Looking out from the campanile’s windswept turret, marbled swirls of bronze and blue spread as far as the eye can see. These are barene – the salt-marshes – domain of seabirds and shellfish, shapeshifting between liquid and solid with the tides.
In this watery wilderness, a handful of terracotta-roofed buildings huddle tightly below the belltower, their backs to the lagoon, as if trying to ignore their isolated, improbable location. I count two churches, a museum, an antiques shop and a couple of ivy-clad inns, reached by a solitary, narrow canal or herringbone-brick footpath. È tutto – that’s all.
Welcome to Torcello. Population, err, eight. At the northern edge of the Venetian archipelago, the Grand Canal’s gondoliers and grand marble palazzi a 45-minute vaporetto ride away, this tiny island seems every inch the outlier, the country cousin. Insects hum in the orchards of its farmhouses, and its grassy postage-stamp of a piazza, dotted with broken columns, is sleepy as a village square.
It wasn’t always this way, though. A refuge for mainlanders fleeing barbarian attacks in the fifth century, Torcello grew into a thriving trading port long before Saint Mark’s Square was even a glint in a doge’s eye. In its heyday, an estimated 20,000 people lived on the island, before a series of malaria outbreaks and silting up of the surrounding waterways spelled its demise.
The relationship of Torcello and Venice, then, was of “Mother and daughter,” as John Ruskin put it – one of many writers drawn to this spot’s elegiac atmosphere.
“In Torcello, you’re seeing the origin of the city, where everything started,” local guide Igor Scomparin tells me. “After the crazy situation with over-tourism in Venice, today Torcello provides an escape, with relaxing, rural character.”
Not that the place is entirely devoid of visitors. There’s a souvenir stand – albeit just the one and staffed by a whiskery old fellow reading a newspaper. Boats touring the lagoon’s northern islands disgorge a modest stream of day-trippers. Nothing like the theme park-esque crowds of glass-making Murano, far larger and closer to the centro storico, and Burano, with its Insta-ready rows of brightly coloured fishermen’s cottages.
For those who do make the trip, Torcello’s subtler charms insist upon slowing down and lowering the selfie stick, especially since photography of the island’s most celebrated sight is forbidden.
It lies inside Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. Founded in AD 639, this barn-like, red-brick structure is Venice’s oldest surviving church, and there, in the dim coolness of its interior, glittering traces of Torcello’s former glory appear. The mosaics.
A weeping Madonna looms in the golden apse, gazing reproachfully across the nave at a grisly, multi-tiered Last Judgement scene, its pitchfork-wielding demons and severed heads enough to give even the staunchest atheist a moment’s pause.
But Torcello is not purely a medieval time capsule. Following a gravel path to the island’s eastern shore, tiny pale lizards darting away from any approaching footsteps, you’ll reach Casa Museum Andrich, former home of 20th century artists Lucio Andrich and Clementina De Luca. Some 1,000 of their modern paintings, sculptures and tapestries fill the farmhouse with jubilant pops of colour.
From its grounds, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a shock of pink out on the mudflats. Flamingos, not a mirage. These quiet corners of the lagoon are a wildlife haven, points out Valeria Necchio, a Veneto-born writer and photographer who works on neighbouring island Mazzorbo. She likens Venice to “a Matryoshka doll – there are so many layers. And spending time on these lesser-known islands, you gradually get closer to the heart of the place.” Scomparin agrees, advising “anyone who wants to experience the authentic Venetian lagoon” should spend the night on Torcello. “These lagoon islands, even if they get visitors during the day, tell a different story come evening.”
There’s a grand total of three guesthouses on Torcello, and by far the most storied is Locanda Cipriani. Unapologetically old-school, the inn’s four antique-filled bedrooms seem little changed since Hemingway, Churchill and Chaplin stayed here. I’ve imagined them sitting across the starched white tablecloth from me in Locanda’s candlelit restaurant as I dine on moeche (soft-shell crabs, a lagoon speciality) and the new season’s artichokes, re-reading Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. I see why she set the opening chapter on Torcello; it’s the perfect setting for a ghost story – though strolling among the silent, shadowy ruins come evening, it’s not an eeriness you’ll feel, but rather a delicious kind of loneliness. As if you’re in on a secret, peeling away another layer, cosily acquainted with Venice’s next enigmatic Matryoshka.
How to get there:
Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from London to Venice from £18 return.
Where to stay:
How to do it:
Private tours of Torcello are available with Tour Leader Venice (tourleadervenice.com) and lagoon wildlife watching with Torcello Bird Watching (torcellobirdwatching.com). Visits to Casa Museo Andrich are by appointment only (museoandrich.com). A private water taxi from the centro storico costs £100-120 one-way, or take vaporetto 12 from Fondamenta Nove for £6.
All travellers must show proof of full vaccination, or proof of recovery, or a negative PCR test taken within the last 72 hours, or a negative rapid lateral flow test taken within the last 48 hours
Four other lesser-known Venetian islands to visit
Wine resort Venissa (venissa.it) is reason alone to visit Mazzorbo – within its medieval walls, you’ll find a Michelin-starred restaurant and boutique hotel, local pensioners tending to vegetable plots and the vineyard that’s resurrected the ‘golden grape of the doge’. This local varietal was thought extinct until Prosecco veteran Gianluca Bisol stumbled upon a few curious looking vines growing outsaide an antiques shop and set about making an aromatic wine that carries a hint of lagoon salinity. Though sleepy and bucolic today, Mazzorbo was, like nearby Torcello, once a busy trading post. It’s linked to Burano by a wooden bridge, yet curiously few of the crowds visiting the latter island tend to cross over – those who do won’t regret it.
A skinny strip of land separating the lagoon from the Adriatic, Pellestrina’s salt air carries the smell of grilled seafood as locals cook their catch outside. Another slice of local heritage that spills into the street come summertime is lace making – in the village of Portosecco, old women weave in their doorways or lagoon-side while gossiping in dialect. Working your way down the island’s 11km length, you’ll trace the 18th century seawalls – perhaps pausing to join the sunbathers lounging on the pale Istrian stone – and wind up in the dunes and woodlands of Ca’ Roman nature reserve.
Ever wondered where the Rialto market stalls source their produce? Sant’Erasmo’s the spot, hence its nickname of l’orto di Venezia, or ‘Venice’s vegetable garden’. The island is best explored on two wheels (try Camping Ca’Savio or B&B Il Lato Azzurro for rentals), peddling past secluded beaches and fields of artichokes to reach family-run apiary Miele del Doge (mieledeldoge.it). Its honey carries a distinctive saline note from the sea lavender that blooms around the Venetian marshes. More sustenance can be found at Ape Verde Pistacchio; pizzas are generally a no-no in these parts (leave them to the Nepalese, most locals would say), but make an exception for this food truck’s wood-fired slices, devoured al fresco beside the pier.
San Lazzaro degli Armeni
A grinning Egyptian mummy, racy volumes of Oriental eroticism by Sir Richard Burton and a bust of Napoleon’s son – these are just a few of the curios holed up in this Armenian monastery. Before monks settled here in the 1700s, the tiny, rectangular islet was a leper colony. Lord Byron repeatedly rowed out here, or swam across, depending on whose accounts you read, during his stint in Venice to work on an English-Armenian dictionary (its library is one of the world’s most important centres of Armenian scholarship). These days, the recommended route is somewhat less dramatic: a request stop on the number 20 vaporetto.