Secret Gems of the Venetian Lagoon
The glory of the most romantic city on the planet is withering. Venice may be losing its authenticity with cheap souvenirs mass produced and skyrocketing charges at restaurants and hotels, not to mention the periodic flooding, but if you are seeking the pure essence of La Serenissima, the lagoon has many bewildering wonders to experience.
This 55,000-hectare stretch of water is the largest wetland in Italy and one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the Mediterranean. The environmental and its heritage was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and it envelops various hidden gems and islands that a lucky few can explore.
Adventures in the secluded Venetian Lagoon is often best with a proper chaperone. Allison Zurfluh, a native and local expert, says, “With its wetlands and waterways draped in pinks and greens and golds, its soaring birds and warm-hearted people, the Venice lagoon is the mirror in which is reflected Venice; its imagery and colors can be found throughout the city. Experiencing it means coming into contact with a soft and delicate intimacy.”
These are the top 15 island adventures she will give you access to, allowing travelers to grasp the untouristy nuances of the mesmeric Queen of the Adriatic:
The owners of the Venissa wine resort have a long background in winemaking: the Bisol family’s viticulture practices go all the way back to the 16th century, and serendipitously this corresponds to the time in history when aristocratic Venetians would sip wine made by the Dorona grape. Although Bisol was very well acquainted with his home region Veneto, it was only during the early 2000s that he discovered old grapevines on the island of Torcello that used to produce wine.
He decided to replant the grapes on the nearby island of Mazzorbo and create a vineyard and resort, where visitors can enjoy the sustainable approach, adopted in the vegetable garden and wine production.
Roaming around the grounds you will admire a variety of herbs, that cannot be found elsewhere like salicornia and pimpinella, not to mention the purple artichokes known as “Castrature.” If you want to take a gift back home, the bottle that encloses Venissa’s wine has a gold leaf on it instead of a label to honor a disappearing skill of the lagoon, the “Battiloro” families of gold hammerers.
Burano, an island in the lagoon distinguished by its polychrome houses, is a classic Venetian fishing town. It is connected to the island of Mazzorbo by a wooden bridge called "Ponte Longo."
The Bisol family decided to allow their visitors to have the experience of residing in one of these dainty habitations. Some of the abandoned houses been transformed into five-building hotel, preserving the original structure and creating the decentralized hotel Casa Burano.
Guests have the chance to lodge among locals and live the placid serenity of this magical island.
Pesca Turismo Nettuno
Burano can be experienced in many forms, including an opportunity to share a day with local fishermen who will take you out on their boat to work.
Domenico and Enrico run Pesca Turismo Nettuno, offering tourist fishing excursions, which are regulated in Italy by a ministerial decree to spread the culture of the sea and activities that enhance the preservation of the coastal environment.
You will sail north into the lagoon. This area has a cozy vibe, with its wetlands that are called “barene," “velme,” and “motte,” according to how much the tide submerges them. The trip will be aboard a “bragozzo,” a small boat that has no keel and thanks to its flat bottom can access low waters. The journey will entrance you, while the fishermen explain their job as “molecanti” — those who fish specific crabs of the lagoon called “moeche.”
If you want to taste the exquisite seafood, fished by Domenico, Enrico and their colleagues you must stop for a meal at Gatto Nero, The Black Cat. The restaurant is a favorite among visitors and celebrities as much as locals.
Your tastebuds will experience the best locally sourced traditional cuisine in the lagoon, from Sea Cicadas known as “canocia,” the cuttlefish “seppa,” the “goby” fish and of course the soft-shell crabs “moeche.” The homey atmosphere will make you feel at ease, as chef Ruggero Bovo and his wife Lucia prepare the delicious dishes, and their son Massi stops at your table to share his remembrances of the time he spent in Scotland.
You shouldn't leave Burano without some lace. This island is renown for the art of lace that began to spread during the fifteenth century, thanks to the wife of Doge Malipiero, Giovanna Dandolo. This elegant ornament was sought by everyone both for sacred vestments and noble outfits.
The Martina Vidal label glorifies this ancient tradition, continuing in the steps of a family heritage that counts four generations of lace-making. Fine linens make up the collections of Vidal and you can also request personalized embroideries.
The Atelier also has a museum that displays ancient lace memorabilia, from handkerchiefs to wedding gowns, along with table cloths and items that embellished the European aristocracy’s mansions and garments. In every piece a Venetian story is weaved combining stitch upon stitch, with needle and thread.
Venice Boat Excursion
This is a different kind of boat excursion, that will unveil the wonders south of the Lagoon, area much more like the open sea. During the Venice Boat Excursion you will discover how, during the era of Doges, people were transported around Venice by these boatsmen who would conceal the secret encounters between members of the nobility.
If you want to delve into the popular celebrations from the water, Venice Boat Excursion allows you to experience the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer, characterized by spectacular fireworks in the lagoon during July, or the Historic Regatta in September, the marvelous water parade of antique boats, that cross the Grand Canal with people dressed up as the upper echelon of Venice during the Renaissance.
Once you finish your excursion with Lorenzo and Marco, ask them to drop you off on the island of Pellestrina, that looks like heaven on earth. Here you can have a scrumptious meal in the best restaurant of the South Lagoon: Da Celeste.
The ideal time to come is the summer, when the inhabitants of Pellestrina organize the festival of the “Madonna dell’Apparizione” (Our Lady of the Apparition), and visit the beautiful sanctuary that was built in 1717 on the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to a young boy and advised him to pray for the salvation of Venice. It was the time when the city was besieged by the Turks, and the following day, the Venetians won the Battle against their opposers.
Casa Museo Andrich
Torcello is an enchanting island, populated by only 10 Venetians, and is mostly known for “Attila’s Throne” — an ancient stone chair that probably belonged to the Podestà and had nothing to do with the king of the Huns — The Devil’s Bridge, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, and the Locanda Cipriani.
But a real treat that is for the few is the Casa Museo Andrich, where artists Lucio Andrich and Clementina De Luca lived. Andrich was an Italian painter, engraver, sculptor and mosaicist, who collaborated with his wife Clementina, producing a body of work of about 1,300 art pieces. Their enchanting property is also an educational farm, where you can learn about their cultivation techniques, the wildlife populating the lagoon and the history of its formation.
Torcello was an inspiration for creative minds such as Ernest Hemingway, who spent some time on the island during the late forties writing "Across the River and Into the Trees." The same poetic flair can be captured by the legacy of Andrich’s creations.
Orto di Venezia
Another beguiling island of the lagoon is Sant’Erasmo, known for the “Torre Massimiliana” (Tower of Maximilian), that used to be a military fortification during the 16th century. The island is also famous for the market gardening, since Venetians have grown tasty fruit and vegetables for centuries.
The best example of this tradition is epitomized by the venture of the former French television entrepreneur Michel Thoulouze. The man who in the course of his career has brought to life shows for over 60 networks and is the pioneer of pay TV, today is a winemaker in the lagoon. He has created Orto di Venezia, which uses antique Italian grape varieties, that are cultivated with traditional and earth-friendly methods. You will have the opportunity to taste the flavor of the wine that was greatly appreciated by Casanova, and the noblemen of the 1700s.
Santa Cristina Island
The lagoon has more private islands than you would expect. But some of these are abandoned, or have been acquired by big corporations and transformed into luxury hotels, such as San Clemente Palace Kempinski. But there also private islands that have been transformed into eco-resorts, where the sumptuousness of being sheltered in nature is the epitome of haute villégiature.
That is the case with the ravishing Santa Cristina Island, that has been transformed by the Austrian couple Rene and Sandra Deutsch into a sublime retreat for exclusive guests, who can wander around the stupendous gardens, populated by peacocks and various bird species.
This exclusive sanctuary of well-being, that is accessible only by private boat, is fully sustainable. Isola Santa Cristina produces its own fresh drinking water, with wells that go hundreds of meters deep, harnessing cutting-edge technology to clean the water. The hotel’s vegetable patch is curated by local agronomists and an ancient fishing farm has been reprised thanks to the collaboration with the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
La Certosa Island spreads across 22 hectares and is considered a green oasis of the Venetian lagoon. The humungous park is characterized by thickets of white, black and ash poplars, alternating with non-native tree and shrub species.
In ancient times it was called the Isola di Sant'Andrea del Lido or also Isola di San Bruno in honor of the founder of the Carthusian Order. The charter house consisted of two islands separated by a long canal and in 1424 the Church of Sant’ Andrea Apostolo, that was built by Pietro Lombardo.
Here you can admire masterpieces by Titian, Palma il Giovane, Bartolomeo Vivarini and Tintoretto. Two Doges were buried in this church and several weddings are still celebrated with bucolic flair, as wild goats roam about.
Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo
The Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo (New Quarantine) should not be mistaken with the Lazzaretto Vecchio (Old Quarantine), which in 1423 was a plague hospital and today is the headquarters of the Venice Film Festival's Virtual Reality installations. The Lazzaretto Nuovo was built later, in 1468, for incoming ships and cargo, where crews and goods were inspected for signs of sickness.
The island can be visited between April and October, only on Saturdays and Sundays. You will see the chief building on the island, the “Tezon Grande,” that used to store the goods from quarantined ships. Under the regime of Napoleon, and later the Austrians, the Lazzaretto Nuovo was used as the lagoon’s military defense system, known as “Le Fortificazioni,” that today is used as an exhibition space.
San Francesco del Deserto Island
The San Francesco del Deserto Island was anciently called Isola delle Due Vigne (Island of the Two Vineyards) and was owned by the Venetian nobleman Jacopo Michiel. It changed name when in 1233 he donated the island to the Franciscan Order, after Saint Francis resided on the island for a short time. The suffix “of the Desert” (del Deserto) was added later, when the island was abandoned for a brief period due to the plague.
You may visit San Francesco del Deserto with a private boat that will leave you on a small dock, that leads to the entrance of the monastery. Once you arrive to the friary and ring the bell, you will be greeted by a monk who will guide you across the holy island. This is an opportunity to plunge into the historical-religious culture of Sant Francesco del Deserto, as well as to enjoy the peace and tranquility that the place offers.
This seven hectare uninhabited island is not open to the public, but with a private boat you can go on a pic-picnic excursion, and most importantly on a haunting adventure. La Poveglia — that was known in antiquity as Popilia, for the abundance of popular trees — is famous for its ghost stories.
In the 1700s it became a quarantine for the Bubonic plague, and during the twentieth century the island was said to be populated by phantoms — 160,000 bodies had been dumped on the island which is why halff the soil is human ash. In 1922 a building was erected on La Poveglia. The archives officially claim it was a retirement home for the elderly, but testimonies have a different version to the story: apparently it was used as an asylum. It closed down in 1946, but in the meantime there are legends of a sadist psychiatrist who lobotomized his patients, who were haunted by the souls of those who died during the plague. The doctor reportedly threw himself off the bell tower, claiming to be driven mad by the apparitions of his victims.
During the 1960s a wealthy family bought the island and sold it after a brief period of time, terrified by the tormented spirits. The following decades the municipality of Venice decided to put it up for sale, in the hope the purchase would help reduce the Italian national debt. But it hasn’t found an owner as of yet.
In the meantime some visitors have declared to have walked past objects that were standing on side of the ruined building, and as they returned later during the day were placed in a completely different area. Hence, La Poveglia is a must-see for all aspiring ghostbusters!
Eolo Cruising Venice
To salute the lagoon in style you can embark upon a one-of-a-kind cruising experience with Mauro Stoppa and his Eolo Cruising Venice. His boat — named after the Greek Wind God, Aeolus (Eolo) — was used for fishing until 1967. Stoppa bought it in 1998 and restored the ship to her original beauty to welcome its guests for exploration of the lagoon, while enjoying a meal aboard of “risi e bisi”, a fresh and seasonal pea risotto, and “granceola alla veneziana,” a rich recipe of lagoon crabs stuffed with sweet claw meat.
Cruises on "Eolo" comfortably accommodate up to dozen people or even 25 for special occasions. The excursions will allow you to visit stunning hidden islands such as San Lazzaro and Cavallino. There is also the opportunity to sleep on Malamocco — a neighborhood on the island of Lido — in the ancient and characteristic inn Ca’Del Borgo. During the cruise you will have the chance to explore also the fish market of Chioggia, which is the largest on the Adriatic Coast.