Venice from the water
VENICE - A new way of visiting Venice will be provided by upcoming motor yacht tours which reveal the lagoon’s complexity, variety and beauty. Recently I went on a trial run of this approach developed by a local cultural association in reaction against the superficial tourism tsunami.
Being on one of the more than lagoon’s 20000 craft gives a first-hand appreciation of its vitality. Ferries and wherries, fishing boats, gondolas, pleasure craft, aquatic fire fighters, garbage collectors, firefighters, taxis, rowing skiffs and even rental kayaks go their ways and, on dark nights, the speed boats seem like purposeful isotopes skidding across a black screen. Fortunately the Linssen motor yacht 40.9 which will be used is comparatively silent because part of the lagoon’s attraction is its silence. The sunsets live up to their fame as do the wading birds, including flamingos.
We visited the other town on the lagoon, Chioggia, near the southernmost of its three entrances, a fishermen’s Venice, reconstructed after its 14th century destruction by a Genoese fleet which wanted its salt beds. Now it has almost as many inhabitants as central Venice. We visited a WWF bird oasis on the narrow seafront island of Pellestrina protected by the seawall the Austrians built when they ruled Venice in the 19th century. The inhabitants had to abandon Pellestrina temporarily when the sea overran the wall in 1966. We took the opportunity to visit the lagoon museum and swim in the Adriatic.
We visited the Palladian villa La Malcontenta on the banks of the Brenta canal which runs from Venice to Padua or, rather, meanders because this 16th century waterway winds between weeping willows, poplars and other vegetation. In that century the dogal Foscari family invited the Paduanl Andrea Palladio to build the villa, his first in Venice. He hoped to get Venetian commissions for other villas but he was asked only to build churches. Napoleon used the villa for a troop encampment. Later it became a storehouse but in 1975 returned to the Foscari family and a few years ago was opened to the public.
Crossing back to central Venice we called at San Trovaso, site of the last gondola makers and the huge Arsenal which from the 13th century had assembly- line ship- building, as described by Dante, and was the centre of Venice’s naval power. It is still a naval base where a full-size replica of the huge ceremonial craft once used by the city’s doges is being built.
Among other sites in the itinerary are the islands of Murano with its glass makers and Burano with its lace producers, each of which has a museum of their crafts; Torcello, where Hemingway used to lodge, which has churches to rival St Mark’s basilica; Saint Francis in the Desert which the saint visited and which still has a Franciscan monastery; and Sant’Erasmo, a large island which specializes in growing vegetables. Several islands were originally defence outposts- some had cannons trained on the lagoon entrances- or hospitals. Venice invented quarantine for both goods and people. Some of them are cultural redoubts: San Lazzaro, run by Armenian monks, is one of the most important Armenian cultural centres outside Armenia and was frequented by Lord Byron. It has a church and library with many precious manuscripts. Another island is used by a consortium of international universities for conventions and seminars. The cemetery island San Michele has graves of celebrities such as Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky.
A couple of islands have been taken over by hotels and, a group of Venetians is trying to prevent this happening to another, Povleda. It was a fortress before becoming a refuge for the plague-stricken, then housed a mental hospital. Many are buried there and it is said to be ghost- ridden. Recently the Italian government decided it could be used for a hotel and auctioned a 99- year lease for 513,000 euro. But a group of Venetians, who want to make it available to all for recreational purposes, is raising money and has appealed to the government to reconsider.
The founders of Venice who, in the 6th century fled from the barbarian invaders of the mainland to the lagoon, established a complex balance between the Alps and the Adriatic by deviating the rivers, which threatened to silt up the lagoon, and building walls on the seafront to keep out the invasive ocean. To form a base for buildings, they drove wood pylons into the mud flats. They dredged channels through the lagoon and during wars removed the markers so that invaders were confused. They built it to last.
The leisurely motor yacht trip of the 210 square mile lagoon reveals it as an intricate ecosystem.
On the tour gourmet meals prepared by a different chef each day alternate with meals at some of Venice’s best restaurants. Craftsmen and other local experts will provide inside information. The tours, which begin on March 1O, 2016 can be varied according to whether one’s main interest are culture, gastronomy or nature. They can be for two, four or six persons. The number of persons, and the season, means that the total price fluctuates between 9000 and 15000 euro for 7 days, inclusive of the air conditioned motor yacht and crew, all meals, good guides, entrance fees to historic sites and transport to and from the airport.