From urban parks and vineyards to Michelin-starred dining, change is sweeping Venice’s lesser-known islands. It’s time to dodge the Doge’s Palace and head into unchartered waters
“Sant’Erasmo, per favore?” It’s always disconcerting when, rather than happily whisking you on your way, a water-taxi driver turns to his colleagues with a dubious frown and begins to confer in rapid Italian. Later, as we speed eastwards across the lagoon, past tree-lined shores and a solitary figure gathering crabs on the sand, I ask how often he’s taken passengers to this island. The grand total? Just four times in 20 years.
The multitudes in San Marco are missing out. Aside from the ducklings that greet you at Sant’Erasmo’s Capannone boat stop, and the occasional farm dog or goat, you can cycle along its canal paths for miles without seeing another soul. Instead of the clicking of cameras and babble of tour groups, the soundtrack is birdsong and the occasional cockerel’s crow. Cartoon-like three-wheeled Piaggio Apes trundle its dusty one-track roads, piled high with castraure – the island’s famous variety of baby violet artichokes. It’s Sant’Erasmo that keeps Venetian bellies full: each morning, boats piled with fruit and vegetables leave its shores for the Rialto Market.
“Every island has a function, a distinctive culture,” explains Michel Thoulouze, a Parisian who swapped a high-flying role in the TV industry for winemaking on Sant’Erasmo’s northern shore. “This is the agricultural island. Once the place was covered with vineyards, but then it became cheaper to buy from the mainland. We’ve started a sort of revival. It was the amazing view that brought me here, but when I heard about the soil quality, I couldn’t let it go to waste.” Enlisting the help of winemaker friends from Burgundy, he began producing Orto di Venezia, a distinctive minerally white wine. The only type produced from start to finish in Venice, today it’s stocked in Annabel’s and J Sheekey’s; swanky London eateries that may as well be on another planet when you’re standing among the vines and radishes on Thoulouze’s estate.
Winemaking is just one of the enterprises giving Venice’s lesser-known enclaves a new lease of life. Even though only a tiny fraction of the city’s 20 million annual visitors currently venture beyond the centro storico (old town), there are in fact around 118 islands scattered across 550km2 of water. Some are sleepy yet industrious communities, like Sant’Erasmo, many more are abandoned former monasteries, military bases or hospitals. In fact, many have been all three at some point in their chequered pasts. It’s rich fodder for the growing crop of so-called ‘island entrepreneurs’.
San Servolo (sanservolo.provincia.venezia.it) was one of the isole del dolore – or ‘islands of the sick’ – a former military hospital turned asylum, which now hosts everything from holiday accommodation and student dorms to a conference centre and café. With views to the Lido in one direction, the Biennale Gardens in the other, the peaceful lawns belie its disturbing past, but its daily guided tours are not for the faint-hearted: along with an antique apothecary and library, there’s a museum housing horror-film-esque machines for electric-shock therapy and an anatomy lab complete with dissection table and several preserved brains.
Equally fascinating – and unsettling – are the archives, where shelves are tightly packed with box files containing the crinkled, yellowing medical notes of half a million former patients. The room is divided ominously into the men who were released and those who died here. Naturally, there are plenty of ghost stories surrounding the place, but such good-value accommodation just 10 minutes from San Marco is perhaps worth a little haunting.
Luxury hotel groups have snapped up two nearby islands. San Clemente – once the women’s asylum, where Mussolini had his first wife incarcerated – is now a Kempinski resort, while just last year, JW Marriott opened its 250-room hotel on Isole delle Rose, originally a hospital for pulmonary diseases. Blessed with a balmy, breezy microclimate, the island’s olive trees and exotic plants survived miraculously well over its 40 derelict years and today, home-grown olive oil is on the menu in its Michelin-starred restaurant. Ramshackle outbuildings have been made over as luxury villas, thanks to a canny ‘box-in-box’ concept, incorporating the original walls as a sort of architectural outer shell.
The 360° view from the hotel’s rooftop bar, Sagra, gives a rare sense of how vast the lagoon really is – from southerly Chiogga and Sottomarina, buffeted by Adriatic waves and salt breezes, to the silent brackish mud flats beyond Torcello. Looking north from Sagra, one of the first islands you’ll see is Giudecca, a rib-shaped underscore to the city of Venice proper. It’s a perfect example of the blinkered nature of Venetian tourism: architect Palladio’s celebrated Il Redentore church lures a few across the Giudecca Canal from Riva degli Schiavoni, but most visitors don’t get further than walking its promenade and taking a few snaps. Delve beyond this, though, and you’ll find students from the island’s arts campus setting up their easels uninterrupted, boatmen tinkering away in the dockyard and locals walking their dogs beneath the laundry lines from apartment blocks (some of them – gasp – modern). But even here, the lagoon-wide revival is seeing old properties repurposed: the Hilton has taken over an imposing ex-flour mill on the western tip; the Bauer Palladio Hotel & Spa (palladiohotelspa.com) has restored a 16th-century convent that conceals idyllic gardens even the grandest of English country manors would be proud of.
What every island entrepreneur seems to want to avoid is the day-tripper mentality. “The people who come to ‘see the islands’ with a €20 ticket and in four hours they visit four places – they don’t know if they are in Murano or Burano,” as Matteo Bisol puts it. This is something he hopes to change with last month’s launch of Burano’s first ‘hotel’, having converted four of its candy-coloured fisherman’s cottages into 13 stylish guest rooms decorated by local makers. The aim is to encourage discerning tourists to linger, eat the locally caught seafood in neighbourhood restaurants (moeche, the soft-shelled crabs, are a speciality here) and perhaps buy a piece from its renowned lacemakers (rumour has it Louis XIV ordered a Burano lace collar so fine that it was said to be woven from white human hair). At present, the place becomes a total ghost town once the day-trippers depart.
In his chinos and trendy specs, Bisol looks like he’d be more at home in a Silicone Valley workspace than roaming the vineyard and vegetable patches on tiny Mazzorbo, but wine runs in his veins. While the rest of his family tend their centuries-old Prosecco estate on the mainland, he oversees Venissa (venissa.it), a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms. “The only one in the world with not one head chef, but four. This means they’re constantly bringing different influences to our local ingredients,” he says, before breaking off to resolve an intense debate about spring onions between one of the chefs and the gardener.
Bisol’s father planted Venissa’s vineyard in 2006, after he discovered a long-forgotten local grape variety, Dorona di Venezia, surviving on neighbouring Torcello. Packaged in Murano-glass bottles and simply labelled with squares of hand-beaten gold leaf, the finished product is a fusion of tradition and modernity indicative of the lagoon’s renaissance.
“This isn’t a new thing,” says former Olympic sailor Alberto Sonino, a born and bred Venetian. “It’s something from the past, a rediscovery of a lifestyle from which Venice was born.”
It was in the northern lagoon islands that the early Venetians settled, fleeing Barbarian invasions on the mainland. In AD 1000, Torcello had 50,000 people compared with just 15,000 in Venice proper, while Mazzorbo was once the place for wealthy Venetians’ weekend palaces. Malaria and the rising power of the Rialto, better positioned for trade in the centre of the lagoon, prompted mass migration, with many taking their houses to pieces brick by brick, loading them onto barges and reconstructing them around the Grand Canal. Gradually, the island life of Venice contracted, like a reverse Big Bang.
Sonino is behind the transformation of the island of La Certosa, from home to a derelict Carthusian monastery and stomping ground for goats and rabbits, to a thriving sailing club, public park, hotel and restaurant. He puts the new interest in the lesser-known islands down to the over-saturation of the centro storico. “The very centre is becoming less interesting because of the mass tourism. As soon as you have big numbers, you have a small group who want to find a different place.”
Thanks to La Certosa’s position close to the Biennale, it has already hosted luminaries from the film and art worlds – among them Brangelina, James Franco and Daniel Craig. Even so, Sonino is evidently not a man who likes to be idle, as the next project is building a bridge to neighbouring Sant’Andrea and restoring its ruined fortress.
Not everyone has greeted the islands’ redevelopment with open arms, however. When Poveglia, dubbed the world’s most haunted island – its various incarnations include a leper hospital, maritime quarantine station, geriatric home and, for the past 50 years, a vine-choked wasteland – was put up for sale in 2014, locals mounted a campaign, Poveglia Per Tutti (Poveglia For All), to buy the 99-year lease and prevent the island’s privatisation. The project got 7,000 Facebook supporters and over €20,000 in donations, but was outbid by a private buyer. Still classed as Italian state property, the latest plan is to create a university campus there. Young Architects Competitions is running a tender for architects and designers to submit proposals.
“It’s a very delicate subject,” agrees Giulia Mengardo, Certosa’s events manager. “Venetians don’t want the islands to be exploited. There’s a feeling that Venice is for sale to the highest bidder. The trouble is, it’s very difficult to manage [the islands] if you don’t have a lot of money.”
Wandering around Certosa’s marina, as a family heads out kayaking, children kick a football about on the grass and three brothers from Burano hand build bespoke wooden boats in the shipyard, it seems that a happy equilibrium has been struck here between commerce and local culture. There’s the employment and upkeep that industry brings, but also a free space for anyone to enjoy.
“It’s a nice idea for some islands to be wild,” Mengardo reflects, “but there are so many abandoned places in the lagoon. Often, Venice seems to be a museum for foreigners, who can come and say, ‘Look at the nice ruins’, but we live here. This is not a dead city. The lagoon is not a dead lagoon. It has to keep living.”
Venice is returning to the lagoon, it’s true, but not in the way people usually mean: not sinking, but spreading, re-awakening.
Into the Blue Zone
Fancy living to 100? Sardinia’s rugged heartland has hit upon a novel way to tempt tourists – by offering up the secrets of its residents’ incredible longevity. The local cheese and wine are a key part of the equation. We’re sold.
Adolfo Melis swings around lamp posts Singing in the Rain-style as he roams the sun-beaten streets of Perdasdefogu. It’s siesta hour, most of the village’s shops and houses shuttered and silent, but he darts into his bar to find the regulars shooting pool and playing cards in the dusky light. Eyes sweeping over the marble counter, he talks proudly of his vegetable patch, where the beans and aubergines are thriving, before plucking a family photo from the wall to point out his brothers and sisters. Next he grabs two chairs, lifts himself off the ground and pedals his feet in the air. None of this would be too remarkable – except for the fact that Adolfo is 93-years-old.
Look closer and you’ll notice the poker players out back are octogenarians, and a sprightly white-haired chap wields the pool cue, playing against two small boys. The black-and-white photo shows a grand total of nine siblings. Adolfo built this bar back in 1956 and still lives above it. None of this raises eyebrows in Ogliastra, though. Together with neighbouring regions Nuoro and Oristano this central stretch of Sardinia forms one of only five Blue Zones in the world, meaning an unusually high number of locals live to be over 100 (others include Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica). The proportion of centenarians in Ogliastra is almost 50 times that found in the UK or the US. And not only do they live a long time, they also continue to enjoy a high quality of life – levels of depression and dementia among the elderly are remarkably low here.
So, what’s their secret? Scientists have been homing in on the region in a bid to answer this million-dollar question. This year saw the launch of an official ‘Sardinia Blue Zone’ observatory for longevity, while British biotech company Tiziana Life Sciences snapped up a biobank of DNA samples from 13,000 genealogically-linked residents for £217,000 in July.
Researchers have already identified a gene in the Y chromosome that significantly reduces heart attack and stroke, and in Sardinia’s isolated mountain villages it has remained unusually undiluted. Few of the tourists flying into Cagliari, Olbia and Alghero make it to the island’s rugged interior, where the winding country roads overspill with cacti and vivid pink bursts of Oleander, and most of the elderly locals speak only the Sardinian language, which sounds more akin to Catalan and is the closest living relative to Latin.
But even more important than genetics, experts agree, is the Sardinian lifestyle: the food and wine, the close-knit, sociable communities, and their physically active jobs. The majority of elderly men here worked as shepherds or farmers, roaming miles and miles of steep granite terrain every day.
Perched on a sofa alongside his brothers Antonio, 97, and Vitalio, 90 (adorable in coordinating striped polo shirts), Aldolfo makes no bones about his opinion: “Work hard, eat less.” Just when I’m thinking this doesn’t sound very palatable, he tempers it with, “And wine! One glass is okay, two is even better.”