Beyond the Rialto: island-hopping in Venice’s lagoon

Deck Boats

Thomas Mann said Venice should always be approached from the sea. The long causeway that links the city to the mainland is merely the tradesmen’s entrance. The city’s grand gateway, the proper entrance, is the lagoon.

But sometimes in Venice the lagoon can be elusive, hidden from view. Until a moment, perhaps, meandering in the labyrinth of Venetian alleys, when you emerge suddenly on one of the fondamente, the seaside embankments of Venice, the Zattere or the Fondamente Nuove, and a wide waterworld opens before you, choppy with winds from Africa and Greece.

The late Jan Morris called it Venice’s “queer wet countryside”. I wanted to explore this strange hinterland and its archipelago of outer islands, peopled — so the old guide books say — with fishermen and madmen, romantics and hermits, busy gardeners and cloistered clerics.

In recent times, the great threat to the lagoon has been enormous cruise ships. As of August this year, mercifully, these behemoths have finally been banned from docking in Venice. The pandemic, when the canals were cleaner than at any time in living memory, gave everyone the opportunity to reassess priorities. But what really focused minds was the moment in June 2019 when the MSC Opera, carrying almost 3,500 passengers and crew, crashed into the River Countess, docked at San Basilio on the Giudecca Canal. It hardly dented the bumpers of the Opera but caused considerable damage to the small Countess.

Venice, as seen from on board the SS Venezia © Giacomo Cosua

Two years on, and the Countess is back, happily restored and renamed SS La Venezia, with a mission to explore the lagoon. Her modest dimensions — she is a riverboat carrying only 126 passengers — allows her to dock in Venice a short walk from the Gallerie dell’Accademia. But it also allows her to offer a rare opportunity to sail through Venice’s “queer wet countryside”, past the marshes and the mud flats, through the channels and the fishing grounds, to overnight in outer islands such as Chioggia and Burano. And she does so without fear of toppling gondolas or undermining Venetian foundations.

The Venezia is a stylish vessel. Her interiors are inspired by the intricate Art Nouveau patterns of Venice’s legendary Fortuny fabrics, her cabins are lavishly appointed, her bar team is always ready with the Aperol spritz, and her open top deck allows for sunbathing while admiring vistas of the lagoon.

As for her itinerary, it includes side trips to Ferrara and Bologna, while in Venice itself there is a remarkable after-hours visit to St Mark’s Basilica. But for me, the main excitement was the chance to discover the lagoon with an itinerary flexible enough to allow me to peel away on a vaporetto for a day of solitary wandering in the further reaches of this strange world, a million miles from the Rialto.

View from the bridge of the SS Venezia © Giacomo Cosua

I started with the mad. Over the centuries, various islands in the lagoon were commandeered as asylums: remote Poveglia, shuttered San Clemente. At San Servolo, its quiet parklands only a vaporetto stop from St Mark’s, a cadaverous gentlemen showed me round the old asylum, now a dusty museum. He explained the fearsome water cures, the shackles, the electric shock treatments. Then he unlocked the door to the dissecting room so we could meet some of the former inmates. Several patients’ brains, objects of keen study, sat on a shelf above a row of grimacing skulls. Something about Venice, he shrugged — the excess, the artifice, the temptations — seemed to push people over the edge. The island’s little church came as a relief, the only sign of madness, perhaps, the belief in immaculate conception.

GM161012_21X HH map Venice Lagoon

Then he led me outside on to one of the finest terraces in the lagoon, a favourite perch, he claimed, of Canaletto. Across the shining water were the arches of the Doge’s Palace and the campanile of St Mark’s. The great dome of San Giorgio Maggiore rose above Palladian symmetries. Between the two, where the Grand Canal and the Giudecca channel merged in the basin of St Mark’s, was Venice’s most fascinating sight — its great busyness of boats, vaporetti and tugs and barges, taxis and ferries and gondolas. One of the joys of the Venezia is, for a week, you get to be one of this glorious cavalcade.

Away from the temptations of Venice, the lagoon islands offered sanctuary in the past to numerous monasteries and convents. The monks were fairly serious fellows but the nuns, many not cloistered by choice, had a racier reputation. Casanova was said to be a frequent visitor; though perhaps he was just there to study his catechism. In the 18th century, three of the convents were said to have competed for the privilege of supplying a mistress to the Papal Nuncio.

The islands of San Spirito and San Clemente from the SS Venezia © Giacomo Cosua

The convents are gone but two monasteries remain in the lagoon. I called in on San Lazzaro, a request stop on the number 2 vaporetto. An Armenian monastery founded in the early 18th century, its rich library, full of priceless manuscripts, has made it one of the most important centres of Armenian scholarship in the world. The books are complemented by a splendid collection of curios and artefacts, among them an Egyptian mummy with most of its teeth, racy volumes of Oriental eroticism by Sir Richard Burton, a machine for making electric sparks, a plaster cast of Napoleon’s son, and a portrait of Lord Byron.

The monks hold Byron in great esteem. Spending the winter in Venice in 1816, he rowed out to San Lazzaro three times a week to work on an English-Armenian dictionary. Presumably the monks knew nothing of his other life just across the water along the Grand Canal, where he was busy seducing Venetian wives. One of his paramours, in despair at his unfaithfulness, threw herself into the Grand Canal from the windows of the Palazzo Mocenigo.

The next day we sailed to Chioggia, some 15 miles away at the lagoon’s southern extremity. I spent the afternoon on deck, lazily watching islands drift past. The lagoon is a hauntingly translucent place, its waters full of reflections and mirages, illusions and distortions. In the mornings, the light dazzles across watery expanses. At dusk, mists muffle and disguise. Islands come and go like ships with the waxing and waning of the light. Astern, Venice looked as substantial as a cloud while by Pellestrina old fishing huts were afloat on a sea of rose-coloured light.

Settlers came into this waterworld in the 6th century AD as refugees. The mainland had become dangerous. Barbarians had arrived from the north. The lagoon was seen as a sanctuary. The settlers poled through the marshes in flat-bottomed boats, hoping for a better life, carrying belongings and children. And for the next 1,500 years, the lagoon, with its shifting sandbars and meandering channels, was Venice’s defensive shield. When attackers inevitably grounded in its shallow waters, the Venetians came at night in their small boats, paddling silently with their strange single oars, to pick them off one by one.

The Vena river canal in Chioggia © Getty Images

But even before the refugees, Chioggia was here, an older version of Venice, a lagoon town of canals and boats. It owes its symmetrical street layout to the Romans and some of its dialect to the Greeks. It is a scrappy, scruffy, workaday place with a serious chip on its shoulder. Glamorous Venice — for Chioggians, a latecomer to lagoon life — looks down on Chioggia. They like to joke about the modest phlegmatic character of the townsfolk. They tease them about the lion atop a column, a much smaller version of the one in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, calling it “the cat of St Mark’s”.

Chioggia lives and dreams fish. It has one of the largest fishing fleets in Italy. Its small museum is packed not with Titians and Tintorettos but shipbuilding tools and exhibits about nets. In its canals, working boats are shoulder to shoulder. The quaysides are crowded with lobster pots and there is not a fancy gondola in sight.

In the morning, when I went for a coffee, the back door of the bar…

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