Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lagoon Island of Lace

Knowing full well I am nowhere near the esteemed caliber of a Mr. Samual Pickwick, Esq., G.C.M.P.C.* in describing the authenticated accounts of his observations, sometimes misadventures and from time-to-time remarks on the deportment and manners of acquaintances in the social scenery to fellow members of the 'Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club', I nevertheless remain in danger of being anointed a 'piccolo' Pickwickian for my persistent relation, even now, of adventure within travel adventures, as I continue aboard the "Fortuna" to distant shores, this time to the environs of exotic Venice. Whew, wasn't that one long sentence worthy of Dickens himself or at least an editorial rebuke from my readability critic, Maria Elena. Yet I continue ...

We had been to Venice before ... once by train and then again by plane, but never by towering skyscraper! Stories high from the top deck of Costa's cruise ship 'Il Fortuna', we were presented with a slow motion panorama of resplendent Venice stretched out before us. It was as though we were on a moving sidewalk. We slowly made our way down the Canale di San Marco from the sea toward our berth on the western end of the Sestiero Dorsoduro, a Venetian district whose name references the dorso duro (hard back) of its subterranean structure. Stretched out before us lay the city, a carpet of faded walls of earth-tone pastels capped with aged terracotta clay roof-tiles. I doubted that even the Doges of old had ever seen their Venice this way. Oh, they could have gained a lofty advantage from the campanile (bell-tower) in St Mark's Square but this would have been a fixed perch and from personal experience, the clang of those bells can raise havoc with your head. The unfolding scene opened a warehouse of memories.

* General Chairman - Member Pickwick Club, from “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

We turned slightly to port at the triangular tip of land referred to as Punta della Dogana o della Salute (Customs House and Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute) located at the prow-shaped end of Dorsoduro. High above the customs house towered ageless twin bronze Atlases bent beneath the staggering weight of a golden globe representing the Earth. Fortune certainly was with us that day because the elaborate weather vane rising even higher atop this suspended orb is dubbed, like our ship, the 'Fortuna'.

On passing this headland, we had officially entered the wide Giudecca Canel running the length of southern flank of Dorsoduro and known as Fondamenta Zattere (Zattere Anchorage). This long promenade by the water's edge was christened Zattere for the rafts (zattere) moored along these docks long ago. They were used to unload timbers which today underpin Venice. Nowadays, they have been replaced by floating restaurants and an occasional vaporetto (water bus) station. One of the stations, in fact, is named ‘Zattere’ in their memory. In years past we'd stayed in Dorsoduro so it wasn't long before we began to see familiar places. Pointing here and there, we reminisced over places and recollections ... the mirrored wisteria shrouded door with its bank of brass doorbells; where we'd eaten sepia pasta for the first and very last time; the ATM where my sister, after a struggle, got her first Euros; the street where we lived along Rio di San Trovaso, cutting through Dorsudoro to the fabled Grand Canal itself, and the adjacent gondola repair yard at Squero di San Trovaso.

With the gentle pushes and nudges of a tugboat, we soon docked at the Terminal Venezia Passeggeri. This was the end of the line for many of our fellow passengers but not for us since we'd boarded in Bari, giving us a one day reprieve. We had the day in Venice! Since we were somewhat familiar with Venice, our quest on this visit was Burano, an outlying island in the Venetian lagoon. Getting there and back would be the trick.

Once ashore, as expected, we found ourselves in the industrial port section of the city. There was a bus waiting to take us to Piazzale Roma, the main bus terminal, but after sitting onboard the bus a while, we realized how long it was going to take to fill before getting underway. We decided to walk to the bus plaza. A block or two away, we found an automated tram of sorts that quickly brought us there. We had checked our vaporetto map and identified the various route numbers we needed to take in order to get us to distant Burano. You could get there by an expensive water taxi in about 40 minutes. By vaporetto, with the route changes involved and the waiting at each stop, it took us over two hours. Thanks to a helpful soul who pointed out the correct alleyway we needed to follow, we eventually came upon the station for the first leg of the trip. This water bus took us around the island to the Fondamente Nove stop but not before filling to tip-over-full along the way. Fortunately, we had no luggage. At Fond. Nove we jumped ship for a water bus headed to the Colonna stop on the 'glass island' of Murano. We had been to the glass works of Murano once before so we did not linger. To my surprise, the map I was following was out of date and we had to make our way to another Murano terminal in order to continue. With time a consideration, we could not afford to dawdle as we made our way down the Fondamenta dai Vetri and across the Rio dei Vetri canal to reach at the Faro water-bus station. Once arrived at Faro station, it was another case of hurry-up and wait. About 30 minutes in fact, before the next boat, this one to Burano, finally arrived. This final segment of the outbound trip was the longest, taking another 35 minutes. We were earning our rookie legs on this on.

Once arrived, following our circuitous journey but now veterans of Venice's shuttle service, someone needed to pinch us as we walked through a waterside park. It was a calm and quiet place to stroll about as we made our way to Via Marcello. It would lead us to what I'd call the main portion of the city along Fondamenta Cavanella and Fondamenta San Mauro. You can't miss it, straight ahead from the dock. This promenade, with its quaint architecture and beckoning shady alleys, reminded me of a stroll along the walkway at Disney World’s Epcot Center, where a large manmade lake meagerly substitutes for Burano’s stunted canal system and a hodgepodge of street-fronts attempt to create a reality to the place.

This, however, was the genuine item. Angled poles extending from the green water up to and beyond the sides of the canals to prevent boats moored there from scraping their sides. There was life behind those storefronts and homes …the domestic look of drying laundry adorned fronts of houses and draped across balconies; shrines to the Madonna were peppered here and there; ‘shower-curtained’ doorways tempted you to peek inside; lofty balconied statues of Jesus with arms outstretched recalled Rio de Janeiro; while boatmen of various specialty busied themselves offloading every manner of sustenance and supply to this island world – everything including the tourists!

Though nowhere as intimate as Venice, Burano is alive with colors. Italians can never be accused of being timid when it comes to decorative color styles - take the interior of our Italian cruise ship for instance. True to form, the Buranese paint their houses in brightness. Everywhere you look, you'll see houses clad in blue, green, lime, pink, rose, mustard, lavender, purple, and yellow to mention a few. One with burnt orange stucco walls, bright blue shutters and a purple primo piano (first floor) might cause paint-makers Sherwin-Williams to turn over in their respective graves! They say that colors link God with humanity. If true, this place is heaven sent. Tradition says this custom may have had its origins in the local practice of painting houses the color schemes of local fishing boats. And if you think nowadays you can just get a ladder and go ahead and paint, think again. Big brother is watching! You must send a request to the government, which responds by notifying you of the authorized colors permitted for that property! Such is the price to live in an historic canvas.

Burano is not Venice. It lacks the jumble of ornate Moorish and baroque marble palace facades we are so accustomed to seeing in the floating city. Instead, Burano is more modest in every respect - even its canals are narrower, somewhat tempting to a long-jumper who might just make it across. The grand architecture of Venice is replaced by the simpler look and mood of a small Italian town with a population on the order of a cruise ship's manifest. Because Burano's houses tend to be small, the island presents a cheerful coziness. What it surrenders in grandeur it recoups in the quaintness of something on the order of a Dickens style movie set, making it for us "the best of times".

Surrounded by the sea, fishing is one traditional occupation; the other being merletto (lace-making), the reason for our visit. Lacemaking began on the island in the 16th century following the import of the technology from Venetian-ruled Cyprus. The industry waned and flowed through the centuries, at times relying on a Scuola di Merletti (school of lacemaking) to help it survive. Today this old school in Galuppi Square is also home to the Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum), one of the few attractions in town.

Yarn knitters stand by their pearl stitches while the counting-cross-stitchers perseverate over hoops of knotted threads, yet it is the minute ‘nano-craft’ and sometime convoluted bobbin controlled designs of lacemaking which truly astounds. Few today continue to make point lace in the traditional manner by needle and thimble protected finger. In fact, it is in limited supply. Today, machines and low cost workers in Hong Kong are replacing the Buranese women of yesteryear. Fewer and fewer are to be found sitting in a chatting circle with pillows resembling hand muffs on their laps working at this craft. You can just imagine how time-consuming and therefore extremely expensive these handmade items are. With fewer women in Burano willing to sacrifice the time or with the necessary skills to make these delicate works of art, less and less lace is actually handmade on Burano. Instead, much to their distress, mourning a life that is vanishing, everyone complains about the imports. We'd seen this movie before on an earlier visit to Murano. There too, "made in China" was ever threatening. Yet the machine-made pieces are themselves beautiful. Tainted only because they are made a lot faster by lower paid workers (which in itself is one big taint), they are nevertheless a complex chore to create and as intricate in design as anything fashioned by hand.

Though we were a little late getting there, we were still traveling in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci who visited in 1481. On that occasion, he purchased a handmade altar-cloth for the Duomo in Milan. It had to have been a bargain compared to today’s prices. Did I mention that prices are stratospheric? Let me reiterate it then ... a large handmade piece such as a tablecloth (somewhat on the order of an altar-cloth I’d say) can run as high as $4,000-5,000! Lesson to take away … better be sure to check on the table manners of whomever you plan to invite over!

Around and around we walked on a lace carousel. If the concept of a carousel’s brass ring existed here, it would certainly be covered, if not fashioned entirely of lace, for lace was everywhere. Lace is king! There were even hats made of lace accompanied by every imaginable accoutrement from lace parasols, pillows, doilies, handkerchiefs to everything imaginable for an infant’s christening. Lady’s lacey couture garments of intricate curly-cue patterns, many in subdued shades (see photo album) as though grafted from the rainbow color pallet of mythical Iris, adorned every storefront. If you hesitated to examine their elegant appearance, a diligent employee, often the owner, would pander for your continued attention while pointing out every detail of their exquisite merchandise and going to lengths to point out that their wares were the genuine thing. Much to my relief, our purchases were limited to a single item, and thankfully, not a table cloth! Infected with sticker shock, Maria Elena hesitated to consider buying anything. We had come this far so I urged her to get something to remember Burano by. She had seen a shawl earlier. Later when she saw the same item again, she bargained with the clerk and got it at a reduced price. Brava! If you ever see her with her purple and green peacock shawl accented with Morano glass beads, you’ll know exactly where it came from.

We walked as far as the Oblique Bell Tower where we sat and mingled with the pigeons before heading back toward the ferry station. We were hard pressed for time with a return trip in the face of a tourist population now wide awake. Conscious of this fact, we had budgeted our limited time. Unfortunately, and I know this will disappoint some of you, we were unable to sample proper Buranese cuisine, other than a horrid panini. As we waited once again for a return vaporetto, a cold Moretti beer somewhat came to its rescue. We should have opted for the fish!

A woman with us aboard the return ferry suggested that it would be just as fast if we walked across Venice's Cannaregio quarter as opposed to circumnavigating it, so once again at Fondamente Nove, we departed the vaporetto to travel cross-country. All the while we attempted to move as straight toward our destination as a crow might fly. Luckily none of the streets or canals had changed, for we still relied on our outdated map to settle on our route. We’d never been in this part of Venice before. Our detour was punctuated with quaint arched bridges so characteristic of Venice. This area's special sites include the Jewish Ghetto (the oldest in Europe) and the Church of Madonna dell'Orto, founded in 1350, but we were ‘flying south’ as it were and had little time to alight anywhere, at least not for long. This district had more of a residential quality to it but as we neared the Ponte Degli bridge (also known as the “Scalzi” or barefoot bridge ) the commercialism of Venice resurfaced. If we had gone straight ahead we would have passed in front of the Santa Lucia rail station and crossing a footbridge arrived once again at the bus plaza. Instead, we decided to cross Ponte Degli, our shoes still on, though careful to not step on the knock-off handbags, watches, sunglasses and other assorted merchandise laid out on blankets and peddled by teams of tenacious young men. We then walked the streets round behind San Simeone Piccolo church to emerge in a park and then a bridge later into the now familiar bus plaza. It was a sight that refreshes and this time, far less energetic and nowhere as perky than when we had started out, we took advantage of the bus provided to return us to the waiting ‘Fortuna’. Mission accomplished!

Burano had been special. I wish we hadn't been so rushed, but the reality of cruise-life gets in the way. Granted two wishes, my second would be to have experienced Burano by night. Burano lacked the whoring commercialism of Santorini and Rhodes where everything seemed for sale, the regimented prissiness of Dubrovnik or the sensuality of nearby Venice. Dickens once wrote, “He went to the church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro ... and looked down into the kitchens of homes, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed of any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.” Symbolized not by gondolas and crumbling palaces but by the vibrant splash of colors surrounding you, this picture perfect village, adorned in a sea of lace ... may it always equally remain a statement of elegant, inestimable pleasure.

Taken down and dutifully reported by ....

That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Burano”.