Islands of glass and sand

Venice boasts more sights than a person can see in four days, not just because it’s full of beautiful art and cultural destinations, but also because Venice is a whole lagoon, and the main island that the city is on is not host to all of its wonders. We took time to see two of the islands in the lagoon during the time that we were there, and it provided us a glimpse of a different side of Venice. At the same time, I think there were many things we didn’t get to see, which makes me a bit sad. In the end, there are definite trade-offs to the decisions you have to make about the brief hours and days you are given here.

Our first island was Murano, which is internationally renowned for its glass. We took a ferry of just 10 minutes from the north side of the city, going past San Michele, the city cemetery. I had joked to Steve about what the people in Venice go when they die, and apparently, they are buried on a whole different island. Venice is such a small place that they barely have a city park, so I imagine green space is a bit harder to find. On the ferry, we got a good glimpse at San Michele, which is like a brick-walled island, with dark green cypresses encircling it, and one very creamy marble church. Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky are just two of the famous people who are buried there. When we finally disembarked on Murano, we found a distinctly different island, where there were barely any people around once you got off the main tourist strip, and many houses had signs of “VENDENDI” meaning for sale. I think that many parts of Italy, away from the tourist masses, are suffering economically, as many of the industries that used to thrive there have died away or left for cheaper countries. We saw some of that on Murano, but nevertheless, it still has some of the charm of Venice. We were there for the Museo del Vetro (Museum of Glass), housed in a former villa. It began in the 1860s, which is a neat thing I like about the Venetian museums. Even before the 20th century, people started recognizing that there were many traditions and artifacts worth preserving, and began these museums like Museo del Vetro and the Doge’s Palace.

The Museum of Glass began with some videos that show the actual creation of glass itself. We walked through many rooms displaying the evolution of glass, from colored glass to the invention of truly transparent glass, to the use of painted glass with different rods and different colors. We learned a lot about the innovations that Murano glassmakers contributed. For example, Murano glassblowers pioneered the millefiore technique (meaning thousand flowers): by arranging and combining many thin, colored rods of glass and fusing them together to create one thick rod, you can create a single image on the end that will look the same no matter how long you stretch the rod and then cut it. For a simpler comparison, there are rolls of dough in baking where you can cut many cookies from the roll with the same pattern, so this is just the same thing in glass. Originally, the millefiore pattern was mostly different star-shaped patterns made through these rods. One Murano glassmaking family improved on this by using thousands of tiny rods to create larger rods that were actually portraits of famous people at the time, like emperors and kings. This took an incredibly long time, and the glassmaker who did it actually went crazy from his work. That’s some dedication! Other interesting techniques like creating chalcedony glass, which is glass that is opaque but has beautiful swirls of glittering colors in it, were invented on Murano and then lost after a period of time, and then rediscovered. It reinforces how difficult it is to actually pass on knowledge of how to do things from generation to generation. In a lot of ways, Venice is all about these amazing techniques and cultural achievements that were reached hundreds of years ago, and ever since then, the city has been trying to reclaim some of it or at least ensuring that it survives.

Much of the busy strip in Murano has flashy shops everywhere, advertising “real Murano glass”, but a lot of it is actually imported from China or other places where glass is cheaper. We did get a glass lion (the symbol of Venice) magnet from the Museum of Glass shop itself (I made sure to ask the lady if it was made there), and a few other small things as presents. The most interesting glass creation was actually just positioned in a niche in an outside wall near the museum: a glass sculpture of the Virgin and Son, a beautiful dark purple and blue creation. It seemed like a very genuine and simple, no-fanfare representation of the way glass is important to the people on this island. Closer to the docks, there were more glass shops, some with demonstrations, but they seemed like very ceremonial demonstrations that felt saged. One actually involved seats around the kiln and glasses of wine offered to the spectators. We walked way down one alley, and at the end, I found a workshop where someone was actually twirling glass. They beckoned me in, and didn’t charge for their demonstrations, but I did see a platform where they were taking tips. So I just watched the craftsman stretch a tongue of glass out and scoring the surface like drawing the veins of a leaf. It was quite a practical, authentic-looking workshop where they were playing the radio, which it reminded me of an auto-mechanic shop! We thanked them and bowed out a few minutes later, to take the next ferry back to the mainland.

Our second day trip was to the Lido of Venice, a long thin barrier island with a strip of sandy beach down the eastern side, and canals and houses on the western side. Even at its widest, it’s scarcely more than one kilometer across. if you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, the Lido Deck, where the pool is, was named for this Lido. I had known about the Lido, but not seriously considered visiting until we were actually in the city. Lido was enormously popular in the early 1900s during the latter part of the Belle Epoque. From the novels that I had read, the famous hotels of the waterfront gathered the cream of the European and American middle classes, and for some reason, I assumed it was still that way. Apparently the Lido is home to a lot more native Venetians now who work over in the city, but come home here on the ferry after 5 pm.

When we arrived, our first order of business was to take an actual dip in the ocean. The water proved to be an excellent warm temperature, and the shore a very gradual descent, so we saw many families enjoying themselves on the beach. After cleaning ourselves off and walking down the strip, we arrived at the closed Grand Hotel Des Bains. This epic hotel which is now closed for redevelopment was the first grand hotel on the beach, opened in 1900. It opened the first sea-bathing facility in Europe and popularized it. However, the business closed, and the building has now been sold to a developer, who are planning to renovate it into luxury condos, but nothing has happened yet. The Google Maps location is full of reviews lamenting its closure and now slow decay. Further down the coast, we encountered the Palazzo del Cinema, which was built just for the Venice Film Festival. The Lido is best known these days for hosting the festival in late August/ early September every year, and for that one week, the film stars of the world descend on the Lido. For now, it’s just a white building without the red carpet, but nonetheless, we took a few photos to admire it. Finally, we arrived at the Hotel Excelsior, which used to be one of the most exclusive resorts in Europe and still feels like it to some extent. It has a Moorish-influenced type of exterior, with turrets and interesting brickwork on the outside. Originally, we were just going to walk around a bit, but the bar and restaurant looked so welcoming that we decided to have a spritz in the shade. While we usually pay just 4-6 euros for the spritz at most restaurants, this one cost a lofty 18 here. (Side note: if I haven’t explained before, the spritz is the iconic Italian aperitif, made of Campari or Aperol or both, prosecco, and soda water with a slice of orange or lemon peel. And it is eminently delicious.) From our location, we could see lines of the beach huts, which occupy the beachfront of the Excelsior (and many of the other hotels on the strip). Most guests occupy these beach huts, giving them a place to hide from the sun in the shade but also easy access to the beach. Closer to us were lovely round day-beds with pastel-colored cushions under wide umbrellas. Enjoying a drink there felt like a very fun and interesting glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous.

When we caught the ferry back to Venice, it was already the late afternoon, and we were departing Venice the next morning. With some reluctance, we decided not to try to visit San Marco Basilica on this trip. It seems incredible, because that’s one of the highlights of the city, but there is usually a prohibitively long line in front of the basilica, and also because Italian churches have a special quirk that I did not realize: they frown upon uncovered knees and shoulders. In many churches, I’ve seen women walking around with these one-time use white cape, made from the fabric that you see for bibs in seafood restaurants. So while this kind of clothing restriction is something we’re familiar with from our time visiting temples in Thailand, I was in fact surprised to see it here, because it’s not something I’ve seen France or Germany. So it’s created an inconvenience, because it’s incredibly hot, to wear pants or to wear a scarf over my spaghetti-strap dress. Finally, I would have to say that there is definitely a threshold for absorbing art and museums and religious sites, and we’re playing fast and loose with it on this trip. I think there may well be a trip back to Venice in the future, so hopefully we’ll get to see that and Ca’Rezzonico (a Venetian palazzo once rented by Cole Porter) and other sights of the Serene City some other day.

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