Everyone knows there's a lot of water in and around this captivating Italian city. But we didn't realize how much until we rolled our suitcases out of the Marco Polo Airport and asked where we could find a bus to the center of town.
"There is no bus,'' came the reply.
Actually, there is one, just not the kind with wheels. A sign directed us to the vaporetti — long, enclosed water taxis — and soon we were speeding across the Venetian Lagoon to the docks at Piazza San Marco.
On our visit to Venice in late October, we were never more than a few hundred feet from water — the narrow canal that ran behind our hotel, the Grand Canal with its magnificent Renaissance palazzos, and of course the lagoon, where, one morning, we hopped aboard another vaporetto for a day trip to one of the world's most colorful and picturesque islands: Burano.
Four miles and 40 minutes from Venice, Burano is primarily known for houses that look like they came straight from a child's coloring pad. Boxy in shape, they eschew the muted hues of many Italian structures in favor of egg-yolk yellow, carrot orange and other cartoon colors. For an even more photogenic touch, windowsills and doorjambs are painted bright white in contrast.
Legend has it that the houses were different colors so returning fishermen could find their homes in the fog. Even now, a strict color scheme remains in place, and Burano homeowners must get government permission before repainting. On this warm, sunny day, extra splashes of color came from the many flower boxes and clothes hung out to dry on lines strung across second-story windows.
Burano's other major attraction is lace, as intricate as its houses are simple. Local women began making lace in the 16th century after merchants brought back needles from Venetian-controlled Cyprus, where the skill already flourished. Burano lace was soon exported across Europe and hit its peak popularity in the late 1800s when a lacemaking school opened on the island.
Now, though, the industry is dying out, due to competition from cheaper machine-made lace from Asia and dwindling interest among young people both in making lace and using lacy linens. But a few shops still carry the real thing. (Look closely at tags for the place of origin.)
Burano, like the rest of Venice, can get very crowded, especially on a nice weekend. By noon, every seat in every ristorante on the cobblestone main street had been taken. Turning down a side street, we found a quaint little place and were ushered into a cozy back dining room with brick walls where a large Italian family was enjoying a noisy Sunday dinner.
Our lunch was fine — two glasses of house Chianti, spaghetti with clam sauce for me, fried sardines for my husband.
The bill was not — converted from euros, it came to almost $70. We would later get the same meal in Florence for half the price. Burano, for all of its charm, can be somewhat of a tourist trap.
After lunch, we continued down the side street, where bright blue motorboats were tied up in the canal. As in Venice itself, Burano's inhabitants get around by boat, for there are no cars or even bikes. Several of the dwellings doubled as gift shops, heavy on postcards and souvenir magnets but also selling Italian leather goods and the colorful Murano glass made on the nearby namesake island.
Large Murano pieces can easily set you back hundreds of dollars, though I found some lovely pendants for just 12 euros, about $13. We slurped strawberry gelato — gelaterias are as common in Italy as convenience stores are in the United States — and made our way to a pretty little waterfront park at the end of the street.
From there, we had a good view of another much-photographed Burano sight: the bell tower next to the church of St. Martin Bishop. Rising some 160 feet, the tower leans almost 6 feet from its axis. Pisa may have Italy's most famous leaning tower, but earthquakes and settling soils have given many other structures a drunken tilt.
On the way back to Venice, zipping along one of the water highways marked by pilings, we saw construction on the MOSE Project, a $6 billion attempt to keep the city from sinking into the Adriatic Sea. Dozens of times a year, acqua alta (high water) turns Piazza San Marco into a lake, forcing visitors and Venetians alike to carefully make their way along portable elevated walkways called — what else? — duckboards.
Started in 2003 and not yet finished — "This is Italy, after all,'' our guide said — MOSE consists of giant mobile gates at three inlets. The gates will close during storms and isolate the Venetian Lagoon from tides of almost 10 feet.
Once a leading maritime center with a population of more than 150,000 people, Venice is now down to just 40,000 full-time residents. Many of its grand palazzos are dark at night because few people can afford the enormous upkeep of centuries-old homes with water lapping at their doors.
As we and millions of others have found, Venice is both blessed and cursed by water. It is a large part of what makes the city and nearby islands like Burano so alluring, even as it reclaims them, slowly but inexorably.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.