17 February 2012
Venice in the Spring
Spring sprinkles Venice with a touch of magic. There's no better time to visit its islands and hidden corners than when the first artichokes and baby shrimps arrive.
If there's one Italian destination that deserves to be experienced either side of summer, it's Venice. Spring and autumn offer the chance of enjoying the city without the crowds, and yet on days so mild you can often lunch all'aperto.
In April and early May, the city is a delight, with the days getting longer and a scent of approaching summer on the breezes that waft across the water. Easter is always busy, of course - but in the weeks that follow there is enough of a lull to allow you to have the city's quieter corners pretty much to yourself.
There is no better period than this for visiting the islands of the northern lagoon. Occasionally, it is true, that winter coat might still come in handy - but these cooler interludes when the tramontana wind from the north is blowing are also days of crystalline light, when the city's rooftops and belltowers seem only a few miles away from the snow-capped peaks of the Julian Alps behind.
The waterbus from Fondamenta Nuove stops first at Murano, the glassblowers' island, where the traditional workshops allow you to observe the mysterious alchemy of sand, soda ash and fire at close quarters (left). But to see a more intimate, bucolic side of the lagoon, it's well worth pressing on to the islands just beyond.
Burano is famous for its fishermen's houses painted the sort of jaunty colours that a five-year-old with a new box of paints might have chosen. It's also the realm of lace, or merletto, an age-old tradition which is today being revived by the Scuola di Merletti academy (right). After the artistic demands of Venice, Burano is refreshingly devoid of must-see churches and museums - so you are free to absorb the village atmosphere, to wander past net-mending fishermen down the winding main street,
or explore the island's charming backstreets, stopping perhaps at a canalside restaurant for a just-off-the-boat seafood lunch.
Torcello is the birthplace of Venice - it was the first island on the lagoon to be colonised, in the fifth century, by mainlanders fleeing Attila and his Huns, who were (as was their wont) sweeping in from the East. In the 14th century, the island counted 20,000 inhabitants; yet today it's a lovely rural backwater with just 20 permanent residents. From the vaporetto jetty, one walks along the fondamenta past the Ponte del Diavolo - one of only two bridges in Venice without a parapet - to a grassy square bordered by two churches that are the only substantial remnants of the island's glory years.
Eleventh-century Santa Fosca is innocent, unadorned, and perfect in its Greek Cross symmetry. Dating from 638, Santa Maria Assunta is the oldest building on the lagoon, and its stunning mosaics, like those of San Marco, allow a glimpse of Venice's simpler early Byzantine spirit, before its architects began to flaunt the empire's opulence and power.
Back in Venice, April and early May is the time to sample castraure - the tender young purple artichokes from another northern lagoon island, Sant'Erasmo, which begin to appear on Rialto market stalls as the weather warms up. Try them at the Hotel Cipriani's swooningly romantic waterside restaurant, the Fortuny (pictured above), perhaps served on pasta with baby shrimps: nothing too fancy, just a perfectly timed cottura to bring out the flavours of these two utterly Venetian ingredients.
By Lee Marshall, a Rome-based writer for major publications, who knows Venice well.
What are your recommendations for Venice in the spring?