CITY GUIDE GO WITH THE FLOW
National Geographic Traveller India|July - August 2021
Discover Venice’s long-held culinary and artisan traditions, doggedly preserved by a cast of characters, from vineyard-owners to glassblowers, even as overtourism threatens to eclipse ancient ways of life on the lagoon
Julia Buckley

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIAView All

WEEKENDER HARKING BACK TO SHERKIN

Even during Covid times, Sherkin Island—a tiny community off the coast of West Cork, Ireland—remains a magnet for unconventional, artistic types  

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

THE BEAR TRUTH

UKRAINE’S BEAR SANCTUARY DOMAZHYR IS A HAVEN FOR RESCUE WILDLIFE, AND AN ECO-EDUCATIONAL CENTRE FOR VISITORS

1 min read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

Vanderlust

Indians are back on the road and we have the 9 coolest campervan circuits across the country for every traveller

8 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

ROOM AT THE TOP

The mountain property’s humble hospitality is an invitation to experience the local way of life

5 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

Rain in Slovenia's Plains

Driving from Ljubljana through to Bled and Bohinj, two happy campers hike, canoe and amble along until weather plays spoilsport

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

PATHS UNKNOWN WITH LAURIE WOOLEVER

ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S LIEUTENANT ON CO-AUTHORING A BOOK WITH HIM AFTER HIS DEATH, THE TONY LEGACY, AND SPONTANEITY V/S PREPARATION IN TRAVEL

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

OF SALT & STARS

THE DRAMATIC MOONSCAPES OF CHILE’S ATACAMA DESERT ARE ANYTHING BUT VACANT. DOTTED WITH RUINS AND RICHLY TATTOOED WITH ANCIENT PETROGLYPHS, THIS HIGH-ALTITUDE PLAYGROUND, POPULAR WITH ADVENTUROUS TRAVELLERS, IS ALSO A REPOSITORY OF STORIES. HIKE INTO MINERAL-COATED CANYONS AND CAMP OUT UNDER BRILLIANT NIGHT SKIES TO DISCOVER HOW THIS ARID LANDSCAPE OFFERS A GATEWAY TO THE PAST

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

Arunachal's Thunder Road

A 10-day journey along the Trans-Arunachal Highway puts a writer’s driving to the test, revealing one surprising twist after another

7 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

Best List: Hong Kong's Swanky Sleepovers

Between the steely skyscrapers and lush greenery, Hong Kong’s hotels are some of the finest in Asia, and with new openings and revamps across the city, the hotel scene is more spectacular than ever before 

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021

The Mountains Are Calling For Help

A fragile Himachal Ecology, cornered by climate change, mindless tourism and unplanned development,is begging for intervention

7 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
September - October 2021
RELATED STORIES

When Conservation Looks Like Evasion

The IRS is examining conservation easement deductions, putting promoters in its crosshairs

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
August 30, 2021

GALPAL'S STROLL GIVES DON McLEAN BELL-BOTTOM BLUES -INSIDERS

COULD it be bye-bye Miss “American Pie” for singer Don McLean’s latest squeeze?

1 min read
National Enquirer
March 29, 2021

THE WHITE VAULT

BINGELY STREAMING

2 mins read
Athleisure Mag
October 2020

Into the Night

Many of artist Dmitri Danish’s paintings focus on the cityscape, with his newest series primarily featuring nocturnes.

1 min read
American Art Collector
August 2020

FINE BALANCE

AT FIRST ACQUAINTANCE THIS CRUISER/RACER SEEMS CURIOUSLY AT ODDS WITH ITSELF – UNTIL YOU GET BEHIND THE WHEEL

9 mins read
Yachting World
July 2020

Open Towards Love

LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE explores love in the time of coronavirus, and how those of us with a spiritual practice can turn the results into action, bringing care and compassion into our communities.

3 mins read
Heartfulness eMagazine
May 2020

WAKE THE DEAD

ZOMBIE ARMY 4: DEAD WAR does exactly what it says on the tin.

7 mins read
PC Gamer US Edition
April 2020

Joaquin Phoenix Discusses Preparing For Role In ‘Joker'

Joaquin Phoenix is having a hard time defining the Joker, but then again, he doesn’t really want to.

3 mins read
AppleMagazine
September 06, 2019

Shavings & Sawdust

58th International Art Exhibition

1 min read
Woodworker West
July - August, 2019

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Penélope Cruz, Jane Campion bag awards at Venice

Venice: A timely film about illegal abortions in 1960s France won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion on Saturday, capping a strong night for women including Penelope Cruz and Jane Campion. Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” arrives just as the abortion debate is raging again over new restrictions in Texas and its decriminalization in Mexico.

5 mins read
Gulf Today
September 13, 2021