Fancy a trip around the islands of Venice on your own boat? What could be better than messing around in a motor boat, acting like George and Amal Clooney on their Italian holiday?
Just one snag… how to drive the boat. I’m sure that the Clooneys had a private water taxi driver who took them around the lagoon whilst they looked super cool and glamorous.
For us lesser mortals, it’s a trip to the boat yard in the Cannaregio district to hire a small motor boat and take the driving test. What could possibly go wrong?
Boat hell or heaven?
It started so well. The Brussa boat hire yard was great and the owner couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful… but then the driving test had to be passed.
I was hoping for a boat with a cabin and the stylish look of a VIP water taxi but our limited budget meant our designated transport was a little – shall we say – simpler.
Not to worry. Marco hopped on board looking confident, ready to take the test which required him to navigate up the canal for around five minutes. Simple – he just didn’t have to trash the boat or collide with anything.
It’s just that the canal was about 10 yards wide and full of water taxis, gondolas and the Venetian equivalent of white van man (blue boat man?) delivering everything from vegetables to toilet rolls.
Marco is great with boats – he’s out most weeks on his yacht. He has an international skipper’s qualification and a competent crew certificate. But the Venice boat proved a little trickier to master.
I’m not sure if something got lost in translation but it all went a bit wrong. Perhaps it was the moment Marco reversed into a large wooden bollard or when he narrowly avoided a vaporetto. Either way, it looked like a bit of a driving disaster from a reality TV show.
The next thing I knew, boat hire man was walking along the canal path, shaking his head and muttering “I’m sorry, your husband has failed his test”.
In fairness, he did allow Marco to do the test twice… but he failed again. “He nearly passed the second time” was the optimistic feedback from the instructor.
Marco claimed that everything was “back to front” compared to British motor boats but even he agreed that he wouldn’t have passed himself!
Meanwhile, the incompetent crew member, Tammy, was standing by the waterside looking clueless and completely at a loss as to what to do.
The lesson is… learning a foreign boat in five minutes is pretty tough – and few tourists pass the test according to the Italian owner. And Tammy was even more useless. So it was off to the ACT vaporetto stop up the road to take the passenger boat to Venice’s islands.
Looking at the water traffic on the lagoon, I was relieved that we’d taken the passenger boat. To be honest, we would had been motoring along in a boat resembling a small bath tub, jostled by the surf of the bigger, speedier power boats.
There’s little protection on a small boat so you need to know what you’re doing. There’s no escaping the wind, sun and elements… nor the dog-eat-dog tactics of the speed boats whizzing by.
Instead, we glided into Burano on a vaporetto, feeling completely chilled, ready for a charming sightseeing trip around the island. It also took half the time to get there, another bonus.
Island Hopping – Burano by Boat
Arriving in Burana by boat is really cool. As the vaporetto snuggled up to the jetty, I’d almost forgotten the bad news that we wouldn’t be motoring in on our own little boat.
Boats are everywhere on Burano – they’re a way of life, like on the Venice mainland. They’re like buses. The locals use them for leisure, pleasure, shopping, rubbish collection and as ambulances. I even spotted a boat hearse tied up outside the local church, decked out in black.
There are water taxis, pleasure boats and small fishing vessels moored up on the canals that crisscross Burano’s small island. There’s even a boat filling station.
Burano is a beautiful island renowned for its colourful houses and canalside walks. It’s a place for strolling around where you can admire the tiny houses and chill out in a cafe with an ice cream or glass of Veneto wine.
Taking endless selfies is big in Burano – you can’t walk far without getting spiked by a selfie stick. But it’s easy to disappear down a quiet, deserted alley off the main trawl to get away from the crowds if you want peace and quiet.
Shopping is the other big attraction on this leisurely island. Burano specialises in lace and linen which you’ll find everywhere.
Traditional Burano lace is pretty but it doesn’t light my candle. I failed to drag Marco into Burano’s Lace Museum – he baulked at the idea of looking at bobbins and antique artefacts.
The historic museum building in the Piazza Galuppi was home to the famous Lace School from 1872 to 1970. To be honest, the museum is designed for specialist fans of this traditional craft, like my mother in law. It’s not for everyone.
If you look carefully on Burano’s streets, you’ll still see some of the elderly lace makers showing off their skills, a trade which dates back to the 16th Century.
Mazzorbo’s quiet solitude
Before you leave Burano, don’t miss a walk over to the charming island of Mazzorbo, one of the quietest places on Venice’s lagoon with its rural setting and fishing boats. It’s reached by a small bridge from the ferry landing area on Burano.
Mazzorbo was once a religious island populated with a few noble families and farm workers. Today there’s a lovely farm, orchard and vineyard which you can walk around using a circular path.
I was impressed with how the vineyard owners are trying to make the vineyard walk into an entertaining experience. Interpretative boards tell the visitor about the crops and vines whilst an art trail takes you through a series of beautiful sculptures.
This sleepy island is relaxing and a complete contrast to bustling Burano next door. Foodies will love the Venissa Michelin starred restaurant and terrace overlooking the vineyard which grows a historic Venetian white grape called Dorona.
Mazzorbo’s historic church is the only real tourist attraction on this small island. The Chiesa di Santa Caterina was built in the 8th Century and later became part of a Benedictine convent.
It was rebuilt in the 14th Century in Romanesque and Gothic style. The bell in the campanile dates from the early 1300s and is thought to be the oldest in the Venetian lagoon.
Murano – Glass capital
Next stop on the vaporetto boat tour is Murano, the Venetian capital of glass making.
This charming island draws big tourist crowds and has a more commercial feel. You can’t go far without tripping over a glass factory or glass boutique – it’s overrun with them.
But those who don’t like its gaudy glass ware can feast their eyes on its many pretty historic buildings, canals and boats. Like Burano, this is a place for a stroll and sit-down meal or drink.
There’s no escaping the glassware though. My partner Marco loathes the highly colourful and bold style of glass associated with the island… he is a ‘Murano glass phobic’.
We had a competition to spot the worst ghastly glass ornament. It came down to a tough choice between a life sized, multi-coloured horse, an imitation Picasso woman with skew-whiff eyes, and three hideous, tasteless clowns.
The winner was the ‘clown atrocity’. It was truly appalling but there are plenty more terrible examples to choose from. The best pieces of glass for me were those in ‘mono block’ colours and simpler designs. But hey, Murano doesn’t do simple!
One shop had a complete display of orange glass, obviously this season’s colour. Another was a riot of gaudy greens… and many vied for the title of ‘most disgusting vase of the year’.
Every glass shop and showroom tries to steal the thunder of its competitors with increasingly large and bright sculptures… but the crowds seem to love it.
This outdoor glass sculpture won my award for ‘most tasteful large glass object’ although even this piece couldn’t resist using every colour under the rainbow and adding a pair of unfeasibly large glass wings.
Even if you dislike Murano glass, you can’t beat a trip to a good glass workshop, complete with a local artisan sweating over a fiery furnace and crafting a small glass object in front of your very eyes.
Perhaps it was the craft of the glass making but I was won over by watching a man puffing on his cigarette whilst making a slightly dodgy miniature horse.
We’ve lost many of our craft skills in Britain so there’s something comforting in seeing a traditional industry alive and kicking, if you’ll excuse the equine pun.
Glass blowing is a real art as I once discovered when I tried my hand at it at Sunderland’s National Glass Museum. It’s just a shame that so much of the glass they’re making isn’t to my taste.
Minimalism and simplicity aren’t really the thing on Murano. The more colourful and gaudier, the better… even if it does look ridiculous when you get it home and put it on the mantel piece.
And I’m sure that Picasso is probably turning in his grave at the sight of this atrocity inspired by his art!
Murano has a few attractions beyond its glass industry, but it’s such a pleasant and picturesque place that it’s still worth the boat ride.
There are many historic buildings, lovely canals and lovely views across the Venetian lagoon plus loads of cafes and restaurants. This is ‘chill out central’.
Why not take my whistle stop tour around it glass galleries in this slideshow… and see if you love or loathe Murano’s glass.
Before you head off on the boat back to Venice, take a walk to the Campo Santo Stefano to see a striking blue glass sculpture in front of the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower). I’m not sure whether to call this sculpture ‘bold’ or ‘hideous’.
For those who can’t get enough of Murano’s glass, why not head to the Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) to discover the history of glass making on the island, which dates back to the 13th Century.
There is also a maze of interesting back streets on the south-east of the island where you’ll discover industrial style glass factories and warehouses with their fiery furnaces.
Don’t forget to take a look at Murano’s old lighthouse if you’re taking the vaporetto back to Venice – it’s next door to the Faro water bus stop.
Torcello’s Spiritual Beauty
Torcello is one of the most mysterious of Venice’s lagoon islands. This religious sanctuary is a surprising change from the crowds of Murano – it is quiet and peaceful with just a few shops and restuarants.
Arriving on Torcello by boat is like travelling back several centuries – the atmosphere is so still and quiet, a world away from the bustling crowds of Venice. As you pass through the marshy lagoon entrance, you’ll see little sign of life except for the occasional white egret, cormorant or ibis.
When the boat arrives at the jetty, you’ll be struck by the island’s solitude. A path runs along a quiet canal which leads to the centre of the island where you’ll discover the jewel in its crown – the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta.
The Basilica, which dates from 639, dominates the island with its slender tower which provides great views over the island and the Venetian lagoon.
The highlight is the interior of the Basilica with its brilliant Byzantine gold mosaics depicting the Virgin rising up above a field of Torcello poppies.
Look down and you’ll marvel at the polychrome marble floors with their beautiful designs. It’s hard to believe that worshippers and visitors have been tramping across these floors since the 11th Century.
Also worth a visit is the archaeological museum in the square. Sit on the ancient “Attila’s Throne” which is though to have belonged to the Bishop of Torcello.
Head back to the boat but check the times as they run only twice an hour. There’s not much to do if you get stuck on Torcello other than go for a glass of wine and watch the boats arriving on the canal.
I have to admit a whiff of disappointment that we weren’t able to get here on our very own hire boat… but the vaporetto trip is lovely, if short and less romantic. I felt a pang of envy when I saw a VIP party arriving in their posh motor boat.
For something completely different, head over in the vaporetto to the Venice Lido. Venice Lido is one of those beach resorts which you feel obliged to visit because of its history. But I have to admit that it’s my least favourite island of the Venetian lagoon.
The Lido is just a big beach with very little to recommend beyond its golden sands. I’m not a beach person so perhaps I’m being unfair, but I was expecting so much more. There are better beaches in Northumberland.
I wanted to say that I’d been because I love ‘Death in Venice’, Visconti’s beautiful film in which Dirk Bogarde plays an elderly writer holidaying at the Lido… he dies on the beach (sorry about the spoiler!).
The Lido is worth a quick vaporetto trip but there are more interesting places on the lagoon if you have limited time. For me, it’s a place that shouts out ‘faded glory’. This seven mile long, wafer thin sandbar is best seen during the annual Venice Film Festival.
Venice has everything – great art, world-class museums, picturesque canals and dazzling historic buildings. But the best things about it – for me – are its boats and waterways.
Where else in the world can you escape from cars and motorbikes screeching along as you enjoy the tourist sites?
The thrill of exploring a city and its lagoon by water is truly unique. Venice’s canals and waterways provide the ride of a lifetime.
But next time we’re in Venice, we’ll make sure that we pass the boat driving test first!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – The Venetian Lagoon
To get to the Venetian lagoon islands, make your way to Fondamente Nove from where most of the vaporetto boat trips depart. The express ferry also runs from Venice’s San Zaccaria stop not far from St. Mark’s.
Burano is the closest of the main lagoon islands to Venice – it’s just a short hop from Venice on the express vaporetto. The journey takes around 35 minutes.
Murano involves a longer trip from Venice and takes around 55 minutes. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants if you fancy treating yourself to a long lunch. Torcello is a short ride on a vaporetto from Murano.
Torcello is easy to reach from Burano – take the short five-minute boat ride on the ACTV ferry which runs every half hour.
Some vaporettos also stop on the interesting cemetery island of San Michele – whilst others make the trip to the Lido.
If you’re thinking of hiring your own boat, Brussa Boats will let you rent a boat so you can ride to the lagoon islands. Don’t forget that you’ll have to pass the short five-minute driving test which is not as easy as it looks!
If you feel worried about driving the boat, Brussa can organise a professional driver but there’s an extra cost for this service.
Brussa is Boat is located in Ponte delle Guglie in Cannaregio on Fondamenta Labia, 10 minutes from Piazzale Roma or a short walk from the Grand Canal vaporetto stops.
Or simply hire a super expensive water taxi!