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Burano, an archipelago of four islands linked by bridges in the Venetian Lagoon, is famous for its brightly colored houses.

Marco Secchi, Getty Images

Island hopping in Italy

  • Article by: CATHRYN DRAKE
  • Washington Post
  • September 29, 2012 - 1:26 PM

While living in Venice's Sant'Elena quarter several years ago, I discovered that there's much more to Venice than the art-rich city center.

More than 50 islands are scattered throughout Venetian lagoon, many inhabited only by the ghosts of the devastating plague, which took at least 80,000 lives and triggered the Venetian Republic's decline. Many of these abandoned places are filled with atmospheric monastic ruins and the tangles of overgrown gardens, relics of a tumultuous history of expansion, invasion and contraction.

Exploring the Venetian lagoon, an enclosed bay off the Adriatic, is an adventure that evokes both the ghosts of the Republic's fascinating past and the enduring rhythms of life in this marshy archipelago.

My first foray was to tiny Torcello, the longest continuously inhabited island of Venice, now with only a score of residents holding down the fort. It once had a population of about 20,000, the largest in the far-flung Republic in medieval times, when it was an important outpost of the Byzantine Empire. Centuries before it inspired the imagination of Ernest Hemingway (who stayed there in the fall of 1948 while working on "Across the River and Into the Trees"), Torcello was the first refuge for Romans fleeing successive "barbarian" invasions. It was they who coined the term incolae lacunae ("lagoon dwellers") to describe the fishermen they found living on the swampy wetland.

The day I visited, aside from the mesmerizing Byzantine mosaics of the Last Judgment in the church of Santa Maria Assunta, my only company was the grumpy clerk, who grudgingly proffered the audio guide. More amusing company, and gourmet sustenance, can be found at Hemingway's chic former perch, Locanda Cipriani, the country relation to the author's legendary San Marco haunt, Harry's Bar.

I opted for the garden at the Ponte del Diavolo, or Devil's Bridge, where the spaghetti con vongole and torta di fragola were delicious and the waiter was indulgent and kind, perhaps grateful for some company on that deliciously lost afternoon.

Touring the plague

On another visit the following spring, my mother and I set out for Murano, which hosts hordes of daytime visitors at its glass-blowing studios. Still, its worth a stopover for the Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum), which depicts the history of the craft through a spectacular collection and occasional glassmaking demonstrations.

We took in the museum and the Basilica di Santi Maria e Donato, a wonderful example of the Venetian-Byzantine style. Afterward, we took a lunch break at bustling Osteria ai Bisatei, a short walk away on the Ramo San Bernardo, where we ate fresh seafood at long tables with the boisterous locals, handily escaping the crowds from the Museo boat stop.

It was on this excursion that we accidentally discovered Lazzaretto Nuovo. During the Black Death, which lurked in cargo such as Oriental spices and textiles, all incoming merchant ships were detained for 40 days on this minuscule islet just off the shore of Sant'Erasmo. We joined a tour of the Tezon Grande, a gigantic storehouse where everything was fumigated while sailors waited out the quarantine (the term was coined here, derived from the Italian quaranta, meaning "forty").

The guide pointed out the plague doctors' black cloaks and macabre white masks, whose long beaks were filled with medicinal herbs and which inspired a style of carnival attire. The wall is inscribed with graffiti in a Babel of archaic tongues that evidence arrivals from places such as Crete and Constantinople. Judging by the jovial notes, it seems that this was not a bad place to spend a mandatory holiday, particularly after confinement at sea; the comfortable little houses where the ships' crews resided still line the island's periphery.

Development on the way

Daily life in the Venetian archipelago is still dictated by the rhythms of nature, but it's a clock ticking furiously to the pace of the rising sea -- as well as encroaching development. With the glass business going south, luxury hotels have been going up in the place of Murano foundries, and a number of fishermen's houses on nearby Burano are being converted into tourist accommodations.

Meanwhile Mazzorbo, the tiny island next to Burano, has become a bucolic haven: Recently opened guesthouse Venissa offers six stylishly spare rooms (a rarity in Venice, where historic kitsch reigns) and a gourmet restaurant on an idyllic vineyard. The homey guesthouse opens onto the lagoon with an expansive terrace, blending in with the neighboring houses lining the waterfront, each painted in a different primary color.

From Mazzorbo, we headed across the footbridge to Burano, a fishing enclave with modest houses painted in cheerful colors, and explored the canals, miniature versions of those on the central islands.

The natives tend to hide out or fish until evening, so if you stay overnight on sleepy Mazzorbo you can do as they do: grab an aperitif at the bar in the former Communist Party headquarters after taking in the evocatively refurbished Museo del Merletto, a renowned former lace school founded in 1872, both on Piazza Baldassare Galuppi.

Ruins and stories

The ruins of a Carthusian monastery, Isola della Certosa has been spiffed up as part of the same municipal lagoon restoration project that is reviving the Mazzorbo vineyard. Just one vaporetto stop from Sant'Elena, the island hosts a marina where you can take sailing lessons, rent a vessel, or embark on a lagoon excursion in a kayak or a bragozzo, a traditional Venetian fishing craft.

There's a casual hotel with 18 rooms and the seasonal restaurant Il Certosino. I've often eaten a leisurely lunch on the terrace, surrounded by a lush green lawn, before taking hikes on the nature trail being cultivated around the rundown army barracks and fragments of an explosives factory, where rabbits dart to and fro. Although you can see the main island from there, it feels miles away.

As part of the effort to revive the lagoon, the city has been auctioning off six-year leases for about a dozen uninhabited islands as a way to prevent them from going completely to ruin. One, the fortified Sant'Angelo della Polvere, was home to a religious order with a side business: On the way home from the Rialto market, fishermen would stop by and fritter away their daily profits on sexual favors. Eventually their wives squealed, and troops were sent in to evict the naughty nuns.

Still standing is a gunpowder depot that exploded when it was struck by lightning in the late 17th century.

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