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Episode #121: Islands of Venice

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Venice is famous for its canals but the lagoon that surrounds Venice contains many fascinating places that most visitors don’t see – mostly because they don’t know what is possible. These lesser-known islands of Venice are so important to the city’s ecosystem –  for food, wine, and culture. With well over 100 Islands in the Venice lagoon, you’ve got a long way to go to discover them all (quite possibly it would take a lifetime), but we learn about some gems to start your exploration further out from the small, tourist-packed, central Venice.

Show notes

We talk to Valeria Necchio, a food and travel writer, photographer, and author who specializes in Italian culture, particularly that of the Veneto – her region of origin – and of Venice, the city in which she lives and works. We talk about Burano beyond the colorful houses,  how to enjoy the best of Murano and places to enjoy nature, go for a bike ride, and where you can even meet a flock of flamingoes. 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. The lagoon is huge and with so many islands and different corners. Valeria describes it as having a decadent beauty and somewhere you are constantly amazed by something – a detail, a shade, a color, a texture, an architectural element or by a sound. With the water adding to the wonder, with all of the reflections and how the light and sounds of the water interact with the city
  2. Venice, of course, has a lot of visitors, but the majority of them are concentrated in certain parts of town. But there remains a large part of it that remains quiet. You’ll still have corners of it to yourself to explore and to still hear the sounds of it like to still enjoy the colors, etc. It’s great for people that just like to walk and go for a wander and enjoy the sensorial experience
  3. The very reason why Venice exists in the way that it exists now and has existed in the past is because of the lagoon that surrounds it. The main island, the city, which is shaped like a fish, is actually at the center of this lagoon that then stretches north and south of the city which has clusters of islands dotting both the Northern and the Southern part
  4. The very first settlement in the area, going back to Roman times, was in the Northern part of the lagoon. During the Barbarian invasions of Italy, when things were changing and the Roman Empire was collapsing, people escaped the mainland to find refuge somewhere else
  5. They first created a settlement in what is now Venice on an island called Rivo Alto, (as in the Rialto Bridge). This became the first settlement in Torcello. These Islands in the Northern lagoon, are now known as native Venice because it’s where the whole civilization there started. It’s where people learned how to live in symbiosis with the lagoon and with the water, because it couldn’t continue to exist unless it learned to tame and live in a close relationship with the water
  6. It’s a beautiful and interesting experience to take a boat and go to visit these Northern Islands because they put things in perspective and you really can get a grasp of how everything started and why. The Northern islands Valeria recommends visiting are Torcello,  Mazzorbo, and Burano
  7. Mazzorba and Sant’Erasmo are islands where you can see how Venice wouldn’t survive without agriculture and viticulture. You’ll find many local varieties of fruits and vegetables as well as grape varieties. The most famous would be the artichoke – the symbol of Venetian agriculture. You will see a lot of them on these islands and can also get to taste them in season. Then there’s also a lot of history and interesting stories connected to their grape growing tradition
  8. Burano is well known for being gorgeous. Unlike Mazzorbo and Sant’Erasmo, which have mostly fields of vegetables, Burano is paved and has canals and beautiful, colorful houses densely populated with people and houses because it was an island of fishermen. These fishermen back in time would be some of the suppliers to the Rialto market. Today there is still a community of fishermen but its a lot smaller
  9. Unfortunately today it can feel a bit like the island is invaded by day-trippers, which is not a bad thing, but we encourage people to go beyond just turning up and snapping the pretty houses and explore further. The hope for locals and for people who love the Islands and who love Venice, in general, is that it stops being the main reason visitors head to Burano. Underneath the surface, (the bright, shiny,  colorful surface), there are fishing traditions to learn about, which are then connected to the lace-making tradition- a fine craft that’s specific to the island stemming from the wives of fishermen being the ones responsible for fixing the fishing nets
  10. Pisa is also not the only place that has a leading tower – they actually have one on Burno as well. If you’re lucky enough, you might stumble upon the local personality who will insist on showing you his video in which he climbed the leaning bell tower with his bare hands. A very interesting character! Of course, the leaning tower came about as a result of the lagoon’s constant movement. Venice has to remain flexible. It can’t be concrete because it doesn’t move with the water. And that’s true for all of the houses as well. It’s really hard to find a house where the floor is actually completely straight. Most of them lean a little so if you drop a pen, it will roll to the other side.
  11. It’s about a 45-minute boat ride out to Burano, but back in the day, it used to be a four-hour ride rowing. This is why it’s such a completely different world from Venice. The community is lively and very curious. If you get to spend a little more than just half a day there, the very special moments in Burano would be in the morning and in the evening – before others arrive/when everybody leaves and you get to see who actually lives there, those are the moments in which you’ll get to interact with the locals at a deeper level – go to a local bar, if you could eavesdrop a conversation, which might range from international politics to the price of sardines and back again.
  12. The fisherman’s cooperative now only has about 20 members. The knowledge that these fishermen have, that would be passed down by their father and their grandfather because you learn by experience, but in this environment, they would also need to change and adapt. That’s very hard – if everything the way you’ve always known it is no longer true. For example, if you’re used to the soft to shell crab season being from March to May, and all of a sudden it’s not anymore because it’s from February, all of your rituals shift, and all of your timing, like when you rest in the winter is no longer applicable
  13. Softshell crab is indeed a local specialty, usually appearing about now, but with the changes in water temperatures, etc, it shifts so can be as early as February. But generally, spring and fall would be the seasons when you find them and they are a true delicacy
  14. they have this local specialty called Risotto di Go(h) which uses a white fish that lives in the lagoon. The fish itself is not very pretty or tasty as it’s very bony and a bit fatty, so you wouldn’t serve it on its own, but the way they cook it in the risotto is delicious
  15. There are local sweets called buranelli, which are vanilla biscuits of humble origins. They needed to last quite a few days as people would leave to go fishing at sea. They are delicious and are served at the end of a meal with your coffee or with a glass of Moscato or Malvasia wine
  16. Rowing is THE sport of Burano. You have no soccer, you only have rowing! The local rowing style is called. Voga alla Veneta. You can take lessons with the rowing club, or you can just go to watch at them as they seamlessly slide by making the rowing look effortless. 
  17. You can also go kayaking in the North Lagoon which is a beautiful way to explore the lagoon, in a slow and sustainable way. The Northern lagoon is a very fragile ecosystem, so with visitors, there needs to be caution on how many tourist boats or leisure boats go there because the movement of the waves can damage the ecosystem. This is why rowing and kayaking would be better options to explore in a greener way.  It’s also a very relaxing way to take in the nature and the rhythm of the place
  18. Another experience you can enjoy out on the lagoon is hiring electric boats. You can’t go fast. You can only relax and enjoy the beautiful nature all around. You’ll have the Dolomites in the background, which you can’t really see when you’re in the city
  19. There is a colony of flamingos that comes and goes so it’s not uncommon to see them out on the Northern lagoon if you are moving around very slowly and on an electric boat, rowing or kayaking
  20. A huge chunk of Venice’s tax income back in the day, back during the Serenissima age, came through wine exports and wine sales. So there was huge production and consumption of wine. You will see a lot of streets in town there in the name of Calle de La Malvasia – Malvasia being a type of wine. This used to be an indication of where you’d find wine to drink
  21. Historically most of the islands with the agricultural land would have had many hectares of vineyards. Unfortunately, in 1966 they had a very dramatic high tide which caused flooding that virtually decimated the viticulture in the lagoon because the plants were submerged in salty water for many days. After 1966, a lot of people that had been working in agriculture and viticulture, retrained in something else, mostly in glassmaking and those kinds of industries. These estates in the Northern Islands were abandoned and people started to produce wine in areas that were safer, so mostly on the mainland.
  22. Now, amazingly we have a bit of a resurgence. Vennisa is a wine resort with a fascinating story that is located on the island of Mazzorbo. It’s a project of agricultural rediscovery because they found a few plants of this local grape variety called Dorona, surviving in this beautiful garden owned by a local antique dealer in her father’s garden. Now they have 4000 plants of Dorona growing and thriving in Mazzorbo. From that there’s the wine that’s produced is quite unique and like a true taste of what wine from the lagoon would tastes like in the past
  23. Another wine to be found on the island is Orto and it’s located in Sant’Erasmo. They are international grape varieties for the most part, but it is a unique and different wine experience to try
  24. You can find these wines by visiting Venissa or Orto but there are also a few wine bars and restaurants in town that also have them. You can try these at Osteria San Marco and Gia Schiavi
  25. Murano, whilst being one of the most recognizable and famous of the islands, is perhaps not the most interesting to visit. It is famous for its glass blowing, of course, and that has made it more of a destination for consumerism rather than for charm. However, there are still some fantastic projects happening on the island and beautiful ateliers of glass blowing that are worth the visit because they’re authentic and are carried out by passionate people. If you go to Murano, it’s best to go with a plan/an objective and head straight to the special places, as opposed to simply strolling around and buying a little glass figurine from the first place that you stumble upon, because it’s hard to discern what’s authentic from what is not
  26. Micheluzzi Glass is run by 2 sisters who come from a glass-making family but then decided to do other things with their lives for a long time. So they moved abroad, they worked in retail and fashion, and then, like so often happens, they decided to return home and carry on the family tradition but to do something different and on their own. So they started their own collection by bringing in all of the inspirations that they’ve collected through their travels and experiences. Their pieces are therefore inspired and unique
  27. Punta Conterie is a multifunctional space where you would have a bit of a glass museum collecting the best pieces from some of the best workshops in Murano. They also have a beautiful florist and a fantastic terrace cafe that serves delicious food
  28. The Lido is the famous beach which the Venetians head to but there are some other lovely choices to get away from the busy city center. 
    Sant’Erasmo is nice to go visit and lounge on a Sunday. It has a sort of beach – it’s a little patch of land on the edge of the woodland that is not even very sandy – but the locals love it for Sunday leisure time on a sunny day. Great for chilling out
  29. The lagoon ends around Chioggia in the South, which is known as Little Venice due it’s it being like a small scale version of the larger city
  30. There are long strips which are also islands like Pellestrina, which is beautiful to go out and explore. You get there by first going to Lido and then taking the bus or you can cycle. You’ll see the beautiful Art Nouveau and Liberty buildings by the Lido beach and then the bus goes, or you cycle onto the ferry. The gorgeous ferry ride then drops you at Pellestrina. It does take a couple of hours to get there but then you’ll have the entire day to yourself on this very charming and quaint island with a few really nice places to eat and it stays pretty quiet

About our guest – Valeria Necchio

After earning a BA in English and Cultural Studies, and a MA in Food Culture and Communications, Valeria left her native Veneto for London, where she worked in communications and marketing in the food industry. All the while, she pursued writing and photography professionally, contributing stories on matters of food, culture, and travel to a variety of publications.

Her words and images have appeared in Monocle, The Guardian, Suitcase, The Art of Eating, National Geographic Traveller, and Corriere della Sera, and D di Repubblica, among others. Her blog, Life Love Food (now closed), was seen on Food52, Kinfolk, Design Sponge, and more.

Valeria’s debut cookbook, Veneto, a recipe-book-slash-memoir on the food of her origins, was published by Faber in 2017.

Today, she keeps creating culture-rich stories in which she recounts people, places and flavours through words and visuals for editorial and commercial projects alike.

You can find Valeria on these channels:

Book

Places mentioned in the show

  • Padova – known as Padua, a city in Veneto 
  • Le Langhe –  a hilly area in the province of Asti in Piedmont, northern Italy
  • Torcello – a sparsely populated island at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon
  • Mazzorbo – one of the islands of Venice, linked to Burano by a wooden bridge
  • Sant’Erasmo – an island in the Venetian Lagoon lying north-east of the Lido island
  • Burano – island famous for its colorful houses with a strong fishing and lace-making tradition
  • Chioggi – coastal town south of Venice and known as little Venice as it resembles the city
  • Pellestrina – quiet, charming, natural island to visit to get away from the hustle and bustle
  • Lido – where Venetians go to the beach
  • Trattoria Da Primo – restaurant offering wonderful fish on Burano
  • Gatto Nero – lovely restaurant on Burano
  • Osteria San Marco – four Venetians running a lovely, local bistro, selling contemporary food and offer both Venissa and Orto wines
  • Gia Schiavi – classic restaurant located in Dorsoduro. A hot spot for aperitivo with a mixed crowd and drinks from a small umbra (small goblet) of house wine at €1, to very refined drinks from the region and beyond, as well as bottles to take home, including the Venissa and Orto
  • Dorsoduro – University district in Venice 
  • Santa Maria delle Grazie – church and Dominican convent in Milan which is a UNESCO site
  • Micheluzzi Glass – glass by 2 sisters from a family of glass blowing, bringing a modern, contemporary twist 
  • Punta Conterie – multifunctional space where you would have a bit of a glass museum collecting the best pieces from some of the best workshops in Murano

Food & Drink mentioned in the show

  • risotto di go(h) –  invented in 1500s by the fishing communities of Burano, using gò (black goby fish from the lagoon
  • mantecatura – the secret of a great risotto. You come to the stage when the rice is nearly done and most of the stock has been absorbed, you then take the risotto off the heat, add the final ingredients (Parmigiano parsley, etc), and stir vigorously for a couple of minutes thus making the risotto creamy and smooth
  • buranelli – buttery cookies with vanilla from Burano, served at the end of your meal with coffee or a sweet wine
  • Malvasia and Moscato – sweet dessert wines
  • Venissa – wine resort on the island of Mazzorbo 
  • Orto di Venezia – wine from Sant’Erasmo
  • Umbra – a small-sized goblet for wine

Resources

  • Homo Faber – a fair celebrating crafts and artisans in Venice
  • La Biennale – famous art festival held every other year in Venice
  • Morphology – the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features.
  • Voga alla Veneta – rowing style of Burano
  • La Serenissima – the time of the Most Serene Republic
  • viticulture – the cultivation and harvesting of grapes, a branch of the science of horticulture
  • “Bacaro” – the term Venetians use for bars
  • vaporetto – Venice water bus
  • La Guniamo – electric boat and kayak hire on the Venetian Lagoon

Resources from Untold Italy

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