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Venice lagoon and islands

While the most interesting/impressive stuff (churches, palaces, canals) is on Venice Island, the crowding there makes it almost more enjoyable to escape to the other islands and the lagoon itself.

Murano

Murano: canals, but less crowded
Murano: canals, but less crowded
They used to use arsenic on a tiny island half a meter above sea level 50m from the shore?
They used to use arsenic on a tiny island half a meter above sea level 50m from the shore?

Went there on a bit of a whim, was a bit too closed unfortunately, so didn't get to see any glass blowing. Went to the glass museum, it's OK but not really worth the increased-since-your-guidebook-was-printed entry fee.

I did enjoy wandering around on it though, looks like a fairly relaxing place to live. Bit of a shock to see an (old) barrel of arsenic though, on a mudflat island half a meter above sea level, maybe 50m from the shore. One hopes that was an isolated incident. The island actually had a bit of greenery and space which was quite a relief after a couple of days on Venice Island.

The glass you can afford is apparently probably not made there. Almost all the stuff in the shops is revolting anyway – I'm not just being snooty, it's garish manycolored patterned clowns etc., very ugly.

Burano

Those Italians and their towers, eh
Those Italians and their towers, eh
Multi-colored Burano houses
Multi-colored Burano houses
The Leaning Tower of Burano
The Leaning Tower of Burano
Multi-colored Burano houses
Multi-colored Burano houses

Pisa, Bologna, Burano. If there's one thing we can learn from a trip to Italy, it's that you shouldn't employ their builders to build you a tower centuries ago. They all lean (see below for why).

The Island's quite pretty, each house is painted a different color – apparently there was originally a meaning to the colors, but that's long since lost and now they're just whatever color they feel like.

Not much else on this island, the lace museum is apparently not worth a visit, and the lace you can afford is apparently probably not made there. I'm detecting a theme here…

Torcello

Old church on Torcello
Old church on Torcello
Vines and ornamentals on Torcello
Vines and ornamentals on Torcello

Quite a nice little island, just an old church, a currently-working church, some vines and things. Dropped by there on the…

Venice lagoon tour

Questionable fishing net techniques in the lagoon
Questionable fishing net techniques in the lagoon

I like understanding, and the tourist stuff on the islands will have you sick to death of details of churches and Venetian paintings but knowing nothing of the islands and the lagoon itself. So I plunked down some unpleasantly large euros to go on a worthwhile small-group tour of the northern lagoon with a local marine scientist.

He explained not just how Venice came about – groups from the peninsula displaced temporarily but repeatedly by losing battles for control of the near-shore mainland settlement, being forced to take refuge on the marshy islands of the lagoon, and eventually forming a permanent settlement out on the most stable islands further out – but also moreso the nature of the lagoon environment, the formation, destruction, and now conservation of the marshes and islands, and the lagoon inlets, channels, and tidal flows – and how man has been both affected by and affecting all these things.

Some interesting things:

  • Buildings on the islands, which were the more solid/permanent of the marshy areas in the lagoon, have pilings going 6-15m down through the sand to reach something more solid, typically a clay layer. All layers compact down a bit under the weight of the buildings.
  • When the pilings supporting the building rest on inhomogenous material (eg. one side is on a particular bed of clay, the other side is material of a different composition) the support will compact by different amounts, resulting in the building leaning over (towers) or possibly being stretched or buckled and forming cracks (churches etc.).
  • There's no sewage treatment. All the buildings' sewage and graywater runs straight into the canals, though below the normal water level. (Surprisingly, Venice wasn't smelly in the hot summer weather as I expected – though certainly a sticky humidity.) This is not great ecologically as that's a lot of extra nutrients & pollutants in the water, and god did I hope none of the seafood I ate was caught in the lagoon.
  • The more pollutants (effluent, heavy metal runoff from old copper and zinc roofs) in the water, the more rapidly it dissolves the buildings' bricks, increasing sedimentation.
  • Canals sediment up at about 1cm/year; the canals on Venice Island make only 10% of the horizontal “surface” area of the island so they drain a much larger area than themselves.
  • Upstream damming (for power extraction, water use etc.) at many points along the river feeding into the lagoon has cut off the sediment that normally flows down from upstream steadily. It builds up at the dams and they're not quite sure what to do with it – if they released bursts of it downstream it'd choke the aqualife, and they don't have a steady release dispersal system.
  • They've had about 11cm of vertical compaction on Venice Island over the last century (the rate having slowed somewhat now that they no longer take water from the underground aquifers, which was decreasing the pressure and so pulling everything down), and about a 10cm sea-level rise.
  • Tides sometimes go up to 195cm, which is well above the ground level on the islands; this is known as ‘high water’ and regularly floods large areas including the big square. They have a warning system in place but as the problem is getting steadily worse, preventative measures are required; the big MOSES project is installing raisable barriers across the full width of the three inlets to the lagoon. Big project with many effects on the lagoon, though mitigation is a part of the design.
  • The nasty arrangements pictured here, on the shallows/mudlfats are actually in a V shape; they are paired with another V, placed so that they are like double arrowheads; the shaft of the arrow is a tidal flow path that has a lot of fishies swimming along it (often not a straight line). This appears far too effective.
Ossuary island (rear) & marshes in the lagoon
Ossuary island (rear) & marshes in the lagoon
Bone on the ossuary island
Bone on the ossuary island

Aside from Torcello above, we also stopped by an interesting island that's an ossuary – a bone store. Many of the various minor islands were at one point assigned to various groups or functions, eg. military, and this one was where the city's skeletons ended up. I hopped over the wall and went in a little way – it's all blocked up by brambles, but there are some little human bones around you can see. You'd need a machete to get in further and see more (and of course digging to find unexposed bones around the periphery would certainly not be right), so don't get too carried away – but though no Sedlec it is interesting to know that they had such a place.

Island skyline silhouettes from the lagoon
Island skyline silhouettes from the lagoon

On the way back the skyline of one of the smaller islands silhouetted against the fading sky in a way I found disproportionately amazing – it looked like something from a children's book, buildings all in black clear with trees, towers, outlines of churches with windows cut out of the silhouette to show the sky behind), big shapes I can't quite imagine the source of. You can see what I mean in the photo if you click again to zoom in, but it doesn't look like much – I guess it's one of those had-to-be-there moments.

I enjoyed tootling around Venice, and while you wouldn't need to spend more than 3-4 days there really, it's pretty unique and worth a visit.

After spending a few hours finding somewhere to post my postcards – almost every shop sells postcards, and none of them sell stamp (and there are only about four post offices on Venice Island, and they're all closed by the time you get there) – I headed out to the airport and flew to Berlin for my conference.