From Burano, cross the wooden footbridge to the more rural island of Mazzorbo. At first sight it looks similar to Burano: the same colourful cottages lining the canal. Here too, when not ruining their eyesight poring over lace, the fishermen’s wives painted the family homes in psychedelic colours, often adding geometrical motifs over the doorways. But there the similarities end.
You soon catch sight of a sluggish canal, a walled vineyard, and a solitary brick belltower, somewhat askew. Framed by the 14th-century belltower, this pastoral scene takes us back to the origins of Venice. On the waterfront lies the entrance to Venissa, the lagoon’s last walled vineyard, now at the heart of a model estate encompassing a cosy inn and gourmet restaurant. Venissa is sustainable tourism at its best. The Prosecco-making Bisol dynasty has reclaimed the vineyard and planted it with Dorona, the golden grape beloved by the Doges, once widely cultivated on the lagoon but now at risk of extinction.
Torcello, the most remote of these islands, is the least populated but the most resonant. This marshy, unprepossessing spot was the site of the original settlement in the Venetian lagoon. It is hard to believe that this rural backwater was once the centre of a thriving civilisation. In its heyday, Torcello’s population was around 20,000, but this figure has fallen to 70. As Venice rose to power, decline set in. Trade on Torcello dwindled and the waters silted up. Today the cathedral, church and a couple of palazzi are the sole evidence of former splendour. But it is this palpable sense of loss that makes the island the nostalgic spot it is.
From the landing stage, where the cathedral belltower soars above the low-slung marshland, follow the well-beaten towpath path to the centre of civilisation, such as it is. If you arrive at lunchtime, postpone wallowing in nostalgia until a life-enhancing feast in Locanda Cipriani. Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and Sophia Loren are just a few who have made the same journey to this celebrated Cipriani outpost. Like Ruskin, most writers strike an elegiac note when faced with the collapse of this early Venetian settlement: “The lament of many human voices mixed with the fretting of the waves on the ridges of the sand.”