It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Without the lagoon, Venice would not be Venice but without Venice, the lagoon would not be a lagoon. 550 km² of water – in other words one of the biggest lagoons in the world: Venice is beautiful because it reigns supreme in the midst of a liquid mirror, surrounded by small bucolic islands.
Visiting the Venice lagoon allows you to explore this territory of land and water that is largely inaccessible without a boat.
In the north of the lagoon, the island of San Francesco del Deserto, which boasts a magnificent Franciscan monastery surrounded by cypresses, is not served by vaporetto.
San Lazzaro degli Armeni, another monastery island, is also worth a visit for its library and Egyptian antiques.
Each island has its own destiny
Burano is colourful, inhabited by fishermen and lacemakers; Murano, the island of glass; Torcello, the island of the first inhabitants of Venice, an absolute must-see for the mosaics of its Santa Maria Asunta basilica and its famous restaurant, the Locanda Cipriani; Le Vignole, a garden island with a fantastic outdoor cafe, with music and dancing. These islands, very busy during the day, are deserted by tourists in the late afternoon, which is the best time to explore them. This is when the locals set foot outside again, with widows chattering, children splashing about, lovers smooching. Everyday scenes of dolce vita in a small Italian town.
The pantry of Venice
On the way, we met Giovanni Cecconi. This engineer, a real lagoon enthusiast, is also a poet. He talked to us about the barene, the salt meadows where flora and fauna typical of the environment flourish. We invited him to take a little trip with us. As we approached a barene, he stamped his feet in the boat and grabbed his camera.
“You are going to see a barene in the process of formation…”
His eyes grow wide with excitement – ours too. Our hearts begin to beat a little faster. Giovanni cries out:
“Look, over there, that budding vegetation. Ah! It’s fantastic.”
We blink a few times. We can see nothing at all other than a sandbank and a few grass shoots, but we realise that we are expected to go into raptures:
“Great. Go on, let’s take a photo then off we go.”
We end up being hooked by Giovanni’s enthusiasm. All his stories of birds, grey herons, marsh harriers, bearded tits; of plants, glasswort, asters, sea lavender… All the little fish that we imagine swimming madly in the waters of the lagoon colonise it as they frolic. “The lagoon is a big nursery.” Moreover, the sea bass, bream, moleche (moulting crabs), vongole and cuttlefish that thrive there make up our Venetian meals. Some pull a long face.
What about pollution? Giovanni replies :
“You would have to eat several tonnes of shellfish per person for there to be the slightest risk.”
So the lagoon feeds Venice, but a “lagoon” feast comes as much from the land as from the sea. The island of Sant’Erasmo is the kitchen garden of Venice. All kinds of vegetables are grown here, but above all the famous castraure, the artichokes that are used in risotto or eaten raw to appreciate their slight bitterness and astringency.
There are many lagoon devotees: hundreds, most likely thousands of them. We met about ten or so, a bookseller, fisherman, farmer, architect, monk… They talk about it as if it were a rare territory of lights and colours. Of sharing, too. In a casone, a small wooden hut on piles equipped with a large net operated by a system of ropes mounted on a pulley, three men have been fishing and clinking glasses between each catch for several hours. With the net being pulled up every ten minutes, the late afternoon atmosphere is rather good in the casone now. A toast with a little glass of white wine as we go on our way.
That is also the charm of the lagoon. Everyone is friends here. It is the conviviality of water through wine. After days of sunshine and wind, after open landscapes and vast perspectives, we moor our boat at the harbour of San Giorgio and take a vaporetto to return to Venice, now deserted by tourists, with its narrow alleys and its canals. Plant fragrances emanate from discreet gardens, like olfactory allusions to the lagoon. We can’t decide between chicken and egg, but we didn’t have to choose. So much the better. Venice and its lagoon should be experienced at the mercy of the water and going against the tide.