Our first day in Venice had been spent on foot, exploring the narrow streets and delightful piazzas on the land. We wanted our second day to be completely different and so we took to the water instead, heading into Venice along the Grand Canal and then out to colourful Burano far away across the lagoon. I will try to describe for you how wonderful and magical it all was, but in the spirit of balanced reporting, I also have to tell you that some of it was not quite so magical…
Travelling by water bus in Venice
Getting around Venice any other way than on foot is an expensive proposition. A ride down the Grand Canal in a water taxi will set you back €60-70. They have a schedule of charges just like a normal taxi: €15 per journey plus €2 per minute thereafter, plus additional charges for extra people (above 4) and extra luggage. But for sheer excitement and luxury, it really can’t be beaten.
Another option is to take the vaporetto or water bus, which is what we did this time. These run up and down the Grand Canal and out to the other islands in the lagoon. These are not cheap either – a single journey of up to 75 minutes (you can get on and off during that time but must continue your journey in the same direction) now costs €7.50. Better value is the day ticket at €20 per person (€30 for 2 days, €40 for 3 days or €60 for 7 days), but for four people the price certainly adds up! And don’t expect any reductions for children: if they’re over 6 years old they need a full fare ticket.
Once we had forked out for our daily vaporetto tickets, we wanted to make the most of them so we started off with a trip all the way down the Grand Canal from Piazzale Roma where the bus dropped us off, to San Marco in the heart of the city.
Travelling by Vaporetto: The Good
The views as you pass along the Grand Canal are breathtaking. There are sumptuous palaces to gaze upon and marvel at, where the water laps up at their crumbling facades and peeling plaster. Then there is so much activity to watch: water taxis speeding past; gondolas slowly picking their way through all the traffic, heading for the quieter side canals; and delivery boats of every different shape and size all passing along the same stretch of water. We even saw an ambulance boat pass us with its siren wailing and lights flashing. There are no lanes like on a main road, which makes it all seem rather chaotic, and the vaporetto cross from side to side as they make their way along, which adds to the fun.
The journey takes you under all four of the Grand Canal’s bridges, including the famous white stone Rialto Bridge and the wooden Accademia bridge. The canal is lined with private houses and hotels which, for most of its length, have their facades right up to the waters edge. In just a few places you can walk alongside the canal itself and these areas are filled with busy cafés and restaurants and are packed with tourists, which also makes for interesting viewing.
In short, the Grand Canal in Venice is a magical sight, like nowhere else in the world, and you almost have to pinch yourself to make sure it is real.
Travelling by Vaporetto: the Not-So-Good
Even at this time of year, the vaporetto was uncomfortably crowded. We were asked to remove our backpacks and jostled with other passengers, many with baby buggies and luggage, trying to get a good view out at the grand palaces along the route. At each stop, we would all shuffle around as people tried to get on and off from the different sides of the boat. When we first got on board, there were a few empty seats inside we could’ve taken, but then what’s the point of making the journey if you can’t see out at the view and can’t hear the lapping of the water and feel the breeze on your face.
By the time we got to San Marco the vaporetto was so full you could hardly move. There is also nothing to hold onto and the boats do rock and sway quite a bit, especially as you arrive at and leave each stop. You are ok if you are lucky enough to get a spot at the side where you can hold onto the side of the boat, but if you end up in the mass in the middle, it can be a struggle to keep your balance at times.
In a way we were relieved to get off at San Marco, although it was almost as crowded in the square as on the boat. However, we did find ourselves a bench under the portico of the Doge’s Palace to stop to eat our picnic lunch. It was entertaining watching all the tour parties marching past whilst we ate: the selfie sticks were out in force and the queue for St Mark’s Basilica was growing ever longer as it snaked across the piazza in front of us.
On our last visit to Venice in 2014 we had gone out to the island of Murano where we had looked around some of the glass workshops and watched a glass blowing demonstration. This time we decided to venture further out into the lagoon to visit the island of Burano, which is famous for its handmade lace.
The Island of Burano
The ferries for Burano leave from Fondamente Nove on the north side of the city, and the journey takes about an hour, first stopping at Murano and then heading right out to the far reaches of the lagoon. Once again, the vaporetto was packed. The mist and grey clouds were gathering, turning everything a watery grey. And when we finally arrived at Burano, it was wonderful but disappointing all at the same time.
Burano: the Good
Burano is a delightful and colourful island. The houses are all painted in such vibrant colours – hot pink, deep purple, bright orange, royal blue, forest green and every colour in between – and these colours are reflected in the water of the canals creating beautiful views all around. If you head away from the main streets and square, you will find a community where people actually live, in contrast to Venice itself where it feels like most of the residents are tourists. And what a colourful environment in which to spend your days! I loved it! Apparently at one time the local government dictated the colour of the houses, but today each resident is free to choose whatever colour they like, and so the houses reflect the tastes and personalities of their owners. And judging by the immaculate state of most of them, the people here are very proud of their homes and their island.
Burano also has an incredible leaning tower, although we are beginning to realise that these are two-a-penny here in Italy. Constructed in the 17th century, it apparently didn’t lean until it was extended from 54 to 64 metres in height in 1774. Even then, the lean was almost imperceptible until one night about 50 years ago when it moved so far so rapidly that it made the bell toll.
Although the main street and squares were really busy, it was easy to get away from the crowds – just a short walk down one of the side streets and Burano was a different place. What I loved the most was the feeling that this was not just a tourist trap: people really live here and this could be seen by the washing hanging outside the houses and the children’s toys stashed in doorways or on windowsills.
Burano: the Not-So-Good
We had expected that at the far reaches of the lagoon, it might be quieter and more tranquil than in Venice itself, but we were wrong! As we stepped off the boat, Burano seemed more crowded than anywhere we had been that day. Every half hour or so, boat after overcrowded boat arrived from the city and disgorged its passengers onto the tiny island and as a result, it was heaving. I almost wanted to get right back on board and return to Venice. BUT I’m glad I didn’t as you didn’t have to walk far to get away from the crowds and there were plenty of quiet courtyards and colourful streets to enjoy.
We also saw some tourists at their worst and most inconsiderate, appearing, in their desire to get a good photo of themselves, to forget that these buildings were someone’s home. I felt keenly how the residents must see us all as a nuisance as well as a boon.
Burano, along with neighbouring Mazzorbo and Torcello, is part of an area that has been called ‘Native Venice’. These islands are the oldest inhabited parts of the lagoon. The cathedral on Torcello was founded in 639AD and people were living there long before what we today think of as Venice existed. Today, about 2750 people live on Burano, whilst there are only 9 official residents left on Torcello: in the 10th century, it had upwards of 10,000 inhabitants.
We had time before the next vaporetto to cross the wooden bridge from Burano to Mazzorbo and explore its quiet gardens and vineyards. It was beautifully peaceful. To our surprise, there was a Michelin starred restaurant out there called the Venissa. The vineyard is owned and run by Bisol, a family company better known for their Prosecco, who are producing wine using the golden Dorona grape, which is native to the lagoon area but which had almost died out in recent years.
It is only when you get further out into the lagoon that you get a glimpse of what it may have looked like before they started building the city of Venice. There are huge areas of semi-submerged land where birds are the only residents and you can imagine how hard it was for the first settlers to make their homes in this inhospitable environment.
The Foundations of the City
The girls kept asking how Venice was built and so we did some research into it and discovered that the whole city is built on a forest of wooden piles that have been driven into the lagoon. They were driven down through the silt and mud until they reached the layer of compressed clay beneath. Most of the wood came from the forests of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro and was transported to Venice by boat. Alder trees were favoured because their wood is naturally water resistant.
But why hasn’t the wood rotted over the years? Well, because the piles are submerged under the water, they are not exposed to oxygen. The lack of oxygen means that the microorganisms that would make them rot (like fungi and bacteria) are not present either, since they need oxygen to survive. Also, the constant flow of salt water around and through the piles petrifies the wood over time, turning it into a hard stone-like substance.
The piles were placed as close together as possible and stones were thrown in between them to stabilise them further. The tops of the piles were then levelled and two horizontal layers of wood placed on top. After this, a foundation layer of impermeable Istrian limestone was laid down and then the brick or stone buildings are constructed on top of this. The limestone layer helped to stop damp from seeping up through the walls of the building.
Despite the crowds, we had had another good day around Venice and its lagoon. It is one of the realities of visiting this city that you become one of the estimated 50,000 people who fill its streets and canals every day. Making the most of our vaporetto tickets, we made the return journey up the Grand Canal back to Piazzale Roma where we would catch our bus back to the campsite. It was late and starting to go dark, but at least the vaporetto was quieter and we managed to get a seat outside at the back.
It was interesting to see just how many of the palaces on the Grand Canal appeared to be empty, with no lights on and all the windows shuttered up. In those that did have lights on, you got glimpses of magnificent chandeliers and ceiling frescoes and it wasn’t hard to imagine how a trip along the canal would’ve looked when all these palaces were occupied and you could see lavish parties and balls happening behind their imposing facades. What a sight that would’ve been to see!