Most people who visit Venice also take the time to see Murano (the glass island) and Burano (the lace island), but few venture further than that. Since Gareth and I had decided to make it our mission to see a different side of the lagoon city this time, we hopped onto a vaporetto and explored a little further.
San Michele – The Cemetery Island
I’ve mentioned before that I have a strange, morbid fascination with cemeteries, the older the better. I like to read the names and dates on the graves and wonder about what kind of lives these people had lived, how they died, see if the family still honours their memories with flowers. The tiny island of San Michele is a dedicated graveyard. There are also two churches on the island, but a funeral was taking place when we visited, so we decided not to impose on the family’s grief and rather wandered through the rows and rows of graves, keeping out of their way. Apart from us and the mourners, there were only one or two other tourists around and a reverent hush hung in the air, disturbed only by the zoom of bees hovering from flower to flower.
It seems that life in Venice must generally be safe and healthy, since we saw very few graves whose inhabitants had not led a long life of at least seventy or eighty years. Their time on this island is much shorter, however. Because of the limited space, the dead do not actually rest in peace here for very long, because after a period of no more than ten years they are exhumed and their remains are stored elsewhere in an ossuary. A highly disturbing thought, I think, and also the reason why the graves were modern and did not make for very interesting reading material.
In respect for the deceased who do remain here, however, tourists are not allowed to take any photos on San Michele. I did take one, surreptitiously, rebel that I am, which serves as a poignant reminder of a morning spent in the company of the dead.
Lido – The Beach Island
Blinded by the canals, one tends to forget that Venice is actually a seaside city. I wouldn’t recommend trying to swim in the Grand Canal, however. That’s why locals and the occasional tourist in the know head for Lido instead. Of course, you have to pay to gain entry to the beach itself, and then you have to pay for a reclining chair and then pay even a little bit more if you want an umbrella too, but once you’ve found your spot, you can spend the whole day just lazing about, watching the water ripple to shore. We were there in June and the beach was not very crowded at all, nothing like the sea of human bodies that crowd the KZN coastline at the height of a South African summer. And, also unlike our local beaches, topless tanning is not only allowed but seems to be encouraged. Just be warned that not all exhibitionists are as young and pretty as you’d like them to be…
Torcello – The Cathedral Island
It takes a good hour or so to travel to Torcello, and once you’re there, do take note of when the boat comes again, because if you miss it you’ll be stranded on the island for another hour or two until the next one arrives, as we found out. But the trip was totally worth it to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It was built in the 7th century, which, if you think about it, is pretty ancient. We’re talking the year 639 AD ancient. As such, the cathedral itself is not in very good condition and is in desperate need of restoration, but this is exactly what makes it so attractive. The interior contains mosaics from the late 11th century that depict, amongst others, the twelve apostles. Mind bogglingly, I think they might have been done at a time when people may still have known, or remembered in some fashion, what the apostles had actually looked like. Again, you’re not allowed to take pictures in here, but you can buy postcards at the cathedral’s shop to keep your own memories fresh.
These three islands may be off the beaten tourist track, but if you’re looking for a day away from the crowds and are in search of something different and interesting to do in Venice, then they are the ideal getaway and a wonderful way to learn a little more about the history and culture of this amazing city on the waters.
Have you visited San Michele, Lido or Torcello? What did you like most about these islands and would you recommend them to other visitors?
For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.