“We’re secretly going flamingo spotting,” B wrote on her Facebook page, “but the boat captain doesn’t know it.”
She and her sister Laura, British ex-pats living in Venice for over a decade, had invited me to join them on the tour of the lesser-know reaches of Venice’s northern lagoon. The boat picked us up at Mazzorbo, so we had planned ahead and met at Fondamente Nove to catch the boat out together. Mazzorbo lies alongside the colorful fishing island of Burano. We arrived early enough to take a little self-guided stroll around Venissa, the farm-to-table Michelin starred garden restaurant that sits within a walled vineyard with its own bell tower. Brilliant purple artichoke flowers bloomed at the edges, and pears weighted the branches of a miniature tree. I wanted to hide among the vines and make my home there.
But instead, we clambered aboard the traditional boat painted red and captained by a tanned man of the lagoon. (I’m not sure what kind of boat this was. I later looked at photos of traditional Venetian boats, but I just can’t tell them all apart. Anyone know what this is?) Our captain motored us away from Mazzorbo and Burano and towards the marshes, careful to avoid the edges where the low tide might get us stuck in the mud.
His tour is billed as more sustainable—traditional boat managed by a local, moving at slow speeds, and teaching about the unique lagoon ecosystem. We took time to ogle the birds and learn their names, to beach the boat and peer close up at the marsh plants, to even taste a salty bit of one called salicornia fruticosa. “Venetians eat these lagoon plants,” we were told, and I could never imagine coastal Californians in my home state trying any such thing.
We learned about fishing practices, such as the small canals that run within the marshes where locals farm the baby fish that they then sell to fisheries elsewhere. And we saw giant fishnets managed from houses on stilts. Our captain also explained about the name Cannaregio; I always thought it was because canes grew in that part of the lagoon, and we did see a few small ones, but he said that it was because the cane workers used these waterways to deliver the cane shipments inland. He also pointed out a small mounded island that carries the legend that Attila the Hun buried treasure there.
We passed islands like sand dunes risen from the lagoon floor, and islands abandoned by the present. One such was Sant’Ammiana, now merely a brick wall enclosing bushes and trees, where Venetians had once tossed the bones after they could no longer have their space at the cemetery. (Click on the link to read the wonderful background piece on the blog La Venessiana by Iris Loredana, another contributor to First Spritz Is Free.) “That island over there,” pointed our captain, “is owned by the Swarovski family, the ones who make the crystal.”
We also saw ruins of a monastery the same size as its diminutive island. How could monks have lived there? Eating marsh weeds and clams they dug from the mud? Maybe not such a bad fate! In fact, we saw a family, each clad in a different rainbow hue, trudging in the shallows digging for clams. We also passed a duck blind and a boat abandoned in the middle of the marsh, apparently stranded when the high tide turned low.
But did we see any flamingos? We saw seagulls, of course, and oyster-catchers, ducks, marsh hawks, and swallows. Apparently the flamingos visit in spring on their way south to Africa, but we were apparently too late to catch their show.