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Navigating the lagoon to island-hop around Venice

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / July 31, 2005

LAGUNA DI VENEZIA, Italy -- Guidebooks tend to extol the virtues of getting lost in Venice, but we doubt the scribes imagined doing it aboard your own boat in the San Marco Basin.

Squeezed between tanker-size car ferries.

In the rain.

Even on a clear day, Venice is but a speck of land, and it's even more aqueous in a downpour. It seems the most improbable of settlements. But when Germanic tribes swept down from the north in the fifth century, Roman citizens managed to build a civilization in a swamp: the Venetian Lagoon. It was precisely that realm of shallow waters, silty rivers, vast marshes, and ancient islands that we wanted to explore.

We picked up our 36-foot, British-built, diesel-inboard cruiser in Chioggia, the region's principal fishing port at the southern end of the lagoon. The massive fish market here opens at 5 a.m., and the port's deep-sea gillnetters dwarfed our boat. Yet our craft was as roomy as a large RV: a 13-foot beam, cabins fore and aft, a full galley, and a small salon. Up top were a large sundeck and a secondary helm. We spent the first afternoon of our weeklong rental under the watchful eye of Marcello Padoan literally learning the ropes, poring over charts, memorizing navigation rules, and taking a short test drive. We rocked in half-sleep with the predawn wake of the big fishing vessels, and by the time we set out after breakfast the next morning, ours was practically the biggest boat left in the harbor.

The Venetian Lagoon, off the Adriatic Sea, stretches about 32 miles north to south and less than six east to west, with Venice emerging from the waters at the center. At a maximum speed of six knots (about seven miles per hour), it took 2 1/2 hours to reach the city. The leisurely cruising speed allowed ample time to admire the brightly painted houses of the small fishing villages on the lagoon side of the barrier spits and to get accustomed to following the ''briccole" -- the lines of three pilings attached in a pyramid that separate the navigable channel from the shallows.

''Give everyone priority," Padoan had said of the steady stream of ferries, cargo boats, seine netters, trap tenders, and cruise ships along the route. ''They are working and you are on vacation." Moreover, he had warned, ''if you think you have time to cross a channel in front of a big ship, you do not."

Heeding his warning, we dodged the auto ferries, found the right channel by triangulating church spires, and puttered along amid the rooster tails of the sleek water taxis, the stately churn of the tour vessels, and the determined chug of the vaporetti water buses hopping from dock to dock. Skimming as close to shore as we dared, we followed the long promenade of the Zattere quays from the cruise-ship docks past the Greek dome of Madonna della Salute to the Byzantine fantasies of Basilica di San Marco and the stone megalomania of the Doge's Palace. It was at once nerve-racking and exhilarating.

Black gondolas lay in berths as we proceeded east along Sant'Elena to the old naval shipyards of Arsenale. As suddenly as the glories of Venice had been upon us, they were behind us, and we were outward bound toward the northern lagoon.

During two days cruising the northern tip of the lagoon and the Sile River, the greatest hazards to navigation were mute swans, stubborn waterfowl that hissed with annoyance when they had to yield to the boat. The lower reaches of the Sile, one of several rivers that pour into the lagoon, wend through the high grasses of a marshland nature preserve where we puttered past egrets and herons and barely avoided getting stuck in shallow mudflats. We flubbed our way through the lock at Portegrandi, built in the 17th century as part of flood control on the lagoon. On the upper reaches, the Sile meandered in wide bends as weeping willows drooped a green veil along the banks. The water was thick with ducks, scoters, small egrets, and the occasional shy heron. Swans still ruled.

In the tradition of pilgrims, we tied up next to the village church in Casale sul Sile. Townsfolk strolled down the riverside to toss bread to the waterfowl and catch glimpses of our boat. We walked into town to check out the cafes and gelaterias and stocked up on prosecco, a sparkling wine. As luck would have it, vendors started setting up at six the next morning for a farmers market, so we replenished the galley with local strawberries, Sicilian blood oranges, prosciutto-filled tortellini, and wedges of local Piave cheese. With fresh provisions, we could have continued upriver, but we were eager to leave the plains of the Veneto to return to the heart of the lagoon.

At the mouth of the Sile, Torcello suddenly rises from the reeds, the ancient brick hulk and bell tower of the Basilica di Santa Maria dell'Assunta proclaiming a long-lost grandeur. When Venice was little more than a marshy outpost of fishermen, Torcello was queen of the lagoon. This stunning church is not only the oldest in the lagoon (foundations from 639, this edifice from 1008) but also possibly the most moving. When we landed on the back side of the island on a rainy day, we found ourselves sharing the basilica's mysteries with two skinny Brits and a pride of plump cats instead of a boatload of tourists. A towering 12th-century mosaic of a serene Mary over the altar faced a monumental mosaic of a horrific Last Judgment that made the wildest imaginings of Hieronymus Bosch three centuries later seem tame. We couldn't quite touch the mosaics, but we could get close enough to see how each tiny tile was laid to render spirit, life, death, and the afterlife to mere mortals.

Torcello's mystic past was just one of the pleasures of island-hopping as we spent the rest of the week slowly heading home to Chioggia. We encountered no one-eyed giants, but we shared drinks and gesture-filled conversation with barrel-chested fishermen and hid our eyes from the searing glare of glass furnaces. We missed the reclusive monks and sweet water of the fountain at San Francesco del Deserto only because a barge with a voracious channel-dredging crane blocked the fragile wooden landing.

Perhaps the best overnight mooring was Burano, an island of fishermen and lacemakers a short hop from Torcello. Camera-toting day-trippers from Venice swarm the alleys, squares, and canal-side walks from late morning until late afternoon, but the village of brilliantly painted houses and stone canals assumes a timeless beauty of long shadows and shimmering reflections after the ferries depart. Women reel in their laundry, children reappear almost magically along the quays, and the aromas of fish stews and risottos waft from open windows.

After tarrying in the bars, the fishermen disperse to dine ''a casa," at home.

Burano's leaning bell tower became our guiding star as we drew closer to Venice. A snug mooring on Le Vignole, where pony-size dogs guarded country estates and vineyards, served as a base for short ferry rides to Murano and central Venice, both of which have resident-only parking at their docks.

We knew Murano first by its blue-striped white lighthouse, though it's best known as a world-class glassmaking center. Venice expelled its smoky, dangerous glass furnaces in 1291, and glass has defined Murano ever since. Glassblowing demonstrations in many factories only hint at the skills needed to create the jewelry, stemware, vases, and sculptures in the boutiques and showrooms. Murano is also a ferry hub, with regular service to the cemetery island of San Michele and a direct boat to the northern quay of Fondamente Nuove in Cannaregio, Venice's working-class neighborhood.

All the narrow alleys on Venice proper eventually lead to the Grand Canal, the one legendary swath of water denied to us. (Navigating the canal without a local permit incurs a 500-euro fine.) So we did what Venetians do and boarded the No. 1 vaporetto. It huffed and chugged past the crumbling palaces and beneath the arching bridges, and we lurched with each stop as the mate threw ankle-thick ropes over the cleats. We should have been entranced by the city that defines picturesque decay, yet a thought kept nagging: Wouldn't it be better if we were at the helm?

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers in Cambridge.

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