Island hopping in the Venetian Lagoon
I once stole a cocktail glass from Harry’s Bar in Venice. In a roundabout way, that’s how I found Torcello, my favorite island in the Venetian Lagoon. I was young, much too young to actually drink the cocktail (a Bellini, as is the custom at Harry’s), but – according to my older brother – that was no excuse; besides, if I’d asked, they probably would have given it to me as a souvenir. But that would have taken the fun away. It was a super glass, etched with the outline of a bartender. Alas, it didn’t survive the trip, to my brother’s smug satisfaction.
Years later, I returned to Harry’s and this time ordered a Bellini for myself. Made with prosecco and white peach puree, the cocktail is said to have been invented by Harry’s owner, Giuseppe Cipriani. He named it for the Venetian artist whose paintings feature the same peachy color. It’s the de rigueur cocktail for patrons in the know. And isn’t everyone who goes to Harry’s in the know? On that return trip, I wasn’t tempted to steal the glass. But I must say, the drink was far more expensive than I expected (16,50 euro, today $18.17), and cocktails and dinner at one of Europe’s most famous watering holes wasn’t the adventure I had hoped for.
But that same brother reminded me that a trip to Venice’s other Cipriani restaurant is an adventure. Located on the island of Torcello, Locanda Cipriani is tucked within the long shadows cast by the island’s two churches. More than a bar and restaurant, it’s also a charming five-room hotel, where – I’m told, although I’ve never stayed there – life is about as restful as it gets. In the 1940s, Ernest Hemingway enjoyed enough peace and quiet to write an entire novel (“Across the River and Into the Trees”) during a prolonged visit.
All over the island, a certain calm prevails. Step off the vaporetto (water bus) and lag behind for a few minutes to capture the flavor. Since Torcello is the least-visited of the major islands, you’ll soon find yourself alone for the leisurely 10-minute stroll along the canal to the town square. A canoe may drift by, an occasional bird may swoop, maybe a farm animal will cross your path.
Torcello was settled as a haven from war; maybe that accounts for its continued tranquility. Attila, leader of the Hunnic Empire, ravaged Italy in the fifth century, causing a mass flight from the mainland to escape the Hun’s soldiers. Over the next 800 years, the island grew into a major trade center, and its population swelled to 20,000. Eventually, however, flooding and malaria were its undoing. By the 14th century, Torcello was a swampland, and a reverse flight took place, leaving its churches and palaces to plunderers.
Today, Torcello is home to a handful of residents, and only a few buildings remain. But those few are why we’re here. That, and lunch at Locanda Cipriani! The stroll passes a couple of restaurants which are nice enough, maybe for a snack coming or going or a midmorning picnic, but save the big meal for Cipriani.
Recently, I looked online to see how other tourists were enjoying Torcello. One post declared, “The church is beautiful, but we didn’t have time to look inside.” That was a member of a tour that included three islands in one day – an impossible feat, unless, I suppose, you don’t take time to “look inside.”
Nor am I sure what was meant by “the church,” as there are two, pretty much side by side. The lovelier exterior belongs to Santa Fosca with its graceful portico columns. But it is the interior of the Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta that’s unlike any Byzantine church in the world. The cathedral is so sparse. So simple. So delicate. Even the pulpit, with its lacy carvings and slim columns, evinces an almost frail demeanor, so unlike the massive presence of Italy’s famous pulpits by the father-son team of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Church visitors observe respectful quiet, but something about this cathedral calls for even more deference. The mosaic pavement, the oldest in the Veneto, is not as well cared for as that in other churches, although it’s more beautiful than most. For fear of loosening uneven tiles, I tend to tiptoe when visiting.
Leaving the cathedral, take a quiet stroll through the nearby – somewhat overgrown – garden, with its smattering of statues and have a look at the little museum’s fascinating archaeological finds, collected not just from Torcello and her sister islands, but from as far away as Rome. Finally, climb the bell tower for a panoramic view of the ancient island. Below you’ll see scattered groups of happy picnickers.
Now, about Locanda Cipriani. It’s a little pricey, but there’s something indescribable about dining there. I’ve done so numerous times and always hate myself for spending too much money – and then look back with satisfaction on the hours spent lingering over meals. Maybe it’s the trellised, flower-laden garden, perfect for lunching in fair weather. Or maybe it’s being watched over by those two churches that bring their Byzantine sensibility to a modern dining experience. Or it could just be the sauces.
More probably, it’s the pastries.
If Torcello is first on my island-hopping list, the other must-see is Murano, and not for the usual reason. So don’t get off the boat at Colona or Faro, the most popular (and crowded) glass-shopping destinations. For the best of both worlds, wait until the Museo stop because just around the corner, housed in an ancient palace, Museo del Vetro tells the 4,000-year history of glass through examples that astonish. The most glorious is Murano glass of the Golden Age, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, including a magnificent centerpiece made for the banquet table of a wealthy (obviously) doge.
After visiting the museum, turn left and walk along the canal to Santa Maria e San Donato (Too churchy? Don’t worry, there are hundreds of glass shops in this area too.) If any of the island churches rival Torcello’s cathedral, this is it. Here, the mosaic pavement has been beautifully restored, and the artwork is stunning, especially the Madonna on gold above the altar. After visiting, cross the bridge and look back at the church’s apse. It is, as described on more than one website, jaw-dropping.
But the jaw drops often when visiting the islands of the Venetian Lagoon.
I have no idea how many islands are in the lagoon. Dozens, certainly, some dusty (or muddy depending on the season), deserted, roadless and mosquito-infested, and a few easy to get to and fascinating. Of those, Burano is a favorite destination for tourists because of its brightly painted houses and tons of lace (made by the island’s women for eons). It’s on the vaporetto route to Torcello, so why not stop? And what about Lido, that most romantic of islands? It beckons seductively across the lagoon with its wide, sandy beaches and historic hotels. Go over for the day – it’s a short ride from San Zaccaria – and rent a cabana at the beach. (When did you last do that?)