We chose a warm sunny day to tour some of the more popular islands located around historic Venice: including San Michele which contains the Cemetery for the Venetian population, Murano known for its famous glass products, Burano where lace is made, and Torcello, a mostly deserted island where a few Medieval buildings remain. Our home swap location was very convenient for visiting the islands, since the Line 4.1/4.2 Vaporetto boats, which traverse to/from San Michele and Murano, could be boarded at the boat station located next to us. Each hop between islands constitutes another full Vaporetto boat fare (€7.5 per ride) so we planned to make good use of our 7-day unlimited-use Vaporetto boat pass.
Our first stop was San Michele, an entire island dedicated to providing a cemetery for the Venetian population since the early 19th Century. Located just off the coastline of Cannaregio, San Michele was actually clearly visible from the balcony of our home, and was just a few minutes away by Vaporetto. As we approached the island, we spotted a sculpture in the lagoon of two men standing on a gondola.
Having a cemetery on an island means that instead of a hearse, like everything else in Venice, the deceased is transported to the cemetery by boat. Photos found on the Internet show how in the old days, there used to be elaborate funeral gondolas, whereas these days, motorboats are used.
There are two active churches on the cemetery island, the larger San Michele in Isola with the white marble facade, and the smaller red-bricked San Cristoforo. The grounds of the cemetery are beautifully designed, with trees, shrubbery and flowers scattered among the tombs. Long rows of tall Cyprus trees form pathways toward the churches and to iron gates that reveal a picturesque view of the Lagoon and Cannaregio.
I found the tombs to be particularly ingenious in design since they included one or more built-in planter inserts that acted like vases for flowers. These could be found either on top of the above-ground caskets or behind the tombstones. Small plastic watering cans are provided near the entrances to make watering of the plants easier.
Many distinct thematic sections can be found in the San Michele cemetery including areas dedicated to nuns, priests, sailors, soldiers, and famous foreigners such as Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. The saddest section was the one for babies and small children. Poignant and sometimes elaborate memorial sculptures can be found throughout the cemetery including the traditional carvings reflecting grief or religious scenes, as well as more specific sculptures reflecting the past occupations or interests of the deceased. The tomb of a dancer is draped with ballet shoes while stuffed animals cover the tomb of a young girl. In terms of beautiful setting and great sculptures, San Michele rivals some of the best cemeteries that I have visited, including Père Lachaise in Paris and Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. I could have spent all day wandering through every nook and cranny of this cemetery but there were other islands to visit.
Next on the itinerary for the day was Murano, the island known for its glass making, which actually consists of 7 smaller islands linked by bridges. At first glance as we approached, Murano did not look that different than the main island of Venice, with familiar-looking canals, bridges, boats, church steeples and water-side restaurants. We knew we were in the right place once we started passing the infinite number of shops and galleries selling works of Murano glass, as well as the enormous blue glass sculpture on display in the main square. There is also a Glass Museum (Museo Vetraio) but since we were trying to do so many islands in the same day, we did not have time to visit the museum.
On Murano, you could buy almost anything you wanted made out of vibrantly coloured glass, including vases, goblets, wine bottle stoppers, jewelry, wrapped candy and balloons, larger sculptures of animals, fish and faces, collections of figurines forming an entire orchestra and a seafood cicheti meal with glass squid, scampi, scallops and fish. The items were interesting to see at first, but after passing store after store containing similar wares, it started to feel a bit repetitive and overly commercial.
We had our best "La Dolce Vita" experience sitting under an umbrella at the canal-side patio of the restaurant Ai Piantaleon on a warm sunny day, with a gentle breeze blowing off the water and a gorgeous view of the island. With ice cold Aperols (and beer for Murray) in hand, this was indeed the "sweet life". Our lunch started with a basket containing a variety of fresh rolls including ones with pumpkin seeds on top–a good sign since I always get my initial impression of a restaurant based on their bread selection. As an antipasto, the four of us shared a dish of buffalo mozzarella with dry horse meat and diced eggplant. We had all expressed interest in trying horse meat in the past, but were disappointed that we only received a few shavings of it on top of a large dish of greens, mozzarella and eggplant, topped with a crostini. Still, the dish was tasty although I'm not sure we can say that we now have actually tried horse meat.
We each ordered different pasta dishes and they were all delicious. I had the gnocchi with scampi, wild and farm-grown asparagus (it was asparagus season). Rich had a crock pot containing spaghetti with mixed seafood including clams, mussels and squid in a light oil and parsley sauce. Yim had pappardelle with duck ragu while Murray had garganelli pasta with small local artichokes and shrimps.
Following our visit to Murano, we took the Line 12 Vaporetto to Burano, which involved a significantly longer boat ride than the previous two stops. Whereas Murano specializes in glass works, Burano's specialty is lace-making and we saw multiple examples of intricate lace work in the stores on the main street. Burano seemed less crowded and less touristy than Murano, possibly because it is farther away from Venice. Again, we skipped going to the Lace Museum (Museo del Merietto), which was closed by the time we got there.
Even more than for lace-making, Burano might be better known for its brightly hued rainbow of painted houses that provide stunning photo opportunities when set against the bridges and canals. The custom of painting the houses in alternating vibrant colours may have stemmed from the tradition of painting local fishing boats. There is an actual colour scheme for the houses which is mandated by the government. Murano might be more well-known but I personally much preferred Burano for its beauty and sparser crowds.
The day was drawing to a close and we had yet to visit Torcello, the island of Medieval churches. We were quite tired by now and therefore a bit ambivalent about whether we actually still wanted to go to Torcello. So we left it up to fate since we were not sure whether Torcello was accessible in May prior to the summer tourist season. We hopped back on our Line 12 Vaporetto boat and decided that if it stopped at Torcello, then we would get off and if not, we would just head back to Murano and take Line 4.2 home from there. As it turns out, we did not stop at Torcello and we did not realize until later that to go there, we actually had to change to another boat on Line 9. We did pass by a few tiny strips of land that seemed to have some building ruins on it, and wondered if that could be Torcello, but I realized it wasn't once I got home and googled images of the island on the Internet. It turns out Torcello is much more built up than I thought it would be.