Venice is my most favourite city in the entire world, but when you are fed up of being jostled and barged into, when you become invisible to the ocean liner troupe let loose in the city for a few hours, where can you go?
Take the vaporetto or ferry from the Fondamente Nouve stop on Venice’s northern shore and travel 10km north-west across the lagoon to the tiny, windswept island of Torcello.
Deep channels run between the mud-banks and are marked by bricole, wooden poles lashed together and emerging from the water. The channels are busy with all sorts of craft - rushing water taxis, vaporetto ploughing along full of city workers, huge dredgers keeping channels clear and fishermen looking for shrimp.
The landscape opens out as you enter the lagoon. It’s often misty, often mysterious. The sky and water merge. Brine laden winds caress you. All at once the quiet of the lagoon becomes unearthly. A feeling of deep relaxation is within you, which can be strangely energising.
This silent island was the first in the lagoon to be settled by Veneti after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and Germanic invasion. It was virtually impregnable and became an attractive refuge for merchants and tradesmen. The population once exceeded 20,000 but by the 12th century the lagoon had silted up and Torcello became inaccessible and malarial. The inhabitants left, and literally took their fine residences with them, leaving a littering of architectural debris.
Just a handful of residents remain in this tranquil backwater. The two churches of Torcello stand in magnificent isolation around the overgrown piazza - the church of Santa Fosca alongside the oldest building in the lagoon, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta founded in the 7th century. Its exterior is devoid of splendour, yet within are Byzantine treasures - the 13th century Madonna in the apse and the west wall decorated with a huge 12th century mosaic depicting the Last Judgement. The massive stone shutters of the windows turning on huge rings of stone cause the whole building to resemble a retreat from the enemy rather than a house of God.
The roughly crafted campanile is to be climbed in the early evening, up strangely sloping ramps. The throat catching beauty and loneliness of the lagoon becomes apparent. John Ruskin called it, “a waste of wild sea moor of a lurid ashen grey”. The mudflats and marshes are choked. The silted-up waterways are now homes to herons and egrets. Trees, reeds and broom grow over what was once a settlement. With imagination, this place is timeless. Just rest and sigh. Enjoy this place with an open mind and a willingness to get lost.
As you speed back to Venice for your evening meal, take a moment, turn, and catch that ‘Turneresque’ light. Watch the buildings of the island melt into the lagoon.
Torcello is the perfect antidote to glamorous Venice. There’s time for quiet contemplation, which too often nowadays can elude you in Serenissima.
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