The Venice Lagoon

From the Istrian peninsular in Croatia, Venice is just 50 miles away. It was nearly 2,000 miles since we had left the south of France in the early summer and we now had little time left to find somewhere to leave Calypso for the winter. But after two months of reliable, settled weather and calm seas we had unexpectedly reached the northern Adriatic with Venice just an irresistible day-sail away.

The evening’s Navtex forecast was mixed. A Bora had been blowing from the NE for the past few days but leaving Novigrad early the next morning it was overcast with little wind. As we headed eastwards, the Croatian sea, famous for its clarity, gave way to muddier waters coming from the Italian Po valley. Leaving the lee of the coast, the wind rose steadily and a strong north-easterly funnelled through the Gulf of Trieste to pile the seas against Italy’s shallowing eastern shore.

The Venice Lagoon

From offshore, Venice hides her delights with an almost maidenly modesty. The northern Adriatic shore is low-lying and visibility during the summer is usually poor. The hazy towns marked by industrial chimneys come into view just a few miles offshore while the low lying Lido, protecting Venice itself, is scarcely visible. It was difficult to imagine how fashionable international seaside resorts developed in these grey waters. A huge ferry from Corfu overtook us and turned into the lagoon with practised speed and disappeared into the haze towards Venice’s commercial port. Following it through the entrance, I felt an irrational doubt that we would find anything inside. The lagoon itself is surprisingly large – nearly 25 miles long and nearly five miles wide – and is crossed with confusing lines of wooden posts receding into invisibility. Suddenly the campanile of St. Marks, the highest in Venice, broke through the haze and I felt a surge of excitement.

Calypso's tender?The naval monument on the islands adjacent to S. Elena and opposite the Lido de Jesolo is the first recognisably Venetian building, dominated by a stone winged lion. Immediately this gave way to the built-up canals of Venice’s ‘suburbs’. To our starboard, the channel branched past the yacht harbour on S. Elena across to the island of Murano, while ahead was Venice’s only park, where the city’s Biennale arts festival was in full swing. The water had become crowded but it was difficult to concentrate on other boats as we turned northwards towards St Mark’s and the city opened up ahead. It was everything I had ever dreamed of, all sensations were clamouring for attention amid a confusion of boats and ships of all types. Passing the imposing maritime museum, we came level with the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs leading to the notorious dungeons across the narrow canal to our starboard. Everywhere there was purposeful activity and we felt like gatecrashers at a fancy dress ball, passively savouring the extraordinary scene with enchantment and delight.

The Venice Yacht Club (Compagnia della Vella) occupies a small but imposing clubhouse by St Mark’s Square almost underneath the famous Campanile. Opposite, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, in the shadow of that enormous baroque church, the club has exclusive use of the basin at the tip of the island where visitors can stay if a berth is vacant. The setting is quite spectacular and we approached anxiously, scanning the line of tightly moored boats for any gaps wide enough for our beamy hull. The wind was still gusting across the water making our passage through the narrow entrance difficult and we felt immense relief when the club attendant waved us in, directing us towards a particularly tight slot made almost inaccessible by a cat’s cradle of mooring buoys. Impatience inspired me and I flung our stern towards the quay as though driving on rubber. Moored stern to, with just a breakwater between us and the main waterway beyond, we ate lunch in the cockpit with Venice spread around us. It must be one of the most spectacular berths anywhere.

The Venice Lagoon

The vaporetto station was only a couple of hundred yards from the yacht basin and we took the ferry to St. Mark’s Square just one stop away and went straight to the harbourmaster’s office in an imposing building near Harry’s Bar. The daunting double gates were creaked open by a suspicious sailor like a janitor in a gothic castle. He shut the inner door to the courtyard firmly against our inquisitive examination while we waited in the foyer. Eventually a tall, elegant officer in a blinding white uniform with a flamboyant gold-braided sash across his chest came out to greet us in impeccable and courteous English. We explained that we wanted to get permission to visit the Grand Canal by dinghy and he frowned slightly. “We are the harbourmaster’s office and only deal with the port,” he said regretfully. “The town is another matter. Perhaps you should try the Carabinieri.” I was doubtful. “Do you need permission to go through the canals?” I asked and he shrugged. “I think it would be alright, as long as you don’t go too fast.” He obviously hadn’t fully appreciated how insignificant our dinghy was. “Mind you,” he added cheerfully, “in this office we’re all in the navy, so I’ve never been on a boat.” I looked at him to see if he was joking but he clearly wasn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I was only posted here two weeks ago and I haven’t been up the Grand Canal myself.” Somewhat bemused, we were ushered out with elaborate politeness.

The Venice Lagoon

We debated whether to find the Carabinieri but I didn’t intend to spend hours trying to get permission to do something that might not be prohibited. Instead we went off to find a chart which proved a surprisingly simple matter – we found an acceptable one in the first book shop we tried and spent the rest of the afternoon getting agreeably lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, canal-side footpaths and bridges.

Venice’s problems with the costs of flood defences are well known, but the general economic health of the city is also seriously under threat. Apart from tourism, most other industries on the island have died out or moved to the mainland where living is much cheaper, as well as being considerably easier. Away from the major thoroughfares, the results of this economic decay could be seen in dilapidated buildings, some abandoned to the elements. The sight of such decay alongside such affluence suggested a serious long-term problem. Travelling by boat we had become particularly aware of the severe problems which are shared by most island communities. It is difficult to see how young Venetians, for whom the glamour of their island doesn’t remove the need to earn a living, can be induced to stay.
The Venice Lagoon
We had been given a card for the clubhouse where the steward made us welcome in the extraordinary elegance of the building and its exclusive location at the head of the palaces overlooking the Grand Canal. We sat in conspicuous privilege at an elevated terrace overlooking the tourists below, just as Venice noblemen had done for centuries before us. When it was time to leave I asked for the bill with trepidation which turned into amazement when I discovered that my generous gin and tonic had cost all of £1.50.

Venice’s main canal, leading to the docks through the Canale della Guidecca, is used by so many boats that it was permanently choppy and I was worried whether our little Zodiac would be able to cross safely with three passengers. I thought that if we went early, the water wouldn’t be quite so cut up. Such was our anxiety that we woke frequently during the night to survey the canal, but boats continued to pass, and was eventually calm only as dawn was breaking. But even this didn’t last long and a different type of transport emerged. Venice has the same delivery and collection requirement as any other city except that everything is carried by boat. Rubbish collections, oil deliveries, building supplies, early morning commuter services, mail boats, fruit and vegetable boats, they all contributed to make an easy crossing impossible.

The severe chop severely restricted our progress, making us feel not just unsafe but conspicuous as we made our hesitant way across, but no one paid us the slightest attention. With mounting confidence we turned into the calmer Grand Canal and did our best to avoid attention, keeping our cameras hidden in an attempt to look as though we were locals. But I had no idea which side I should keep to. Although a boat from the Guardia di Finanza was just ahead, keeping to the right, the steel-hulled vaporettos surged across the canal to whichever side their next stop was on. Barges entered at speed from the side canals with an apparent indifference to other users justified only by a lifetime on the water. But which side to leave the gondolas?

We motored slowly up the Grand Canal, our anxiety fading before the fascinating beauty of the spectacular palaces. Reaching the canal’s end by the railway station, we turned back to the busy municipal market. All the fresh produce was brought in by boat from the mainland or the outlying islands, so it was only appropriate for us to moor alongside and stock up just like any other Venetian.

The Venice LagoonBy the time we had passed boats from the Carabinieri, the Polizia and the Coastguard it became clear that no one seemed to care about us as long as we avoided the gondolas. Travelling brazenly back to the Rialto bridge, we branched off into the small canals around La Fenice opera house which was still swathed in scaffolding following the devastating fire. Shortly afterwards the canal became narrower as we entered a “no parking” zone marked by standard road signs; beyond that a one way system was being ignored by several boats with undaunted Italian spirit. Amid a flashing of cameras, a party of Japanese went past in a convoy of gondolas, appropriately equipped with stereo systems playing Italian arias. On another, an ageing tenor was singing reedily with unjustified confidence. Everyone was very friendly, the gondoliers smiled and waved at us, the tourists even photographed us before realising their mistake. At one point my wife went on ahead to photograph us from the next bridge and the gondolier ahead started to preen himself, assuming that he was the subject. As she waved him on impatiently, he looked back briefly with incomprehension and then turned again in a rapid double-take as he studied with disbelief our little rubber dinghy behind him. He smiled ruefully and shrugged his shoulders.

We were back at the boat shortly after midday, feeling thoroughly pleased with ourselves. We had been accepted by the locals as Venice boatmen and glowing with pride we left the yacht club to visit the islands. Unfortunately our new map gave no depths for the very narrow passage between Murano and Burano and I took the much longer route outside – unnecessarily, as I subsequently discovered. Strangely, the flat marshy waters reminded me slightly of Chichester Harbour – not least because there was a strong tide running and I’d rather forgotten about tides. Venice’s reputation for being smelly and dirty seemed completely unjustified; although the water was more grey than blue, it was pleasantly free from rubbish and smelt fresh and clean in the light wind. It was a Sunday afternoon, the sun was out and people were everywhere.

Families had pulled their boats up onto the tiny islands and set up camp sites for the weekend with smoking barbecues and children splashing about in the shallow water alongside. Others had set up tables and chairs to have picnics on the temporarily uncovered sandbanks. To them, Venice was just another seaside town.

The main channel running between the islands of Burano and Torcello was equally busy, with motor boats churning the water and making it tricky to manoeuvre in the current. I had no tide tables but there had been a new moon a few days earlier so I assumed it must now be a spring tide and from our experiences in the yacht Club basin this meant a rise and fall of at least a metre. Unfortunately the channel shelved steeply on each side so we put an additional line securely around a channel post to stop us swinging onto the gravelly shore or out into the channel. After nearly two years in the Mediterranean I had almost forgotten about the problems of anchoring in tidal waters.

The Venice LagoonAs in Venice, we were able to take the dinghy into the centres of both islands. Apart from the elegant and discreet offshoot of the old Cipriani Hotel (which was closed to visitors for the wedding of a local family), Torcello has just a few old fisherman’s houses but it is famous as the site of the lagoon’s original cathedral, and the Byzantine church of S. Fosca is one of the oldest in the lagoon. Burano, on the other hand, is surprisingly large, intersected by two principal canals lined with fishing boats. Motoring quietly past the immaculately painted terraced houses, the evening sun warmed the pastel and ochre colours and it was clear that this was no simple tourist resort. This was a genuine community which had hardly changed in centuries; woman still sat outside their front doors making the delicate lacework for which the island is famous. Only in the centre did we find the tourists attracted by the lace shops and restaurants. We landed at the south of the island and were immediately ambushed by the largest and most fearless – and fearsome – mosquitoes. A dark cloud of insects attacked us, taking large and repeated bites out of us before we ran away from the quay and left them to find new victims.

Visit SailtimeTo celebrate our last night in Italy we managed to get the only free table at the Trattoria da Romano, whose walls are covered with paintings, photographs and newspaper cuttings of the celebrities who have visited over the years. After our meal, when the tourists had left with the last ferry, peace descended. Back on our boat there was just the gentle sound of the lapping current and across the water, the facades of the stuccoed houses pale in the weak streetlights. Venice was just a glow in the distance.

The peace did not last the night. A rising NE wind had coincided with the low tide to push us against the shore and I was woken by the keel bouncing on the hard bottom. Fortunately I had left the dinghy afloat and, half asleep, I unstowed the second anchor and rowed out to the middle of the channel and dropped it over the side. Back in the cockpit I winched in the line and pulled us slowly back in the deeper water, but it was still an anxious night aggravated later by a dramatic thunderstorm. But it was worth all the discomfort. The storm washed away the haze of the previous weeks and the air was clear as the morning sun rose to light up the snow covered crags of the Dolomites, emerging slowly from the darkness. It was the first time we had seen snow since leaving France. We passed gently out of the lagoon, returning towards Croatia, the domes and spires of Venice and the dramatic mountains to the North as our backdrop.

An ambition fulfilled – and if you’re planning to visit, gondolas are left to starboard, unless they carry their oar to port – or is it the other way around?