Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
Venice may be feeling the effects of overtourism, but there’s still peace and quiet to be found. Mary Novakovich discovers how to slow down and see Venice in a whole new light.
Venice is heaving. It’s a victim of its own popularity—on any given day, tourists outnumber the shrinking resident population of 55,000. Everyone wants to come here, and we continue to go, helplessly drawn to the city’s incomparable beauty.
Some visitors are less welcome than others. Although cruise ships were banned from the Grand Canal, you can still see the monsters rolling through the Giudecca Canal. Thousands of ship passengers swarm through the narrow streets of San Marco, and even an attempt at installing turnstiles during major holidays to allow locals to move about more easily did little to stem the flow. Those Venetians who haven’t yet been priced out of their city feel under siege for most of the year.
Despite all of this, I can’t keep away myself. But I do know that if I want to stay sane, I have to get away from the crowds and perhaps do things differently. And luckily, that’s easily done.
I head over to Piazzale Roma, where vaporetti (waterbuses) arrive to take people up and down the Grand Canal. But there’s a special boat waiting for me around the corner, along with its skipper, Paolo, and Martina Raehr from a company called Slow Venice. Martina is on a mission to show people that there’s more to Venice than being trapped in slow-moving crowds and feeling compelled to pay €10 ($12) for a coffee at Caffè Florian simply because it’s the most famous café in Venice. “Come and see another side of Venice,” she beckons. “A wilder, quieter side.”
I’m immediately struck by the simple beauty of our bragozzo, a 19th-century fishing boat, with its highly polished wooden bridge, vivid yellow deck and a red and black hull. With its flat bottom, it’s made for a lazy chug around the remarkably shallow Venetian lagoon, reaching parts other boats can’t reach.
Once we navigate through the rush-hour traffic—consisting of enormous goods-filled barges instead of lorries—we duck under a low bridge and make our way through the narrow channels of the lagoon. Time is already starting to play tricks with my brain. Everything seems to slow down. I’d been in the lagoon before on lumbering vaporetti, but this little bragozzo is an altogether more intimate experience.
I find it hard to believe that Torcello was the beating heart of Venice back in the fifth century. I climb the 11th-century bell tower to take in the views and see that we’ve barely scratched the salty surface. The lagoon seems to go on forever.
Once we pass the church tower and high walls of the cemetery island of San Michele, there’s a vast flatness to the scene, broken up by wooden stakes marking the channels. Murano’s lighthouse briefly comes into view before we pass the lush island of Sant’Erasmo. This is Venice’s garden, full of produce that ends up in Rialto’s food market. I make a mental note to return in warmer weather, when I’d be able to hire a bike and cycle round the island’s vineyards before cooling off at its minuscule beach.
On the bragozzo, Paolo brings out a flask of herbal tea and biscuits for us to enjoy in the sunshine before taking us further into the lagoon to Torcello. Because of the boat’s compact size, he’s able to guide us through the backwaters, where fishing shacks and ramshackle boats line the banks.
Walking around the island’s main square, I find it hard to believe that Torcello was the beating heart of Venice back in the fifth century. Now it’s an agreeably drowsy place—at least on my out-of-season visit—with a seventh-century Byzantine cathedral. I climb the 11th-century bell tower to take in the views of the island and surrounding marshes and mudflats of the lagoon. I see that we’ve barely scratched the salty surface. The lagoon seems to go on forever.
After skirting round Burano for half the morning, we finally dock at this rainbow-colored island just in time for lunch. Even though Burano is firmly on the tourist trail, its allure is too strong to resist—it’s overly popular for good reason. Fishermen’s cottages come in almost every color on the palette, broken up by ribbons of waterways and arched bridges.
“Those private water taxis don’t care what they’re doing to this environment. Did you see how fast they were going? They were well over the speed limit.”
Martina Raehr, Slow Venice
By now I’ve become used to the ethereal atmosphere out here in the lagoon—a sense of being in a watery wilderness. But now, it’s time to wave goodbye to Paolo and his bragozzo, and say hello to Sebastiano and his larger fishing boat. He’s able to take us out even further so he can cast his nets to catch some cuttlefish. At this point, signs of civilization start to disappear. Martina, a dedicated nature-lover, gets excited as she points out the wildlife of the lagoon. “Look, egrets,” she says, pointing to the shore. “There’s a heron over there. And avocets. And sandpipers.” Her enthusiasm is infectious.
Instead of church spires and fishermen’s cottages of Burano, I see deserted marshy islands and brown mudflats. It’s bleak but hypnotically beautiful. We go beyond the limit of the wooden stakes that mark the channels and into a seemingly empty world.
Only it’s not quite empty. We pass a mudflat where two men had moored their dinghy and are now on their knees in the mud, digging for clams. Evidently it’s worth the effort to come out here in the middle of nowhere and dig for your dinner. They seem to be having better luck than Sebastiano, whose nets remain stubbornly empty.
He’s not surprised, as he tells me that fish stocks and species have been reducing over the year. Now in his 40s, Sebastiano has been fishing since he was a child but recently has had to find other ways of supplementing his income—this particular form of fishing tourism, for one. “And my wife runs a souvenir shop in Burano, which helps,” he says.
It certainly feels fragile out here in the lagoon. Martina points to the wooden stakes. “Look at how eroded they are,” she says. “It’s a constant battle against the saltwater. You can see where the shoreline is eroding too.” Sebastiano’s flat-bottomed boat, like Paolo’s bragozzo, keeps the delicate bed of the shallow lagoon from being churned up—unlike the private water taxis that flout the speed limit as they zoom between the inhabited islands. “They don’t care what they’re doing to this environment,” says Martina scathingly. “Did you see how fast they were going? They were well over the speed limit.”
But they’re not allowed out here, thankfully. And that means we’re left in peace to enjoy this mesmerizing place for as long as we can. If only we could wean Venice off its cruise ships and encourage more of this ‘slow Venice’ way of travel, there might be some hope yet for this matchless city.
You can experience Venice in first gear with Slow Venice and stay at small establishments in neighborhoods with a laidback, local vibe such as Sawdays’ Il Giardino di Giulia B&B in Venice’s Santa Croce district.