Torcello

Lost glory in the Venetian lagoon

Winter is the best time to visit Venice. Spectral glimpses of cupolas and towers emerge from morning fog. Late at night, in alleys so narrow two can barely walk together, it is possible to imagine masked figures, flitting between secret assignments. The centrifugal force that spins tourists to the city’s outer reaches loses its summer impetus.

TorcelloNowhere is this more evident than on Torcello, the first island to be settled by the Veneti as they fled the mainland in search of refuge from barbarian invaders. My wife has yet to see the extraordinary mosaics in the basilica there. Today is her birthday. What better way, I reason with myself, to make it memorable.

The weather is perfect – uncompromising in its cloudless brilliance. No low hanging mist muffles the slap of water against moored gondolas. Dressed in warm layers we head from our hotel to the Fondamento Nuove, where we will catch a vaporetto – a water bus – first to Burano, then, in a smaller boat, to Torcello. En route we skirt the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Petro Lombardo’s gorgeous renaissance jewel casket of white and veined, pastel shaded marble – Othello and Desdemona were married there in Orson Welles’ film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy – and pause at a fresh fish stall on the Campiello Stella.

It’s worth buying passes for unlimited vaporetto travel online, printing a voucher to be exchanged for tickets at any Alilaguna kiosk. The boat stops first at Murano, a clutch of islands famous for the manufacture of glass, most of which I can take or leave. Its bow wave is the only disturbance on the flat calm surface of the lagoon. The sun makes it warm enough to sit outside. Herring gulls perch on channel markers. Great crested grebes dive for fish. The snow covered upper slopes of the Dolomites are visible in the distance.

Santa Maria dei MiracoliA brick path follows a canal from the Torcello jetty to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta with its landmark bell tower. Today the island has few inhabitants. Once an important centre of trade with Byzantium it was all but abandoned, as a result of the silting of the lagoon and increased prevalence of malaria. People went mostly to Venice. Stones from its many palaces and churches were used in buildings there. It became, as Jan Morris notes in her admirable book simply titled Venice, a place where 19th century romantics could indulge in “a positive ecstasy of melancholia”.

But the Cathedral and its campanile, along with a couple of palaces that now house small museums, survives. The mosaics, the earliest of which were created in the 11th century and clearly display Byzantine influence, are among Europe’s greatest treasures. They seem all the more remarkable given the relative simplicity of the building (it’s worth paying €2 for the audio guide). The detail and richness of them is astonishing. The entire interior west wall is covered by a depiction of Christianity, from the Crucifixion to the Last Judgment. From the mandorla where Christ sits, fire cascades into hell. Those chosen and redeemed contrast with those condemned to the chambers of eternal punishment. This is hardly the opium of the masses – more the double espresso. Wake up and smell the fear. GesuitiAnd at the opposite, eastern end, beyond the orthodox iconostasis, the possibility of forgiveness re-emphasised in the stunningly beautiful form of the Virgin, slender and elegant against a gold background.

We take a quick turn around the two museums, one concentrating on medieval history, the other on Roman and other archaeological finds from around the lagoon, and head back to the dock. After a quick lunch on Burano and a stroll along canals flanked by brightly painted houses, we catch the boat back to Venice.

Though the light is fading there is plenty of time for he Gesuiti, another church dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and a few paces from the landing stage. You could call it the Jesuits’ revenge. Never very popular in Venice, they were expelled in 1606 after siding with Rome and, when readmitted, allowed grudgingly to acquire this church on the city’s edge. Its interior is an extravagance of marble, from the barley sugar twists of the baldequin columns to its use as faux drapery. You have to look twice to believe that the folds of brocade and tied back curtains aren’t really fabric. Ruskin was scathing about it. I love it. We marvel, too, at the all too real fire in Titian’s superb, if horrific, Martyrdom of St Laurence.

St Mark's Square, VeniceThe only way to end such a special day is with a special dinner. We get lost on the way to the Michelin starred Da Fiore – most people get lost in Venice – but eventually settle down to memorable fish starters and mains – fried oysters followed by stuffed squid for me, sea bass with puntarelle salad and swordfish with a crispy pistachio crust for her. My oysters, fried in tempura with zabaione sauce and ranged around the plate on lolly sticks, in their shells, are almost worth the final bill alone. Cheryl enthuses over her swordfish and dessert of salted caramel and chocolate fondant. The meal costs almost as many arms and legs as there are flailing in Tintoretto’s Slaughter of the Innocents, a short walk away in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco – but cooking like this is worth every cent. Besides, we reason as we stroll home contentedly through near deserted streets, but for Brexit it would have been about the same as in London, the wine – a lovely, floral Veneto white, was a remarkably reasonable €28 a bottle – and it’s not every birthday you celebrate in a place that never fails to bewitch.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.

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Roger Bray

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