Of course, everyone is familiar with the iconic city of Venice but it’s almost too popular for its own good. It gets very crowded but you can find more of its magic on the mainland and the other islands in the lagoon.
What’s more, a new sustainable tourism initiative, Slow Flow Veneto Waterways Experience, is encouraging exploration of the surrounding Venetian waterways at a slower pace – the aim is to encourage low-impact forms of transportation like rowing boats, kayaks, and bicycles. It sounds worth a try.
I start in Altinum near the town of Altino. It was founded in the first millennium BC by the ancient Veneti and later became a Roman city and flourished from the 1st to the 5th century AD. It’s at the crossroads of two important Roman roads, Via Annia and Via Claudia Augusta. The port was close to the lagoon of Venice and other waterways, and it soon became an important commercial hub in the northern Adriatic.
The National Archaeological Museum of Altino tells the sad story of its demise. After the fall of the Roman Empire, continuous invasions from the north forced its inhabitants to take refuge on the islands in the lagoon. Previously these had only been home to fishermen and salt harvesters, but the city exodus led to the founding the city of Venice in the fifth century.
Retracing the route of these refugees, I set out from Altinum, on a “Bragosso”, a traditional flat-bottomed boat. It passes through the reed beds of the Santa Maria Canal before entering the Venice Lagoon. We’re surrounded by flocks of pink flamingos and skirt the lost islands of Costanziaca and Ammiana before arriving at Burano.
The island is celebrated for its brightly coloured houses, a tradition dating from the 16th century. Local fishermen began painting their homes to make them more visible from the sea. It’s small enough to explore on foot, a kind of mini-Venice without the grand buildings. The skyline is dominated by the leaning bell tower of the Church of San Martino, 30m high, located in the Piazza Galuppi. In the early 20th century, the tower was reinforced to prevent further tilting.
Lace making is a specialty here and the Museo del Merletto demonstrates the history and artistry of the Venetian laces. On display are rare and precious pieces, from the 16th century to the present day. It’s still a living tradition and, in their shop in Via San Mauro, I watch as Sandra Mavaracchio and her 16 year old granddaughter, Ludovica Zane, demonstrate their art.
Back on the mainland, I overnight in the town of Dolo. It was an important trading post on the Brenta River, linking Venice to Padua and cities further inland. In the 16th century the river was diverted from its path to make it more navigable and a series of locks was installed.
This Naviglio de Brenta, or Brenta Canal, soon became lined with over 2000 villas, built by rich Venetian aristocrats, escaping the summer heat of the city.
To see these villas close up, I set out from Dolo on a bicycle following the Brenta Canal. One of the most impressive is the neo-classical Villa Pisani, built in the 18th century for the Pisani family. Many others are in various states of dilapidation, but there’s much restoration taking place. I take a welcome pause at the Ape Agricola farmhouse in Stra to taste their honey and drink the beer from the Biofevari craft brewery.
Then it’s onwards to now Stra’s town hall, before dumping the bike and visiting the Shoe Museum. This occupies the seventeenth-century Villa Foscarini Rossi, itself worth a visit. The collection includes over 1500 pairs of women’s luxury footwear, dating from 1947 onwards. Highlights include a Vera Wang shoe designed for Sharon Stone’s wedding and Yves Saint Laurent Pilgrim shoes worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.
From here it’s a boat back to Dolo and a second chance to observe the villas of the Brenta Riviera from the water. There’s also time to navigate the locks on the other side of the town before admiring the historic buildings on foot. The Tower of Dolo stands over 25m tall with a clock face on each of its four sides. The painter Canaletto came here in the early 1740’s and immortalised it in a series of etchings.
Other historic landmarks include the Villa Ferretti Angeli, the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, and the Church of San Rocco. There’s also the sunken oval basin which contained the original locks, and the subject of a famous painting by Canaletto. It’s now filled in, but perfectly preserved, surrounded by some of the original buildings in the picture.
Another way of exploring the waterways is to hire a self-drive houseboat complete with a kitchenette and bedrooms. Apparently, there’s no need for a boat license and that way you can enjoy the scenery at your own pace. Just be aware of the other traffic and wave at the Italians as they pass by.
GO: Ryanair has direct flights to Venice Marco Polo from London Stansted.
Slow Flow Veneto Waterways Experience has information about various modes of transport.
Charterboat.it rents out houseboats.
EAT: Ristorante Do Mori is a typical tavern in the historical centre of Dolo.
Trattoria Al Raspo de Ua in Burano serves fantastic seafood.
STAY: B&B Dimora Naviglio is a comfortable base in Dolo and also has rental bikes.