I had actual plans for my second day in Venice and although they mostly consisted of “wandering around”, I was going to venture to some of the outlying islands and explore some of the quieter areas. Many visitors to Venice don’t leave the windy alleys and magical canals of the main city but with two full days to explore – because one day wandering Venice felt like more than enough – I was off for Burano and Murano.
To reach the islands you have to go by vaporetto, which translates to “water bus”. This is the main method of public transportation in Venice, used by locals and tourists alike. I suspect this is another point of contention in the local versus tourist battle as there are signs everywhere which encourage visitors to be respectful of the locals. You can buy several different lengths of pass but I settled for the 12 hour pass at €18. I took a vaporetto from the Piazzale Roma to the first island, Murano, a relatively short trip.
Murano is well known for its glass making, specializing in hand blown glass. Once you step off the vaporetto there are a number of people waiting, encouraging you to visit their glass making factory and, of course, their glass shop. I joined a group and headed down along the island, the guide being smart enough to suss out who amongst us would likely spend money on glass products and giving them special one on one attention. I did not receive this attention, but a couple of well dressed middle aged women with American accents did.
The demonstration was quick but informative with the artists producing drinking glasses, the molten glass coated in other glass pieces to create a multicolour pattern. The shop was nice, displaying glass figurines, pieces of jewellery, vases and dishware. I was not buying anything, for obvious reasons, but it was interesting to see what they could make out of glass. As I ventured around the island I noticed that there were varying levels of artistry on display – some shops displayed only the standard glass items but others went above and beyond with glass zombies, glass dinosaurs or glass devils. Many of the stores had signs advising that their prices could be a bit higher due to the fact that they only use real Murano glass… it appears that counterfeiting is a problem in Venice beyond imitation handbags.
The public art in Murano was also glass based – I suppose their weather doesn’t get too bad – and looked bright and refreshing against the old stone buildings. A nice change from the normal statues and monuments, yet it made more sense than the contemporary art scattered around Salzburg.
I had an old map of vaporetto lines, kindly provided by the ticket booth, and although I was planning to head further out (to Burano), the map showed that I had to backtrack to Venice to catch yet another vaporetto. This was also recommended by the woman at the ticket booth, so I assumed she knew what she was talking about. Imagine my surprise when the vaporetto I took to Burano then stopped at Murano again. Rookie mistake, but it did give me another 20 minutes or so on the water.
Burano is famous for its lace production, but also for its bright colourful houses. Where Murano, and Venice, have homes made of stone in muted, natural colours, in Burano they are colourfully painted. So colourful, in fact, that I really think that they surpass St. John’s in terms of colour saturation. Bright blues, yellows, magentas and reds dotted the streetscape (canalscape?) while even the duller coloured houses got into the spirit with flower boxes of bright, healthy blooms. It was a photographer’s paradise.
Unlike Murano, no one met us at the vaporetto stop to visit a lace making workshop. I’m not even sure if it’s an art that can be easily demonstrated due to the intricacy of the designs. There were numerous artists workshops scattered around the island making everything from ceramics to pop art. I can see how living in such bright, colourful surroundings would be inspiring. It’s also a bit isolated as it took us close to 35 minutes on the vaporetto from Murano.
One thing that surprised me about the outlying islands is how populated they felt. Venice, as I mentioned yesterday, felt empty and abandoned with a certain feeling of melancholy spilling over the banks of the canals. Murano and Burano, meanwhile, seemed to be bustling with life – well tended gardens, beautiful flowerboxes, lots of laundry out on the lines. I can see how people live in those communities as the signs of life are abundant.
Prices seemed to be a bit higher than in Venice, with respect to food, but that is likely due to lack of competition. I saw evidence of the fishing industry, complete with rubber boots drying outside and fishing nets waiting to be brought back out to sea. I wonder how far they have to go in order to catch fish as the water around Venice is quite murky and, frankly, it smells. I know that the water in the canals is polluted and seeing as how it’s all part of the same ecological system I’m sure there are problems in the surrounding ocean waters as well.
Upon my return to Venice I switched vaporetto lines and took a ride over to the first Venetian stop of the number 1 line. This vaporetto, coming from Lido, is quite popular for tourists as it winds along the entirety of the Grand Canal before ending at the Piazzale Roma. Much better than spending a hundred euros or so on a gondola ride, and it definitely takes its time, stopping along the way to pick up and discharge passengers into the busy pedestrian mess than is central Venice. The stops at Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge were particularly bustling.
The facades of the buildings along the Grand Canal are protected through various heritage designations. What I noticed, as we passed some of these buildings, was that the front would be beautifully and ornately decorated while the sides were much plainer. I’m not sure if this was done in the initial design and construction process or if the challenges and expense of maintenance – remember that everything, and I mean everything, has to be brought by boat – led to a more judicious use of renovation funds. Spending fewer euros on the sides of a building, which are much less visible than the front, could simply be smart economics.
It was pretty clear why the gondoliers charge extra for a ride along the Grand Canal. The boat traffic is, for lack of a better word, high. It must be infinitely more difficult to manage a gondola of well fed tourists when you’re constantly fighting against the waves generated by the vaporetto and private boats. The back canals, meanwhile, are much smaller with only the occasional motorboat to interrupt the stillness. If I were to shell out the cash for a gondola I truly think the smaller canals would provide a much more interesting and atmospheric ride. If I can see the Grand Canal from the vaporetto for the single ride ticket of €7, why would I spent fifteen times that on the gondola? The back canals, with their low bridges and narrow walls, are impassable to all except the smaller motorboats.
The view from the back of the vaporetto was pretty spectacular as Venice really should be viewed by the water. It’s much grander when viewed in this fashion, the vaporetto slowly moving past luxury hotels, imposing buildings and beautiful looking gardens.
I finished my day with a glass of wine, a cabernet sauvignon from Fruili Isonzo, consumed at the bar for €2.50. I would have liked to find another small bar like yesterday, with 80 cent wines and one euro sandwiches, but things didn’t quite work out for me. The bar I found, within spitting distance of the Piazzale Roma, was populated with raucous Italians, happy to have a small drink on the way home and quick to bellow out greetings to their friends as they walked through the door. It was obvious, despite the fact I was in such a touristy area, that these were regulars – the bartender had their drink of choice and a bar snack ready before they even ordered.
It took two full days, but I think I finally get why people love Venice. I had a lot of people tell me that one day was enough, but I think the second day really let me enjoy the city for what it was. Yes, Venice is expensive. And crowded. And a bit smelly. And sinking. And expensive. But if you stay away from Piazza San Marco, wander the side streets, head out to the outlying islands… it’s really quite entrancing. So, Venice, after day one I thought you were just going to be another Salzburg. Day two, you proved me wrong and that is a rare, rare thing.