Rupert Parker goes biking and boating The Venetian Waterways.
The City of Venice is too successful for its own good, overwhelmed by crowds of tourists in any season. The problem is so bad that soon day-trippers will have to sign up online and pay a fee ranging from three to ten euros per person. That’s one solution but another is for people to visit the other islands in the lagoon and also explore the mainland.
A new sustainable tourism initiative, Slow Flow Veneto Waterways Experience, is encouraging exploration of the surrounding waterways at a slower pace. Boats of different shapes and sizes will ferry you through rivers, canals and lagoons, so you get to see the world of the Veneto from another perspective. And, when you transfer from water to land, you jump on a bicycle to explore the mainland. So come with me as I go biking and boating the Venetian Waterways.
Ancient city of Altinum
I start my biking and boating the Venetian Waterways in the ancient city of Altinum near the town of Altino. It was founded in the first millennium BC by the ancient Veneti and later became a Roman city and flourished from the 1st to the 5th century AD. It’s at the crossroads of two important Roman roads, Via Annia and Via Claudia Augusta. The port was close to the lagoon of Venice and other waterways, and it soon became an important commercial hub in the northern Adriatic.
The National Archaeological Museum of Altino tells the sad story of its demise. After the fall of the Roman Empire, continuous invasions from the north forced its inhabitants to take refuge on the islands in the lagoon. Previously these had only been home to fishermen and salt harvesters, but the city exodus led to the founding of the city of Venice in the fifth century.
Retracing the route of these refugees, I set out from Altinum, on a “Bragosso”, a traditional flat-bottomed boat. It passes through the reed beds of the Santa Maria Canal before entering the Venice Lagoon. We’re surrounded by flocks of pink flamingos and skirt the lost islands of Costanziaca and Ammiana before arriving at Burano
Island of Burano
The island is celebrated for its brightly coloured houses, a tradition dating from the 16th century. Local fishermen began painting their homes to make them more visible from the sea. It’s small enough to explore on foot, a kind of mini-Venice without the grand buildings. The skyline is dominated by the leaning bell tower of the Church of San Martino, 30m high, located in the Piazza Galuppi. In the early 20th century, the tower was reinforced to prevent further tilting.
The island is famous for its lacemaking and the Museo del Merletto demonstrates the history and artistry of the Venetian laces. On display are rare and precious pieces, from the 16th century to the present day. It’s still a living tradition and, in their shop in Via San Mauro, I watch as Sandra Mavaracchio and her 16-year-old granddaughter, Ludovica Zane, demonstrate their art.
Back on the mainland, I overnight in the town of Dolo. It was an important trading post on the Brenta River, linking Venice to Padua and cities further inland. In the 16th century, the river was diverted from its path to make it more navigable, and a series of locks were installed. This Naviglio de Brenta, or Brenta Canal, soon became lined with over 2000 villas, built by rich Venetian aristocrats, escaping the summer heat of the city.
To see these villas close up, I set out from Dolo on a bicycle following the Brenta Canal. One of the most impressive is the neo-classical Villa Pisani, built in the 18th century for the Pisani family. Many others are in various states of dilapidation, but there’s much restoration taking place. I take a welcome pause at the Ape Agricola farmhouse in Stra to taste their honey and drink the beer from the Biofevari craft brewery.
Then it’s onwards to Villa Loredan, now Stra’s town hall, before dumping the bike and visiting the Shoe Museum. This occupies the seventeenth-century Villa Foscarini Rossi, itself worth a visit. The collection includes over 1500 pairs of women’s luxury footwear, dating from 1947 onwards. Highlights include a Vera Wang shoe designed for Sharon Stone’s wedding and Yves Saint Laurent Pilgrim shoes worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.
From here it’s a boat back to Dolo and a second chance to observe the villas of the Brenta Riviera from the water. There’s also time to navigate the locks on the other side of the town before admiring the historic buildings on foot. The Tower of Dolo stands over 25m tall with a clock face on each of its four sides. The painter Canaletto came here in the early 1740s and immortalised it in a series of etchings.
Other historic landmarks include the Villa Ferretti Angeli, the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, and the Church of San Rocco. There’s also the sunken oval basin which contained the original locks, and the subject of a famous painting by Canaletto. It’s now filled in, but perfectly preserved, surrounded by some of the original buildings in the picture.
I’m impressed by my couple of days biking and boating the Venetian Waterways enjoying slow and sustainable travel and it works particularly well in this region.
Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface with this guide to biking and boating the Venetian Waterways, and other activities on offer include fishing and kayaking. For the ultimate experience, you can hire your own houseboat and pilot it yourself. Then you can really go as slowly as you feel, waving at the Italians as they go by.
Tell Me More About biking and boating the Venetian Waterways
Ryanair has direct flights to Venice Marco Polo from London Stansted.
The Stansted Express is the fastest way to the airport from Central London.
Slow Flow has information about various modes of travel.
Charterboat.it rents out houseboats.
Ristorante Do Mori is a typical tavern in the historical centre of Dolo.
Trattoria Al Raspo de Ua in Burano serves fantastic seafood.
B&B Dimora Naviglio is a comfortable base in Dolo and also has rental bikes.