mazzorbo to Burano. I can’t help but to think that they look like siblings holding hands. Except, they couldn’t be more different. Mazzorbo is, historically and currently, an island mostly devoted to gardening – its only other attractions being the Chiesa di Santa Caterina and the rational residential project designed by Giancarlo de Carlo in the eighties. The silence, the slow pace is palpable. Burano, on the other hand, is the island of fishermen and flashy-coloured houses. Lawn leaves way to paved courtyards, which locals occupy with chairs, brooms or impromptu barbecue grills.
Islands are such a great metaphor. For solitude, surely, but also for community, resilience and resourcefulness. Here, solitude seems to come and go with the tide. Winters are lonesome, long. Then, the warm season arrives, and day-trippers with it, and suddenly that solitude feels like a half-remembered dream as you see the 10:45 vaporetto unload a disproportionate amount of people onto the narrow canal-side promenades, only to pick them up again as the sun begins to dip into the still water of the lagoon.
Burano has seen a recent surge of fame – more than any islands in the Northern Lagoon – thanks to its very instagrammable, iconic looks. The colourful houses are the obvious reason people set foot on the island. Except, the experience often stops there, as if the houses were empty containers, staged purposefully like props in a theatre, actors hiding behind the (striped) curtains, rehearsing their lines or, more often, having no lines at all. You fill your picture-perfect sticker album and you leave.
Visiting in the low season, perhaps on a weekday or over a couple of days, affords a different perspective as you are a privileged witness of a chunk of reality that was invisible to the hurried eye. A reality that in so many ways has remained true to itself; a small world of crafts and colours and contentment.
About two thousand people remain on this dragée-like island north of Venice. Many of them are in the final chapter of their lives. Sitting by their front door, they watch their youth leave. But they don’t. They stay. With their cats and their boats and their clothes drying in the salty sea air, they stand last. And the reason why they stay is that there is nowhere else they’d rather be.
Locals aren’t immune to the beauty of their island. They love their bold colours, take pride in their quirkiness. They don’t blame people for wanting to see it, and actually seem to genuinely enjoy the flux. Isolation hasn’t made them surly. They are curious, open, affable, inquisitive, eager to be talked to. They smile a lot. The old adage that no man is an island very much applies here: their openness defeats any thoughts of isolation. And so, as I pass by once, twice, three times, they slowly begin to know me. And, in turn, I begin to know them.
It used to take four hours to row from Burano to Venice, I am told by a fisherman as I stop for coffee and a couple of bussolà buranelli biscuits on the high street known as la piazza – though technically not a square. “We used to have the best rowers; the faster you’d row, the quicker you’d get to the Rialto market, and the better a price for your fish you’d get”, he adds. Truly, Burano remains an island of fishermen and rowers. The voga alla veneta is still the sport of choice, and the island still boasts its champions in the yearly Voga Longa race, with the local remiera being a key reference point for the community. As for the fish, most of it is now sold in Venice, but some can be enjoyed in local restaurants such as Gatto Nero, or freshly caught when you choose to go out on an adventure in the open lagoon with a bragozzo, or through one of the many experiences catered to those who wish to witness these places at a slower pace and, better still, from the perspective from which they are best seen: the water.
As I loop back and make my way to the wood bridge to catch the motorboat that would take me to the island of Torcello, I sense the imposing presence of the church of Santa Maria Annunziata to my right. From the distance, it has a mysterious allure. Perhaps it carries the weight of being the first. The first in the lagoon, rebuilt three times, an unequivocal sign that Torcello happened before Rialto, that for a while it was the powerhouse of these waterlands. The boat driver tells me that there used to be something like two hundred churches on the island alone. Few are still standing. But what’s even more striking is the current number of inhabitants: nine. Nine people reside here. I hear this number and struggle to compute it. But then, as I set foot on the island and follow the bank that gets me closer to the basilica – assuming that’s the centre – I have visible, palpable proof of this quietness. Few houses. The bright-yellow, vintage-looking Locanda Cipriani with its pergola and its dappled light and tea garden and stories about Hemingway. The museum. The constantly-under-restoration churches, with their precious mosaics. A quirky antique shop. And then, marshes. A striking sense of wildness. Save for weekend visitors to the Locanda, this place remains dormant, beautifully unruly. I sit on the grass facing the lagoon to absorb the natural sounds of the islands. Seagulls. Boats in the distance. And little else.
It’s hard to picture it now, but there was a time in which these islands, these communities, used to be as influential as Venice itself. Then, through ecological changes and shifts in power, they slowly but surely lost their grip. They didn’t lose their identity, however. Their unity. Their pride in being the native part of this thousand-year-old civilisation, still standing straight. Fragile, but here. Ready to be witnessed by those who look to see.
Venissa – Mazzorbo
Casa Burano – Burano
Locanda Cipriani – Torcello
Trattoria al Gatto Nero – Burano
Trattoria da Romano – Burano
Locanda Cirpriani – Torcello
Venissa / Ristorante e Osteria – Mazzorbo
Martina Vidal – Lace – Burano
Panificio Constantini – Biscuits – Burano