x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Other wonders on the water in Venice

Max Davidson gives the gondolas a miss and takes a ferry round the islands dotting Venice's lagoons.

Different cities have to be savoured in different ways. In most Italian ones, you would naturally make a beeline for the main square, the social hub. Do that in Venice, as millions have found to their cost, and you will be engulfed by the tsunami of tourists descending on St Mark's Basilica. In high summer, even the pigeons get claustrophobia.

To escape the hordes while still experiencing the magic of Venice, one of the best options is to take to the water - not in a gondola, unless you are a screaming romantic with money to burn and a taste for ham tenors singing O Sole Mio, but in one of the public ferries that serve the islands of the Venetian lagoon.

Just getting the breeze in your hair and the tang of salt in your nostrils is exhilarating. Seagulls circle above. Fleecy white clouds scud across the pale blue sky. A motor launch roars past, heading to the airport. A tiny wooden skiff goes by, rowed by a gnarled fisherman who will never see 70 again. Ducks frolic in the shallows.

Most of the islands in the lagoon are uninhabited, although some hint at an intriguing past. On one rocky outcrop, no bigger than a football pitch, there is what looks a ruined convent or monastery, with more than a dozen rooms. San Michele, Venice's cemetery, overhung with cypresses, has its own stone jetty, on which a woman in a black dress stands looking out to sea, remembering. There is a sour smell from the mudflats that peep above the grey-green waters. A foghorn sounds in the distance.

At different points in history, some of the islands in the lagoon were as prosperous as Venice itself, although their great days lie in the past. Fifty years ago, movie stars attending the Venice International Film Festival would stay on Lido, many of them at the famous Grand Hotel des Bains, immortalised in Visconti's 1971 classic, Death in Venice. But the hotel closed its doors in 2010, marking the end of an era.

Lido today has a rundown, even seedy, air. The holiday apartment blocks are covered with graffiti, and ginger cats prowl between the old beach huts, which badly need a lick of paint. It is worth a quick visit, if only because it boasts something you will not see in Venice proper - cars. The view back towards the city is breathtaking, particularly at sunset when the Venetian skyline is suffused with pink. But there are other, far more rewarding islands to explore.

From the Fondamenta Nuove, about a 10-minute walk from the Rialto bridge, there are regular ferries to Murano, Burano and Torcello - every one a gem, but in a totally different, idiosyncratic way. You can easily visit them all in a day, although it is a fair bet you will return the next day, hungry for more.

Murano, the biggest of them, is really several islands linked by bridges. It is renowned for its glass, which it has been manufacturing, off and on, for more than a thousand years. After 1291, when Venetian glass-makers were ordered to move their factories out to Murano for fear of fires, the island achieved a virtual monopoly in the product, producing more glass than anywhere else in Europe.

Its great days are long past, but not its love affair with glass. Even in the pretty little church of San Pietro, chandeliers line the nave, glowing and sparkling in the sun, which streams in through the window above the altar.

Shop after shop, dozens and dozens of them, exhibit nothing else; and whether you are buying or just window-shopping, it is great fun just to stroll around the island admiring the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the glass-maker. From coloured beads to ornamental lamps - two products for which Murano is particularly celebrated - nothing is off limits.

Earrings, necklaces, plates and bowls, ornamental frogs, brightly coloured birds, giant octopuses, paper knives and bottle stoppers, Father Christmases, skiers, Father Christmases on skis ... Frivolous some of it may be, but if you can't find something to charm and thrill you, there is something wrong with you.

Our own souvenir of Murano - purchased after much dithering and to-ing and fro-ing between shops - is a large water jug, shaped so prettily and streaked with such a dazzling spectrum of colours that it is not fanciful to call it a work of art. The jug sets us back more than US$50 (Dh184), but feels like a bargain.

Many of the shops have workshops attached, and it is fascinating to watch the glassmakers at their bench, practising a trade that has been in their families for centuries. It looks simple enough: taking the molten glass from the furnace, then working on it with tongs and other implements until it softens. But the sheer dexterity of the process is awe-inspiring.

After a visit to the glass museum, which gives a brilliant overview of Murano and its history, and a quick coffee by the canal, admiring the passing scene, we take the ferry to our next port of call - Burano. The two islands may rhyme, but they could hardly be more different.

The first thing you notice about Burano, as it comes into view, shimmering in the water, is that the church tower is crooked - not quite as crooked as the leaning tower of Pisa but getting that way. The second thing is that the islanders like giving their houses a lick - or six - of paint.

Not only does every house look as if it was decorated yesterday, but every single one is a different colour - and not a subtly different colour either. You will not find pale blue or muted brown on Burano, but canary yellow, fire-engine red, shocking pink, bright orange, and green as pure and vivid as fresh-picked lettuce.

There is a cheerfulness in the air that ripples across the whole island. "Ciao Fabio," shouts the woman in the bakery at a passing postman. Shopkeepers greet you with ear-to-ear grins - not something you can expect in the centre of Venice.

If Murano is famous for its glass, Burano is almost equally famous for its lace. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the intricate needlework characteristic of the island was the envy of Europe. As late as 1970, as you are reminded in the excellent lace museum, there was a flourishing Burano Lace School, dedicated to the conservation of artisan skills that were in danger of becoming extinct, overtaken by mass production.

You won't see small armies of women doing needlework in Burano today, sitting around in circles in white muslin dresses, but there is still a sizeable market in handcrafted goods, from lace table cloths to wedding veils and embroidered tapestries. In the doorway of one shop, a white-haired old lady puts the finishing touches to a cushion cover, her wrinkled fingers moving in perfect unison. In another, three generations of a family chatter happily away as they rearrange the window display. Then a small girl comes bounding down the stairs, making four generations. Some things may have changed on Burano, but the family values that sustain small communities are timeless.

We keep the best for last and, after a seafood lunch in a sleepy piazza, take the short ferry journey to Torcello, less than a kilometre away. There are barely 20 inhabitants today, but at the apex of its power in the 10th century, when it was far more powerful than neighbouring Venice, there would have been more than 10,000 people, a prosperous island community harvesting the salt in the marshes of the lagoon.

As we wend our way along the muddy canal that bisects the island, there is little or no trace of Torcello in its pomp. We pass a rundown cafe, a field of olive trees, a tiny pottery shop, a goat gnawing at its tether, a scruffy apple orchard, and the Ponte de Diavolo, the devil's bridge. But there are riches waiting at the end of our journey.

Ringed by pine trees, the lovely Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, established in 639AD, is one of the architectural wonders of northern Italy, a glorious example of the Venetian-Byzantine style associated with Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast. The bell tower, visible from miles around, dates from the 11th century, while some of the mosaics in the interior, faded with time, have a haunting simplicity. After the hustle and bustle of Venice, it feels like an oasis of calm.

There is even, within a hundred metres, a stall selling that quintessential Italian treat, the perfect climax to a day's sightseeing - ice cream. Chocolate? Pistachio? Lemon sorbet? Or how about all three, piled on top of each other, cascading down the side of the cone? As we board the ferry back to Venice, we are grinning all over our gelato-smeared faces.

If you go

The flight Return direct flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Venice from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh2,414, including taxes

The hotel Double rooms at the four-star Luna Hotel Baglioni (www.baglionihotels.com; 00 39 41 5289840) in Venice cost from €440 (Dh2,160) per night. The five-star Danieli Hotel (www.danielihotelvenice.com; 00 39 041 5226480) has double rooms from €388 (Dh1,905) per night. Prices include taxes