From the top of the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice looks different. Hidden are the bridges straddling cutesy canals. Instead, all I see is a single, man-made mass, squeezed by the water all around. Terracotta roofs play Tetris with the skyline; hangar-sized churches erupt upward; bell towers thrust towards the sky.
Hidden, also, are the outré waterside mansions whose pastel marbled, hand-sculpted facades were once signifiers of wealth and status—the Porsches of the past. Hidden is the elegant squiggle of the Grand Canal. Hidden, even, is St Mark’s Square, its Byzantine basilica obscured by the candy pink Doge’s Palace. Also gone are the 30 million tourists who flood this city of 50,000 every year. Up here, humankind is negligible.
From on high, Venice is all about the shimmering, shapeshifting lagoon: flashing silver in the sun near the Lido; a deep blue along the Giudecca Canal as a vaporetto (water bus) chugs silently along; a petrol-sheened pink near Murano as the sun sinks.
Life for Venetians has always revolved around the water—ever since the fifth century, when inhabitants of nearby Altino, fleeing enemy invaders, took to their boats and settled on the mudflats offshore. Today, although that water can feel designed for tourists—gondolas sliding up and down canals, the photogenic fish market at Rialto—the lagoon is still the city’s pulse.
To the east lie islands—some abandoned, others now home to high-end hotels; one was even used as a renaissance quarantine facility. (The idea of isolating the infectious? That was first implemented here to tackle 15th-century plagues.) To the north are some of the city’s most popular day-trip destinations— the isles of Murano, Burano, and Torcello, all assailed by Venice’s 21st-century plague: overtourism. And yet, a trip to this part of the lagoon—where locals seem intent on preserving tradition amid the souvenir shops—can still transport you back to the city’s roots.
“People have been fishing here for 2,500 years,” says restaurateur Matteo Bisol, on Mazzorbo island. Famed for its agriculture, the sleepy island is severed from bustling Burano by a thin canal and connected by a bridge. “The Romans knew the lagoon, even before the Venetians. They fished, made wine and developed techniques that are still in use. But this culture risks being lost.”
It’s just stepping away from Mazzorbo but, like Venice’s city center, Burano’s economy caters to tourists; its multicolored cottages reflected in the glassy canals make it an Instagram dream. For centuries, the island was a popular spot for fishing, but today it makes its money from souvenirs, and its fading traditions need stewards.
That’s why the Bisol family— who first made their name inland, producing Prosecco— built Venissa, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms. There’s a vineyard here where they grow the Dorona grape: native to the lagoon and popular with the doges (the rulers of the Venetian Republic from the eighth to the 18th century). It was on the brink of extinction when Matteo’s father revived a withered local plant.
At Venissa—which has an osteria (a laid-back wine bar serving simple meals) as well as the main restaurant—the focus is on lagoon food. In a high-beamed dining room, I feast on soft octopus in a sweet-sour saor marinade, velvety baccàla (creamed salt cod) on polenta, and juicy, almost jellified anchovies.
Many of the vegetables are grown on allotments bordering Venissa’s vineyard. Open to the public, this walled, mid-lagoon mini farm-cum-park is tended by Burano’s pensioners. One of them, Patrizia Rossi, shows me Mazzorbo’s famous violet artichokes. Patrizia and her husband, Moreno d’Este, and a friend, Giorgio dei Rossi, grow them on their shared allotment. It’s a misty, grey morning, but in summer they’re out with their trowels at 6 a.m.. “You breathe better, feel better,” Patrizia says. This is the city’s countryside.
It doesn’t feel like Venice, I remark. That, they swiftly tell me, is because it isn’t. “We’re not Venetian,” they chorus. Mazzorbo may be just 33 minutes by ferry from the city, but “if you row, it’s four hours—that’s like Venice to Milan today”. Venice was built by merchants and nobles, but the islands were born from agriculture, they explain. “We’ve always lived in symbiosis with nature here,” said Giorgio and Moreno. Matteo agrees. “This part of the lagoon is totally different,” he adds. In contrast to neighboring tourist honeypots, where Vaporetto queues can be hundreds deep, on Mazzorbo, the island’s heritage is tangible, still woven into the present.
On Burano is another restaurant striving to maintain tradition: Trattoria al Gatto Nero, founded 56 years ago by Ruggero and Lucia Bovo. Today, they still toil away in the kitchen (“I create, she judges,” grins Ruggero). Meanwhile, son Massimiliano runs the show, buying supplies from local fishermen.
As visitor numbers continue to climb, Massimiliano tells me, Venice risks losing some of its soul. While the headlines are full of Airbnbs displacing locals (it’s thought that 70 per cent of Venetians have vacated their homes in the past 70 years to make space for visitors) and the council postponing its tax on day-trippers until 2022, nobody, he says, talks about the city’s endangered culinary heritage.
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