We are going on a Sightseeing Tour across the Venetian Lagoon to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. It will take about four hours or so and we have been warned that it is a tight schedule and that we need to be on time at every stage of the tour. We reckon that it is a good way to see at least some of the more significant islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Murano is famous for its fabulous glassware and we will have an opportunity to see a Master glassblower at work. Burano is known for its amazing multi-coloured painted houses (originally painted in different glowing colours so that the fishermen could tell their own houses in the gloom) and its elegant lacework. Torcello is an island known for its ornate palaces and ancient churches.
We get up early, route march across Venice to St Mark’s Square (managing to fit in a quick stop for coffee on the way) and arrive in plenty of time at the Alilaguna Pier (where we are to board our motorboat) brandishing photocopies of our pre-booked tickets in our hot little hands. We are much wiser after the chaos of the Doge’s Palace, so we check with guy at the gate if our photocopied tickets are OK? ‘No,’ he tells us, ‘You have to go down to the ticket kiosk and exchange your photocopies for proper tickets!’ We comply with his instructions, retrieve our proper tickets, and return to the Pier where (being the English-speaking tour) a small queue is already beginning to form. ‘Have you all got your proper tickets?’ we ask the queue. ‘Yes!’ the queue responds in unison, waving their photocopies at us. We explain the ticketing situation. The queue disperses with everyone heading for the ticket kiosk. We now find ourselves at the front of the queue.
Since we still have 30 minutes to go before the tour is due to leave – and there is no sign of the motorboat – Julia takes the opportunity to find a ‘rest room’ (as our American friends say). After she has been gone for 20 minutes I begin to worry, not just about missing the boat, but because she set off in the direction of Harry’s Bar (made famous by Earnest Hemingway) where the prices are exorbitant but where we know they have toilets. Has she given in to the temptation to have one of their famous Bellini cocktails, a mixture of Prosecco sparkling wine and peach purée or nectar (at 20€ a shot) in order to use the loo?
I needn’t have worried, however, as I spot Julia returning … with our friend little Margaret from Knaphill in tow and they are chatting away nineteen to the dozen. What is little Margaret doing here in Venice, I ask myself? I do a double take and realise that it is not little Margaret but someone who looks exactly like her in every way. It turns out that this nice lady, and a friend who is with her, are both from Australia. They are on a tour of Europe and are spending a couple days in Venice. They too are going on the same half day tour of the islands that we are doing.
Julia introduces me to them both. ‘Have you got your tickets for the islands tour?’ I ask them. ‘Yes’ they reply in unison, waving their photocopies at me. We explain the ticketing situation to them and they rush off to the ticket kiosk to get the proper tickets. Some newcomers in the queue have overheard our conversation and want to know the score. It seems just about everyone has photocopies and no one has proper tickets. New people are joining the queue all the time, and we are the only ones telling them that their photocopied tickets are not acceptable – the guy on the gate ignores us all! Eventually the queue cottons on and those at the end of the queue pass the message on to any newcomers.
Eventually our boat arrives, and we all get on board and set off across the Venetian Lagoon to our first stop, the island of Murano. The views all around us the journey across the lagoon are tremendous and I take lots of photos. After about 20 minutes we arrive at Murano, disembark and are immediately ushered in to a glass factory, where we watch a glass blower creating beautiful pieces of glassware, a Murano tradition that dates to 1291. We hear a bit about the island’s history, about Murano’s prosperity in the 1400s and 1500s when it was the centre of glassmaking in Europe, but we don’t have time to see other sights like churches decorated with mosaics and ornamental details. We are ushered in to the showroom where several sharply dressed aggressive salesmen try and sell us expensive pieces of glassware. Julia asks the price of an elaborate chandelier – we want to buy some new lights for our new Manse in Reading – and are told that it is a snip at 6,000€. ‘How many do you need?’ asks the salesman. ‘Three!’ we reply.
The salesman realises that we are not serious buyers and gets somewhat snooty. Everything is far too expensive here, I tell him. ‘When I bought my Rolex, I went to Switzerland to buy it! When you want the best glass ware you buy it here!’ he responds. ‘If I charged the prices you charge here for glassware, I could afford a Rolex as well!’ I tell him. We leave the shop, walk down the road to another smaller shop, and buy a small piece of Murano glass for 10€. It was probably made in China, but we bought it on Murano.
We make it back to the boat in good time … we don’t want to get left behind … and we head to our second stop, Burano, an island known for its lace production, which dates to the 16th century and was once the best in Europe, and the island’s brightly coloured fishermen’s houses. It is beautiful, and we could easily spend a whole day here. If we had been more familiar with Venice, we would have come here on the water bus and done just that. There are Japanese and Chinese tourists everywhere – all taking photographs. We really enjoy just wandering around. The church in the middle of the town has a prominently leaning tower which is not quite as bad as the leaning tower of Pisa but not that far off. We have 45 minutes to look around, not quite enough time for Julia to buy any lace or dresses or any of the other wonderful items on sale in the various shops. We meet ‘little Margaret’ and her companion. They have bought some very expensive lace. We rush back to the pier to catch our boat … we don’t want to be left behind … and the warning about the necessity of being on time is reinforced every time we dock at a new island. We join the queue for our boat and get into conversation with another Australian couple who are on their honeymoon. They have a huge box with them. They bought a set of expensive wine glasses at the expensive shop in Murano, and now they are worrying about how they are going to get it back home to Australia in one piece?
Our next stop is a visit to Torcello, an island established between the 5th and 6th centuries, to see its ornate palaces and churches including the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in the 7th century, and the excavated remnants of the baptistery in the Church of Santa Fosca. There is a long walk, along a canal, from where our boat docks to the ancient churches we have especially come to see. It is, however, a delightful walk in the pleasant sunshine with lots to see on the way including a rather nice restaurant – where we fancy stopping for lunch, but we haven’t the time – and an old bridge without a parapet so nothing to stop you falling in if you have had too many glasses of wine at the posh restaurant. The 7th century church is amazing (although you can’t take photographs on the inside) and we spend most of our time simply drinking in the atmosphere. We just have time to eat our packed lunch before a quick march along the canal side back to the jetty to catch the boat. We must be back by 5 to 1, we don’t want to be left behind, and we make it with a minute or two to spare.
Our tour of the islands is over … just the 40-minute return boat ride to Venice. We find a seat in the stern of the boat so that we can get a great view. At two minutes to one our boat pulls away from the jetty. They have another trip scheduled for 2.00 p.m. and can’t be late. ‘Where are our Australian friends? ‘Little Margaret’ and her companion?’ asks Julia. ‘Where are the ‘happy couple’ with their great big Murano box?’ They must be up the front of the boat we think to ourselves … but no … there they are, still on Torcello! They have just arrived at the jetty. They are waving to us, but the ‘waving’ soon turns to a ‘shrug of the shoulders’ as they realise the boat is gone and won’t be coming back for them. They have been left behind.
We feel guilty. Perhaps we could have done or said something to make the boat wait for just a minute or two longer. We console ourselves with the thought, however, that if our Australian friends could afford to buy lace from Burano, and wine glasses from Murano … they could surely afford a water taxi back to St Mark’s Square!