By Soham Nagchowdhury
It was 11 o’clock on our 3rd day in Venice, and the weather was moist with little rain. Our morning had been spent ambling along the Fondamente Nove (Central passage), and now, it was time for our vaporetto (canal boat). Some cynical Venetian residents were talking of the approaching “acqua alta” or high water. Like a few other locals, I opened the tide chart on my “Hi!Tide” app, and it looked good for the next few hours. Burano, here we come!
Burano and the Venetian Lagoon
There is nothing natural about the Venetian Lagoon. To me, it’s like a delicately balanced living organism that has been artificially controlled for many years. If people had not interfered with the natural forces of the lagoon’s environment, it would have filled up over the centuries and become an Italian coastline. The beauty of the lagoon is it allows us to see the city from the water, and puts Venice in proper perspective, in both space and time.
Beyond ‘Central Venice’, yet reached on regular ferries, the scattered lagoon islands make a refreshing retreat from the tourist hordes and hardcore culture. Burano is one of them, and certainly my top favourite. It shines like an archipelago of sorts – four interconnecting islands, where the people of Altino (a town in the Abruzzo region of central-western Italy) fled to escape a barbarian invasion during the sixth century – at least that’s what we heard while we were there. One of our guides told us about the Altinos settling there for centuries and establishing a small, tightly knit community.
On our way to Burano
The scene at the San Marco stop was surreal. The docks – attached by walkways to the fondamenta or pavement, bordering the Basin of St. Mark’s – were riding slightly higher on the tide. As my mom pulled my arm to point to a building, we saw the gangplanks sloping down and awash with water. Before visiting Venice, we could never imagine how a lagoon can slowly invade the city inch by inch. As we were here now, for a couple of days, it became a way of life. Wavelet after wavelet was carrying the water closer and closer to the buildings. Debating around the unique Venetian landscape, we soon lost track of time. All of a sudden, we heard footsteps on the boat-dock ramps. Oh that’s it! We’ve arrived.
By the first look, Burano looked as dead as a deserted island. Few miles ahead, we found a couple of old houses and closed shops. Apart from our co-passengers from the vaporetto, there was hardly another human. Suddenly, there was so much space for us. We could wander in zig zag routes, run around in circles, roar out loud and spread ourselves around. It seemed as if we owned the island. Unlike Venice, it felt free, calm and peaceful. Owing to some research, we were well aware that Burano was well known for its lace industry and mouth-watering seafood. My mom loves both – eating fish and shopping laces. It wouldn’t be difficult for her to find her soul in Burano.
It was mid-afternoon, and our stomachs had started anticipating different varieties of fish we had planned for. Soon, we crossed over rainbow-coloured walls to find an elderly couple and a shopkeeper toddle along the alleyways, which seemed to have shades that I had only seen in my pastel colour palettes. “That’s way too many colours“, me and mom were both pretty dazzled. Wait, is this tiny low-key fisherman village painted in bright orange, royal purple, shiny green and bright yellow ? The answer is yes.
A carnival of colours that distinguishes the town today came out of an intentional feature added to Burano’s initial development plan. The fishermen who first lived here would paint their houses in vibrant shades to distinguish their property from that of their neighbours. Few even claim that the colours were a way to spot the island from dense fog. Every buranello (inhabitant of Burano) seems to be a lover of his own home ; intact, it is impossible to find a discoloured house’.
Unpretentious Seafood at Trattoria da Romano
“We need some good food now!”, I uttered, as we were holding up tightly in the rain. Venice was our 3rd city in Italy, and my mom’s heart was still craving for authentic Italian fish recipes. Here, I shall always be grateful to Burano for offering us a traditional Venetian fish platter, something we hadn’t had in Italy as yet. Though, for me, the most memorable dish was “Risotto”, which I like to call “Italian Khichdi“. Hold on, hold on! Why am I am jumping straight to the end of the meal? Go back, go back. Rewinding by an hour, we are still hungry souls rushing our way up to this simple, yet elegant restaurant, called Trattoria da Romano.
Although Venice has no shortage of seafood, it could be difficult to find restaurants that really specialize in the preparation of fish. Trattoria da Romano in Burano was definitely a great find. Trattoria, meaning an “Italian restaurant serving simple food” of ‘Da Romano’ dynasty started off as a general store and meeting point for local lads in the 1940’s, evolving over decades to turn into a famous seafood restaurant. It is awe-inspiring to know that the same family has been running this place for ages. Wait, have we reached? Yes, we are here!
The name was written in bold letters : “TRATTORIA DA ROMANO”. As we were entering into Barbaro Family’s culinary haven, the feeling was unbelievable. Walls were covered with sketches, paintings and cartoons created by diners and visitors over the years. It felt homely. My mom looked happy and my mind was ringing with – “Isiliye Anthony Bourdain yahaan aaya tha”, meaning “No wonder Anthony Bourdain visited this restaurant!”
Like all our Italian meals so far, the bread was the first thing to arrive. “Oh wow, a mixture of different bread pouches and breadsticks this time. That’s pretty cool!”. The next thing to arrive was the wine. This had been become our tradition. Sipping wine became a prerequisite, and ordering food was left as an afterthought. Though this time, we were really hungry. A late elaborate fish lunch was long overdue, and we finally did it, just at the right place. The server raved about the range and freshness of fishes and crustaceans found locally, and enticed us into getting the ‘Frittura Mista’ – a mixed Adriatic fish platter offering. The dish was served in an aesthetically designed plate, filled with shrimps, prawns, calamari, alici (anchovies), fillets all beefing up the dining table. The taste was subtle, simple and unforgettable.
When Anthony Bourdain visited Trattoria da Romano, he said: “There’s one dish crossing the lagoon for, if not half the world…”. He was referring to the Go Risotto. This was a no-brainer in our order. Go fishes are mostly bottom dwellers. We don’t eat them but they have great flavours, if prepared well. If the broth is carefully extracted without squeezing the fish, it could be used to prepare this sumptuous dish. “Gosh!! This tastes as heavenly as our Indian Khichdi. Who said that rice dishes aren’t as good outside India?!”
We followed Bourdian’s recommendation, and boy was he right! Many generations of mastering risotto was melting in my mouth like a pouch of delight. I got so pumped that I didn’t wait to use my oily hands to send the picture (seen below) of this terrific dish to all my Indian buddies. One of my childhood friends, Aakarsh replied “Saale kuch bhi karo, tujhe khichdi chahiye hi“, which means that I always end up needing a rice mashup of some sorts. To me, this plate of ‘risotto de gò’ – risotto made with the goby fish particular to the Venetian Lagoon is probably the best reflection of Burano’s authenticity, and how the local fishermen have retained it. The waiter later told us that risotto and goby fishes are the main reasons Burano is still inhabited by mostly farmers and fishermen. Conserva la tua storia! (Preserve your history!)
After such a fulfilling meal, we were charged up to explore the rest of Burano. While Venice’s narrow alleys often casted us in darkness, Burano’s fisherman houses actually let the light in and the blue skies shine through. In every few steps, we were peacefully colliding with something new – a pretty flower pot, a colourful dead end, a tree plump with pomegranates or a surly cat. Such is the distinctive feature of every ‘calle’ , that it is impossible to not get distracted here. I ran past the alleys over and over again, to counter the peace, watching interesting strangers gather at dusk, picking fishes for dinner and relishing confectioneries.
Now that I remember our walk through the rest of the town, I also recollect a fascinating fact about special colour patterns for homes around Burano. All houses had consistent labels, whereas each was painted in a designated colour with windows and door frames painted in contrasting whites that actually makes the colour of the homes pop. Sometimes, the picture perfect landscape feels as if it was whipped up in Photoshop.
Another interesting fact is that the owners always have to request approvals from the government to repaint their houses. With petit canals and footbridges symmetrically joining the island at the centre, the entire town looked like Wonderland. For locals in Venice, Burano could just be a perfect picnic spot. Come in early morning, grab a meat sandwich and cheeses from one of the local delis and sit in the small green park near the boat landing. Nice drill, right?!
Venice probably offers dozens of other towns, where you could simply wander and see where those tiny passages lead you. Burano is no different, just with some more of a multi-coloured touch. Sauntering along these coloured houses and black umbrellas decolourizing some of the landscape, we reached the last bridge, the bridge on which millions of tourists stood to snap their classic Venice postcard photograph.
It was getting dark, and we were slowly heading in the direction of the vaporetti station. Near the island’s main drag, Via Galuppi, we saw a plethora of souvenir lace shops on both sides of the road. Buying laces was not really one of our agenda items, until we noticed a gorgeous lace tablecloth showcased in front of one of the shops. Skillfully hand-made laces surrounded us as soon as we entered the shop. Though the techniques of this ancient craft stay the same, very few laces are actually island-made today. Still, it was amazing to see how the lace designs reproduce overly complex shapes and figures, as if nature had personalized them. After rounds of discussions and some hard bargaining, we ended up buying 12 pairs of laces, which included gifts for our family and friends. Lace had been dutifully serving this island since the 16the century, and we were delighted to carry a piece of it back home.
Our lace shop in Burano, where we shopped all our lace-items for family and friends
Wandering through Burano is like walking through a painting. It is always fascinating to learn about the materials used to paint this picture-postcard island. On our way back, we gathered interesting insights about the raw materials used for Burano’s construction. Many might see Burano as a village of stone, as titled in one of Venice’s prior studies. In reality, this rainbow paradise is made of brick, faced with stucco. While we were strolling past the piazza & campi, we could see where the stucco had fallen off many buildings, exposing the damp and crumbling brick beneath. Wood and brick continue to be the primary ingredients for most of Venice’s construction recipes.
Parting thoughts from Venice
In growing out of the mud and muck to dominate the Mediterranean world for centuries and then decline with tides of difficult times, I feel Venice has seen it all. Even in such decline, it produces some of the greatest art the world has ever seen and continues to show all the remnants of it’s once-glorious days to pleasure-seeking travellers. In all my travel experiences till date, Venice was special, because it never treated us like a regular “feel good” city.
I still remember our final day, when the city flooded miserably, and we had rubber boots handed out by hotel concierges, with 2 hours left for our flight. We were fighting battles with both waterlogged streets and Venetian pigeons, while the city was battling land and water. Even in the remembrance of such chaos, Burano remains one of the most soothing travel experiences ever.
About Soham Nagchowdhury
Soham Nagchowdhury is a travel blogger from India, currently living in Seattle, USA. He enjoys staying with locals, listening to their stories and learning about their lives and interests. While travelling, he aims to find a distinct character in every city and loves places that can be personified. Culture, History and Photography excite him the most.
In his writing, he loves to blend the conversational style with intriguing facts and travel tidbits. Read more on his website.