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Photograph by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

Venice without the gondolas

For the first timer it means a gondola ride, hearing opera from open balconies, feeding pigeons at St. Mark’s Square. For the second timer, it's getting to know the surrounding areas, its cuisine and crafts, and finding your love unchanged. Like finding out that the looker you’ve picked up in a bar can cook, too.
John Ernest Proctor | Dec 22 2018

Ask anyone what their ideas of Venice are and the same things would probably come up — St. Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge and gondolas. While there’s nothing wrong with seeing these and other top sights of La Serenissima, having already visited years ago did mean being free from just checking off a list of must-sees. As a returning tourist, it felt like the right time to go forth and explore beyond the highlights of the city.

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A generally less crowded Venice in November.

Fortunately, November in Venice isn’t as busy as the summer months. There are still lots of tourists, but none of the insane crowds often shown on the news when problems of irresponsible tourism are brought up. The downside, though, is the generally cloudy/rainy weather and temperatures that can get downright cold, especially at night. Still, looking out at the water as the fog rolls in does give the place an air of mystery, especially with the city’s backdrop of old palazzi and even older churches.

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Just one of the many picture-postcard views of the city.


Exploring Venice’s kissing cousins: Mazzorbo, Murano and Burano

Venice’s unique draw is that it is built on water. This also poses a unique challenge when getting from point A to point B. The city and its surrounding areas are basically clusters of islands that have been built upon over the centuries. With canals and waterways for streets and roads, the only real option to get to the islands further out in the lagoon is the vaporetto network. Settling on the specific islands to visit, I made prior arrangements to go to Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo, and then planned to spend a couple of hours at Burano, to finish with a stop at Murano on the way back to Venice proper. The linea 12 vaporetto departing from the Fondamente Nove terminal stops at these places.

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Vaporetto on the Grand Canal.

Heading to the Sestier de Cannaregio where the terminal is located proved a pleasant change of pace. Passing through the Rialto in San Polo and onto a bit of the San Marco district is a little introduction to the tourist congestion of Venice’s narrow streets. Well into Cannaregio, however, the number of fellow travelers thins out and there are moments when, save for a few individuals, it feels like you have an entire square, bridge or street all to yourself. 

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A quiet moment in Cannaregio.

Getting a whole day transport ticket (20 euros for a 24-hour “ride-all-you-can” versus 7 euros per single trip) is a practical choice for exploring the nearby islands. As there were still a couple of hours to go before the reservation at Venissa, I decided to do a bit of sightseeing in Cannaregio. A good 20 to 30 minute walk from Fondamente Nove terminal is the church of Madonna dell’Orto. Although you can actually ride from the terminal to a station near the church, going this route will make you miss out on seeing more of the neighborhood. As there were festivities and exhibits all over the city celebrating the 500th birth anniversary of the Venetian painter, Tintoretto, it was a good place to visit as it has some remarkable works by the artist, not to mention his tomb is also within. 

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Madonna dell'Orto
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The Worship of the Golden Calf by Tintoretto at the altar of the church.

Another church closer to the terminal is I Gesuiti, the Jesuit church. Just looking at the façade, which boasts of numerous statues, already hints at the overwhelming ornamentation of the structure inside. Nothing about this church is austere — from the rich golden ceilings to the intricate stonework which makes the columns and walls look like brocade — I Gesuiti is as theatrical as it gets. Having killed enough time, it was now onwards to the islands.

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(L-R) Façade of I Gesuiti and Interior of the church.

The trip to Mazzorbo took under an hour and was gorgeously picturesque. The vaporetto passes by the cemetery island of San Michele and gives a different view of the city of Venice as it moves toward Murano and beyond.

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View of Venice from the Vaporetto.

After some time of seeing lonely islets hosting crumbling ruins that dot this area of the Venetian lagoon, the island of Mazzorbo finally came into view along with the first stop, Venissa. Billed as a wine resort offering accommodations, culinary and cultural experiences, Venissa has the distinction of being Michelin starred for the quality of its food. Chief among what’s available is a tasting of their very own wine made from the rare Dorona grape variety. As part of the tasting, guests are taken through their vineyard and garden as the story of how the wine came to be is told. According to the guide, the Dorona was almost wiped out after the great flood of 1966. Decades later, a few surviving vines were found still growing on a nearby island and replanted where the Venissa site is today. The current vintages (which are limited in number due to the small production and therefore quite pricey) are the fruits of their attempts to keep alive traditional Venetian winemaking. At 25 euros per glass, the wine demands to be savored little by little for full enjoyment.

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Outdoor seating at Venissa’s osteria.

After a couple of hours well spent at Venissa, it was now time to cross into the island of Burano.

The whole of Burano is one big riot of color deserving more than a few posts on anyone’s social media feed. The buildings are decked out in every candy color imaginable with quaint and quirky details. To top it all off, the town even has its own leaning bell tower. For just the sensation of stepping into a real life coloring book, Burano’s streets and canals are worth getting lost in if only for a little while.  Over at the Burano terminal, I caught the next ride to reach the island of Murano. The vaporetto service runs on a regular schedule, so there shouldn’t be any worries about getting to the next point. For linea 12 in particular, boats come into the stops every 20 to 30 minutes. Schedules are also available online so apps like Google Maps will have updated information.

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Burano’s colorful buildings.

Murano lives up to its reputation as a center of glass production. Almost every shop you see is filled with all sorts of glass from jewelry to figurines and bottle stoppers to magnets. There are stores huge enough to display chandeliers and vases, while the smaller ones have more of the usual fare such as multicolored pendants and beads on offer. A few have more unique items that wouldn’t be out of place in an art gallery. Some shopkeepers even demonstrate their craft in store — one had a small blowtorch firing away at a piece of jewelry being assembled when I interrupted to buy a unique looking black and gold bead. Prices vary from one to store to the next so it pays to go around first before buying anything. As evening was fast approaching, it was time to return to the city.

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The city at dusk. 

San Michele 

Even the vineyard has its own bell tower not out of place in the Venetian lagoon. 

Artworks dot Venissa’s gardens. 

There’s more than one leaning tower in Italy. 

View of Murano from the vaporetto with its faro (lighthouse). 

The familiar profile of the city’s buildings came into view on the trip back — brick and marble façades, gothic arches of windows, monolithic bell towers and striped mooring posts. Venturing out into the lagoon shows there is more to Venice than just the Grand Canal or the Doge’s Palace. It was a great experience to see parts of the greater area that are at once different due to being separate from the city, but also very accessible at just being a short boat ride away.