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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
As an Italian, I can tell you honestly that Venice, arguably the most enchanting place on Earth, has recently been ruined by tourists. Once a grand architectural and mercantile destination, this lovely city is now being treated as “Disneyland on the Sea.” What’s more, huge, ugly cruise ships pollute the lagoon and block views; wheeled-suitcases disturb the peace of the narrow streets and ridiculous sightseers have been known to jump from the Rialto Bridge to swim in the canals. Not surprisingly, this type of behaviour has infuriated locals, and encouraged some Venetian to skyrocket the prices of their restaurants out of pure resentment.
But if you put in the effort to book the right kind of trip, the real soul of Venice can still be found, far from the maddening crowd of St. Mark’s Square, away from the profiteers or rude visitors – just look for it in Native Venice.
This is where the floating city was first built on 118 islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, connected by bridges before most of them were submerged by rising waters. Those which still survive today are Torcello, Burano and Mazzorbo.
I was lucky enough to visit Native Venice and not only explore not only the majestic grounds of Venissa, a spectacular accommodation on the island of Mazzorboro, but also the dainty colored houses that speckle Burano. I visited the abandoned Isola La Cura, which is only accessible thanks to the local fishermen, and was taught by locals to make traditional cookies. Here’s the diary of my incredible trip to the lost soul of Venice.
The Enchantment of Venissa’s Vinyards
The Bisol family, of Prosecco fame, has embarked on passionate mission to preserve this part of Venice with a variety of initiatives that ensure nature on these islands thrives, while empowering the communities of local artisans and fishermen.
Gianluca Bisol’s family has produced wine since 1875 – that’s over twenty generations. His childhood, spent between vines and cellars in the region of Veneto, trained his senses to determine which places have the potential to cultivate grapes that can be transformed into fine wines. In 2001 Gianluca was captivated by a light that illuminated an old grapevine in a hidden garden beside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. He eventually discovered that this secluded area of vegetation had a variety of vines that had produced wines since ancient days, and revived a longstanding Venetian tradition.
The young Matteo Bisol is now in charge of the direction of the Venissa estate and, besides possessing the expertise of his father, he is deeply concerned with sustainable practices that can benefit both nature and the locals living in the lagoon, reviving the agricultural tradition of the islands.
The vineyard he tends to has a secret to its thriving health: roses. This is a natural defence system against the perilous insects that might put the vines in jeopardy. These flowers have an incredible ability to detect diseases and mineral deficiencies – plus pests love them, and will attack them first, alerting farmers to a possible infestation. Plus, they obviously add to the beauty of the grounds!
Venissa’s natural viticultural practices are natural, embracing the “slow” philosophy to promote biodiversity and a natural equilibrium, that requires minimum human intervention and is therefore self-sustainable. The adopted procedure is called “macerazione,” a practice once used by farmers to obtain a white wine with the structure and longevity of a red. This involves a process of soaking crushed grapes, seeds, and stems to extract colour and aroma compounds as well as tannins.
These natural winemaking methods are adopted by Venissa for all their vines, whether they are produced on the 50-year-old vineyard located on the nearby island of Santa Cristina (for their red Venusa wines) or on the Mazzorbo Vineyard, where their precious ‘Dorona’ grape brings to life a nectar worthy of the Gods of the Olympus.
The bottle that encloses this golden wine honours not only the viticulture Venetian tradition, but also the glass and gold-making traditions of the region. This is a disappearing skill of the lagoon, that is carried out by the families of gold hammerers who obtain an impalpable gold leaf which is applied by hand to each bottle of Venissa and baked in one of the ovens on the island famous for its glassmaking: Murano.
Venissa has also been a pioneer in reprising agricultural traditions, allowing locals to participate to the cultivation of the shared vegetable garden. Here you may find a variety of herbs that cannot be found elsewhere — such as the pimpinella zostereto, agropireto, santonico and salicornia — along with unique fruits and vegetables, like rare strains of artichokes.
If you roam about the Venissa gardens, you’ll most likely find Matteo Bisol with his hands in the soil, taking care of his vines along with pensioners and younger generations tending to the growth of crops, discovering the delights of reconnecting with Mother Earth.
The exceptionality of the Bisol’s management is the way inclusiveness is promoted with simplicity and love for sustainability, yet keeping up with the innovations of our centuries. This is ultimately shown by the delights one can taste at Venissa: the fresh fish from the lagoon, vegetables and wild herbs grown on the estate grounds, all of which the talented chefs handpick and transform into scrumptious dishes.
The Estate and Restaurants
And speaking of food, there is a no waste policy in the Venissa kitchens: every ingredient or leftover is transformed into a delicious and decorative artwork of fine gastronomy. Venissa’s Il Ristorante opened in 2010 and was awarded its Michelin star in 2012. This is where Francesco Brutto (named Best Young Italian Chef by renowned Italian restaurant guide “Ristoranti L’Espresso 2017) and Chiara Pavan apply their avantgarde cuisine artistry to create well-seasoned dishes, paying great attention to local ingredients.
Just as refined is Venissa’s Osteria Contemporanea, which has become popular amongst gourmands from all over the globe. The specialties here are the traditional dishes created from ingredients sourced from the lagoon that blend tradition with innovation. Even the decor incorporates edibles here: Matteo’s designer wife Veronica came up with the idea of tying a bunch of vine twigs to allow the cutlery to elegantly rest on the table.
Guests can stay on the island of Mazzorbo in the boutique hotel located within the walled Venissa vineyard, or in one of the polychrome houses on the enchanting island of Burano. The rooms on Mazzorbo redesigned the old manor where the Venetian Scarpa Volo family once resided, and are located right next to the Ristorante and the Osteria Contemporanea.
Burano is usually identified with the coloured houses and the “Scuola del Merletto,” the lace workmanship that dates back to 1500. Burano is connected to the island of Mazzorbo by a wooden bridge called by the locals ‘Ponte Longo’ (long bridge) and the Bisol family came up with the extraordinary idea of creating an “albergo diffuso,” a decentralised hotel, acquiring and refurbishing some of the houses, so that guests could reside side-by-side with locals. Sleeping in Burano is like being in heaven, as you are lulled to sleep by the lapping of the lagoon’s water. This place possess a soul that glorifies traditions, the beauty of the simple life, and the inspiration for creativity. As you stroll around the colourful island you can sense the essence of the artistic activity of the buraneli painters who had the gut to part from the academic style of 19th century Venice to explore a different artistic expression that would tribute the charm of Burano.
Al Gatto Nero
To complete your Burano experience, you should pay a visit to some friends of Venissa: the famed restaurant lead by chef Ruggero Bovo, his wife Lucia, and their son Massimilano.
The Al Gatto Nero restaurant was born as a simple inn in 1946 and in 1965, it was taken over by the Bovo family. This is the place where you pass the threshold at noon to have lunch, and you leave at dusk after enjoying a delicious fish risotto, chatting with Massimiliano about the years he lived in Scotland, or learning from Ruggero that he will decline any exclusive catering commission if it clashes with one of the evenings he is taking his wife to the opera.
Al Gatto Nero is also where the warm-hearted hosts will teach you how to make Bussolai biscuits. These typical Burano cookies are made with simple ingredients: eggs, sugar, butter, flour, vanilla and rum extract, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. The form of the Bussolai is round or “S” shaped, and is traditionally prepared for festivities such as Easter – but it’s so deliciously fragrant, it was even used to scent the linen into the drawers. Originally they were prepared by the wives of fishermen going on long voyages, because they have a long durability and are rich in natural nutrients.
Indeed, fishing is still a big deal in this region, so I couldn’t resist an invitation to be escorted on a “pescaturismo” trip by Enrico and Domenico, who took me and my chaperone Allison, on a fantastic exploration of their fishing itineraries aboard their “Bragozzo.” This is a kind of boat that has no keel, and thanks to its flat bottom, it can access very low waters. While sipping some white local wine and munching Bussolai, I was given a lesson on local flora and fauna by Domenico and Enrico.
In fact, there was plenty to see: when you dock on one of the secret islands of the lagoon, you will discover the bountiful wildlife that lives on these lands. You may walk along rabbit holes as you come across some bunnies that are hopping around. You may accidentally tread on some shotgun shells — unfortunately the hunting traditions on some islands persists — and you can spot the incredible diversity of birds, such as mallards, teals, pintails, wigeons, shovelers, herons, seagulls, waders and shorebirds.
I walked between reeds and tamarisks of the Isola della Cura, which I would have never been able to access without the fishermen from Burano. It used to be part of the ancient city of Costanziaco and housed the churches of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and St. Matthew.
With the disappearance of the city, the island was used as a fish farm and agricultural area, where rustic buildings and a charming boathouse were constructed. Now, only the ruins of an old fireplace and chimney are left, next to a ferruginous spring. This was the stage for the captivating stories told by my new Buranei friends about the nearby island of Sant’Ariano, which, for a long period of time, was used as a repository for bones that were removed from Venice’s main cemetery – after all, that centuries-old burial ground got pretty full, pretty fast.
More interestingly, this was also the site where Casanova would take ladies for some discreet afternoon rollicking, and apparently, where some of the nuns living on the monasteries of the nearby islands would sneak away to, gleefully allowing local men to have their way with them. It seems a bit shocking – but I can understand why: Venissa is nothing if not utterly sensual and seductive.