Feature by Debbie Stone
A trip to Venice is often on many travelers’ bucket lists. With its picturesque canals, narrow streets and numerous historic sights, this renowned destination is a magnet for tourists, who flock there en masse. And then there are those who opt to explore the islands nearby, like Murano and Burano. Murano is well known for its exquisite blown glass; whereas handcrafted lacemaking is Burano’s claim to fame. That and its colorful houses, which make it a photographer’s dream.
I had the opportunity to visit both islands on a recent trip to Venice. Having been there, done that in Italy’s “City of Water,” I sought out new experiences to enjoy.
It’s easy to get to both Murano and Burano via the vaporetto or ferry, which functions as a public water bus, connecting Venice to other islands. Locals use the vaporetto as a common form of transportation, as it’s convenient and cheap.
You might be surprised to find that Murano is not just one island, but consists of seven individual islands connected by bridges. Measuring about a mile across, the whole place is walkable in less than twenty minutes. And just like Venice, it has its own Grand Canal, albeit a tad smaller, dotted with old buildings on each side. Stroll around to get the flavor of this charming place.
Murano’s tradition of glassmaking is more than a thousand years old, and it has been passed down from generation to generation. The art originated when glassmakers from the town of Aquileia in Italy fled their homes to escape attacks by barbarians during the Roman Empire. They and others who came from Byzantium and the Middle East relocated to the Venetian lagoon. Their talents for creating glass affixed to ceilings became known, followed by other glass products like beads, mosaics, mirrors and jewelry. These items were popular primarily with the wealthy class, who could afford such extravagances.
To fully understand this tradition better, visit the Museo del Vetro – the Glass Museum – where you’ll find information about the history of Murano’s glassmaking, along with beautiful examples of glass blown art through the ages. This is the largest collection of Murano glass in the world with pieces dating from the 15th to the 20th century, many of them masterpieces. The range of colors, shapes and designs of the art and the creativity on display is incredible, with examples of ancient objects, as well as contemporary forms.
To enhance your visit, make sure to stop in at one of the glassmaking factories on the island for a glassblowing demonstration. Observe in awe as artists craft unique pieces right in front of you. Don’t be shy about asking questions, as the glass masters are always happy to engage with visitors. Then tour the showroom and gawk at the creations (and their price tags!). Everything you can imagine is made from glass, from small, decorative objects to largescale, abstract sculptures.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to purchase anything from the showrooms, know there are plenty of stores on the island selling more affordable pieces that make great keepsakes or gifts.
Before leaving the island, stop in at the San Donato Church. The building dates back to the 12th century and has been completely restored to its ancient splendor. There’s a lovely decorated apse and Byzantine mosaic on the vault, plus a richly hued mosaic on the floor. The church also contains the relics of Saint Donatus, as well as large bones of a dragon purportedly slain by the saint.
Burano, which is about thirty minutes beyond Murano by boat, consists of four islands, also connected via bridges. Although the place was a settlement since the 6th century, it didn’t garner much attention until the 16th century, when lacemaking was first introduced. The art was brought in by the Cypriots, who were under Venice rule at the time. The lace from Burano eventually became the most famous in Europe, recognizable for its intricate patterns and signature stitches.
Today, lacemaking remains a way of life for many of the island’s female inhabitants, who continue to use the same historic method passed down through generations. There are numerous lace shops in town, where you can admire and buy authentic pieces. And sometimes you can observe the women at work on their elaborate designs. I was mesmerized as I watched one lady painstakingly create a table runner, one stitch at a time. She told me she was eighty years old and has been a lacemaker since the age of ten.
Burano’s colorful houses are a major draw for visitors. I found myself constantly snapping pics of these brilliantly-hued buildings. I learned that the colors follow a system. If residents want to paint their homes, they need to file an official government request. The powers that be will let them know which colors are allowed for their specific dwellings. So even if your heart is set on having a purple house, you might be told that you can only paint it orange.
As you amble around, it’s hard not to miss the Church of San Martino with its noticeably inclining belltower. You might think you’re seeing things, but no, it’s really tilting to one side. Restorations, specifically those done in the 1700s, compounded with the conditions of the marshy lagoon, are attributed to this signature appearance. Locals, however, will tell you that the government, in an effort to make the building higher, failed to correctly do the weight calculations. Supposedly, they forgot to include the large iron cross atop the tower. This mistake caused the structure to start to tip during the construction process. Work stopped and for the past several hundred years, Murano has had its own leaning tower. Take that, Pisa!
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