Melting into the bright skies, the pearly lagoons of Venice are a surreal Salvador Dali landscape. Several islands hide out here in the calm sections of the Adriatic, like Burano, Murano and Torcello. At one time, there were 39 lagoon islands, which were densely inhabited. But now, all but a few have been abandoned. For a change of scene from the palazzos and the tourist-swamped city centre of Venice, we decide to take a vaporetto — the public waterbus to the islands of Murano and Burano and spend a lazy day there.
We cruise the green waters of the lagoon, past the apricot brick walls of San Michele Island, Venice’s cemetery fringed by a line of cypress trees, where famous citizens were laid to rest. Grave space has been used up here and Venice’s dead have to be buried now in the mainland cemetery. All along the waters, we see taciturn cormorants sitting on wooden posts, topped by orange lamps, used by the Venetians to navigate the treacherous seas. Herons and sea-birds pick their way through the rushes in the watery sunlight.
We get off after a ride of 40 minutes, at the island of Murano, known as the glass island. In 1292, the production of the famous Venetian glass was shifted here due to a fear of fires in the kilns, in the city centre. We hear that in yesteryears, the glassmakers were even allowed to marry into Venice’s blue-blooded families, but they were never allowed to leave the republic. If they tried to escape, they had their hands cut off by the secret police!
We get off the vaporetto and are accosted by many representatives of glass factories, who indulge in a high-pressure sales pitch, to view their kiln and of course enter their shops. We choose to walk into one that is open to the public, and watch the expert glass-blowers fashion works of art in glass from raging furnaces. We watch entranced as the handsome glass-blower nips, tucks and fashions a flower with practiced hands in a most theatrical performance. As he catches sight of us, he says, “There is no time to think because the glass cools rapidly!”
There is a glass museum here that houses about 4,000 pieces and shows the development of the glass blowing industry over time. We see a colourful glass Christmas tree which is made of blown glass and is said to have 1,000 blown glass tubes! A little distance away, we see a fountain resembling a human figure made of blown glass.
Behind it is a typical Venetian canal lined with quaint shops selling lamps, beads, goblets, vases and over-the-top chandeliers. I rue the fact that some of these fragile masterpieces are so expensive that they may be locked up forever in a glass-case without being used for a really special occasion.
Taking a break from glass, we visit the Church of San Pietro where there is exquisite art on display — masterpieces by Tintoretto, Bellini and Veronese. We catch up with an Italian student at a café over a Tiramisu gelato, and he says that Casanova, the notorious philanderer and womaniser (a resident of Venice), used to visit the convents and churches on this island, though he was not a pious man. Lore has it that a young nun on this island fell in love with him.
Back on the vaporetto, we traverse the lagoon this time visiting Burano. We are awestruck by the sight of some fisherman walking on water! They were actually walking on sand flats, digging for clams and crabs. Chugging past some uninhabited islands with abandoned towers and villas, indicating grand pasts, we reach Burano, which has been inhabited since Roman times and has been known as a centre for lace-making. Fishermen have lived in Burano since the 7th century because the marshland has been excellent for the anchovies, sardines and mackerel.
Legend has it that a Venetian sailor brought an exquisite sea-weed from remote seas for his sweetheart. This was preserved on fishing net by her for eternal remembrance — a masterpiece of perfection — and was the origin of the lace trade that has brought fame to this isolated community.
As we get off at Burano, we see benches lining a green promenade. Burano looks like Lego land at first glance. Everything here, the houses, the bridges, are painted in brilliant, vivid colours of blue, hot pinks, green, lavender, ochre and terracotta. I am told that the fishermen painted their houses in these colours so that they could identify them when they were returning home (and perhaps a little inebriated) in the thick Venetian mist. We hear that if someone wants to paint his home, he has to apply to the government for permission.
There is a small two-storey lace museum here, where you see old pieces of lace and women wielding their needles in this ancient tradition, oblivious to tourists watching them. We try hard not to spend our souvenir budget on the exquisite doilies and tablecloths here (though I suspect a great deal of it is machine-made in Taiwan!). In the central square devoted to Galuppi, the local luminary of Burano (who was famous for comic opera), we see the 16th century Church of San Marino lined with Tiepolo’s Crucifixion. This has what the locals call the drunken tower or the leaning bell-tower.
A little further away is the most brightly painted Bepe’s house — an eclectic mix of colours and geometrical shapes of diamond, triangles and bars. We see tourists seeking inspiration, staring at menus outside restaurants, offering a plethora of sea-food and ogling lace-trimmed tableware and parasols. We wander to the quietest corners and shady parks. We see fishing nets hang drying in yards while small boats dawdle along the banks of the canals.
Burano is said to have a vibrant artistic community and noted French designer Philippe Starck is said to have invested in three colourful houses here (which are now a fashion statement). We amble through workshops of local artists, listening to the sounds of their mellifluous local dialect, and succumb to the temptation of a watercolour painting of the local multi-hued houses. We have lunch at Alfresco Café, which consists of trofie pasta in pesto sauce, washed down with carafes of crisp white wine. We also taste the Bussola Buranello which, when translated, means the compass of Burano. This organic cookie looks like an outline of a circle and can be had dunked in local wine. As we chug through the waters of the lagoon back towards Venice, I wonder whether the colourful houses, foundries and forsaken churches were just misty figments of my imagination.