It was Robert Frost who said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
I, too, once took the road less traveled by, but it was not in a wood, it was on the banks of the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello just off the coast of Venice, in beautiful Italy, and it definitely made all the difference. I was part of a standard tour given by a Washington State-based travel company where I spent one glorious week in Venice, and part of that tour was to sample the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. Group activities, such as a glass factory tour, a trip up the campanile (bell tower) on Torcello, or buying lace in the streets of Burano were on the agenda. However, a tip from a local Venetian gave me the courage to trek out and explore the islands on my own from a very different vantage point, and it’s some of the best travel advice I’ve ever received.
Touring all three islands at once will take up an entire day, or split it into two separate days, if you have the time, to truly soak up the magic of these islands. Ensure you wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll do a lot of walking throughout the streets, up and over canal bridges, into the heart of these islands, and sore feet will dampen the experience. If it’s summer, ensure you have plenty of sunscreen, as the boat ride is approximately 40 minutes each way, and the sun reflects off the lagoon like a mirror; toss on a hat and some sunglasses as well. Additionally, if you’re a shopper like me, I recommend a sturdy backpack to bring your treasures back to Venice, because lugging plastic bags throughout the day can get tiresome. Wouldn’t hurt to toss a few snacks and a bottle of water in that backpack as well. There are plenty of places to grab a bite on the island, but it’s always good to keep dehydration and low blood sugar at bay. Lastly, you’ll want to have both a vaporetto (water bus) travel card with enough hours for the entire day, as well as the vaporetto schedule to ensure you don’t miss your return boat. If your budget allows for a private water taxi for the day, indulge, as that way you aren’t at the mercy of the vaporetto schedule in case you’d like to linger a little longer on the islands.
Every traveler differs in their priorities for sightseeing, so understanding what each island has to offer will help determine which one to visit first. Nature lovers should probably start on Murano to explore glass blowing, then Burano to explore their pastries and lace, saving the majority of their day for exploring the tranquility of quiet and lush Torcello. Shoppers on the other hand, should do the reverse, allowing an easy tour of Torcello’s churches and gardens in the morning and saving the peak of the day for shopping on the other two islands. Regardless of the order you choose, do yourself a favor and, when you depart the vaporetto, walk right past the dockside shops and merchants and venture deep into the island to find better deals, peaceful spots, and a feeling of being one with the cultures of each island. That was the advice I received from Gabriella, the woman who sold me my very expensive Prada bag in Venice. She said, “When you go to the islands, go into the heart, walk with the people, and feel how the rhythm is different from Venice.” And she was right.
In Torcello, while yes, I did hit the high points of the Basilica of Santa Maria Asunta and climbed the steps of the campanile, I climbed them to get an amazing vantage point of the gorgeous landscape to determine where I wanted to explore next. I took neighborhood paths away from the famous Locanda Cipriani hotel and restaurant, to explore how people on Torcello lived. I saw lush rose gardens, pomogranate trees and felt the silent, easy rhythm of this tranquil island. It was like night and day from busy Venice, and had I just stayed on the tour, I would have missed out on that. The comfortable shoes and bottle of water came in handy on this part, as I did a lot of walking.
On Burano, again, taking Gabriella’s advice, I went into the heart of Burano, which was much more populated that Torcello. The pace here was slightly faster, still nowhere near Venice, and again, seeing how the Burano citizens live and work is fascinating. The homes, are all colorfully painted vibrant hues of pinks, blues, yellows, purples, reds and everything in between, and true you can see this from the docks, but moving into the heart of the island allows a look at life on Burano at a more intimate level. Walk with local Burano residents along the neighborhood streets, talk to them if you dare, they’re quite friendly. Find shops in the heart of the island (I got a much better deal on a Burano lace scarf than I would have had I stayed at the larger lace shops near the vaporetto docks), and get an up close and personal look at how construction is done on cities that are built on water. Don’t be afraid to blend in with your surroundings and walk outside the comfort zone of the tourist attractions.
Murano, the most well known of the three islands, is where the master glass blowers live and work, and it’s a sight to behold. Taking the same tip of seeking out glass factories in the heart of Murano will get you better deals on glass pieces. The tour I was on offered a tour of a glass factory to watch a piece get made, but all three of the smaller shops I went into were more than happy to allow me to see how they skillfully crafted their pieces, and it was a sight to behold. These artists, with just melted glass and their own breath created masterpieces right before my eyes. And a one on one experience like that is not to be missed. The gentleman I bought my murano glass art piece said, “Sadly, people can’t digest glass, if they could, I’d be a rich man. Instead, I live by the tourist.” And it’s the truth. Venice, and the outlying islands survive off of tourism, and glass being their top seller. Help out their economy by bringing home some glass, just don’t be afraid to explore a few shops deeper into the island, as well as the ones closer to the vaporetto, to make sure you get the best piece for the best deal.
There are many places one can go in a day from the main island of Venice, and the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are the closest, and most popular amongst locals and tourists alike. But when traveling, there’s no need to follow the masses to the first shop you encounter. Be brave. Venture further into the heart of these amazing communities and spend some time with the local people. See how they live. Shop where they shop. Eat where they eat. Ask them questions, you’ll be amazed how eager some are to talk about their home and history. Enjoy all the spoils they enjoy daily. Just because a day trip is frequented by numerous tourists every day, doesn’t mean you have to frequent it the same way. Take the road less traveled on your next day trip, wherever it takes you. It might just make all the difference.