My lovely friend Cassandra works in the art world, and her party was filled with arty types. I never know what to say to artists, I love art, but I don't know art, and I had all those 'am I talking to someone famous and I don't know it' anxieties. Yes, I later learned, I was.
I started chatting to a man in a beautiful shirt who quickly introduced his wife. She was a writer who had lived in Florence for a few years, and had amazing knowledge of the city. She mentioned that they would be traveling to the Biennale in Venice, and I mentioned my itch for exploring the islands. Fantastic! She was in!
Once back in Florence I started putting together a boat trip in Venice, signed up a few other people, and after much, much research we found ourselves all boarding a boat- an old Venetian Bragozzo with a friendly local named Paolo and heading into the lagoon.
Paolo first took us into the arsenale- the military shipyard where boat makers still ply their trade and a large part of the Biennale is exhibited. We had a sneak peak of a chinese artists' huge phoenix sculptures in the wet dock, and Paolo explained with much grimacing and head shaking about the lagoon flooding system, Mose, currently being installed amid much controversy and bribery scandal.
We then headed to our first dead island- the fort of Sant Andrea, at the mouth of the lagoon and designed to protect Venice from invasion. The cannons were only ever fired twice, Paolo explained, when the fort was opened, and then on Napoleon, who quickly turned around and entered the lagoon through the 'back door' canal south of Lido.
Now home to a colony of goats, the fort is an interesting monument of stairs and sneering gargoyles, and is still the first sight of Venice for the cruise ships and anyone else entering by sea.
On our return home we watched the 2005 film 'Casanova' and were thrilled to recognise the fort as the scene of a duel between the protagonists.
We then headed to Sant Erasmo, the 'orto' of Venice, where fruit and vegetables have been grown for venetian tables since the time of the doges. They also have a particular purple artichoke gown almost exclusively on the island. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in any other Italian country town and we strolled around, revelling in the peace and space and green that venice is so not famous for.
Back in the boat, we skirted the island of Lazaretto Vecchio, which from the 1400's to the 1800's was a leper hospital, plague hospital and quarantine station, so basically all human misery in a nutshell. Recent excavations have unearthed, amoung thousands of skeletons, that of a suspected vampire which had been buried with a brick in her mouth, the preferred 16th century method to keep a vampire down. Spooky.
picture source: kitskinny.wordpress.com
Here we pulled up in a quiet canal, with signs extolling us to contemplate and not to sunbathe, and Paolo prepared the best seafood picnic I have ever eaten. He had made Sarde in Saor, curry prawns and a squid and ink pasta, all of it better than any restaurant in Venice.
Burano and Murano are popular for tourists, and we have visited both previously. This time we cruised through the main lagoons in the centre of the islands, marvelling at the pretty houses of Burano and the glass warehouses of Murano. Once a thriving global business the now slide softly into the sea, surviving on selling trinkets to tourists.
Some islands we passed were nothing more than empty shells- once the sites of monastries and convents, Napoleon had torn them down and the Austrians had constructed military barracks. Paolo had as much sneer for the Austrians as he had for the more recent management of Venice and the lagoon.