“What a funny old city this Queen of the Adriatic is! Narrow streets, vast, gloomy marble palaces, black with the corroding damps of centuries, and all partly submerged; no dry land visible anywhere, and no sidewalks worth mentioning…” – Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
Burano is an island in the Venetian Lagoon and on all of my three visits to Venice I have visited its smaller neighbour which is famous for brightly coloured houses and intricate lacework.
Burano is situated seven kilometers from Venice, a short forty minute trip by Venetian public transport motorboats called Vaporetto. We waited at a stop on the Grand Canal and when one arrived waited for the boatman to secure it and then invite us to go on board and climbed to the upper deck where there was a good view of the city and the other islands.
The boat followed a route clearly marked by buoys so that it couldn’t get lost or run aground and stopped twice on the mainland peninsula of Treporti before making the crossing to Burano across the lagoon. It was a good approach to the island and as we got closer we could make out the pastel coloured houses in contrast to the blue of the sky with shimmering reflections in the sea and the Church of San Martino, with a campanile leaning at a perilous angle, the consequence of sinking foundations.
Like Venice itself it could more correctly be called an archipelago of islands linked by bridges. Burano actually consists of four individual islands, which are separated by narrow, ten meter wide canals, rio Pontinello in the west, rio Zuecca in the south and rio Terranova in the east. Originally, there were five islands and a fourth canal but that was filled in to become a piazza joining the former islands of San Martino Destra and San Martino Sinistra.
Burano is known for its small, brightly-painted houses, which are popular with artists. The colours of the houses follow a specific system originating from the golden age of the sixteenth century and owners cannot simply choose a shade from a Dulux colour chart before sending a request to the government because it will only respond by advising of the colours permitted for that particular house or building.
We stepped off the Vaporetti and walked the short distance to the centre of the island where a string of shops and restaurants lined the main street. Burano is most famous for its elegant lace making based on a tradition introduced in the sixteenth century when women on the island began making lace with needles, which was a method introduced to the island from Venetian-ruled Cyprus.
When Leonardo da Vinci visited in 1481, he visited the small town of Lefkara and purchased a cloth for the main altar of the Duomo di Milano. The lace was soon exported across Europe, and in 1872 a school of lace making was opened. Lace making on the island boomed again, but few now make lace in the traditional manner as it is extremely time-consuming and therefore very expensive.
Although it was busy there was a gentler pace than in Venice itself and we competed with tourists and other day trippers to walk alongside the canals which were multi-coloured on account of the wobbling reflections of the gaily coloured houses trapped in the languid movements of the water. It didn’t take long to wander around the narrow streets and cross the bridges that joined the islands and once we had circumnavigated and explored some of the back streets along the route we were quickly back in the main piazza, the Baldassarre Galuppi where it was time for lunch at the pavement tables of the freshly painted green and red, Trattoria Romano.
After the best calzone pizza I have ever tasted and a couple of cold pironi beers it was approaching mid afternoon so after another casual walk and an Italian speciality ice cream we returned to the vaporetto terminus which was unusually busy and I worried about being able to get on board which would have meant a wait of another hour. I needn’t have been concerned of course because there was plenty of room and soon we were pulling away and slipping through the waters of the lagoon and leaving Burano and its coloured houses in the distance as we returned to Venice.