Brightly painted houses reflect in the peaceful canals of Venice's Burano Island.
Brightly painted houses reflect in the peaceful canals of Venice's Burano Island. Paul Rush

Italy: Venetian reflections

I'M on an aquatic roller coaster ride in a medieval theme park that's awash with surprises around every bend. A chaotic procession of watercraft is dancing, ducking, diving and swerving down an insanely congested boulevard of bouncing waves. Stately palaces pass by in a blur of marble and white stone. They are embellished with richly patterned mosaics and overhung with grinning gargoyles.

My vaporetto motor boat has a polished wood interior that is surprisingly old-worldly and decadent for a modern rapid transit vessel. I admire the consummate skill of the water taxis drivers as they jostle and weave like rush hour yellow cabs in downtown Manhattan.

As we progress along Venice's Grand Canal, I'm surprised to find that the world's most famous aquatic highway has a languid look and a bygone air. There is no denying the grandeur and dignity of the buildings. They once were magnificent gilded palaces but now are brooding, tottering edifices jostling for air space above the ever-rising waters of the lagoon.

Their foundations were laid in 421 AD and over the centuries lagoon tides have lapped incessantly at the walls, eroded the stone work and inundating lower floors.

The overall impression is one of faded opulence, yet there's a timeless quality in these buildings that I find intriguing. The sights, sounds and smells of this ancient waterway captivate me and draw me into their surreal world of antiquity.

I try to penetrate the facades and catch glimpses of tapestries, brocade and damask curtains and Renaissance paintings on moist plaster walls. Wrought iron balconies with open lead-light windows give the hint of occupation but I can discern no movement. It's a secret world shut away from prying eyes and lapping waters.

Soon the dignified Rialto Bridge passes overhead. Orderly rows of purple gondolas rise and fall in the wake of water taxis, ready at a moment's notice to ply their romantic trade. I catch glimpses of serene side canals, where watery reflections dance beneath quaint wooden bridges and lone gondolas float in silent splendour.

Arriving at Piazza San Marco is the climax of the water-borne journey. The skyline of elaborate facades, campaniles, domes, spires and crenulations takes my breath away. Suddenly all those video images of the Basilica, the Piazza and Doges Palace come to life. Nothing can fully prepare you for the magnificence of this floating city.

The piazza has a modern face with outlets like Bulgari, Gucci, Missoni and Valentino. Specialty shops sell exquisite jewellery, glassware, brocades, marbled paper, silks and velvet, as well as tempting food delicacies such as fruit liqueurs and Amaretto chocolates.

But beyond the famous square and its pigeon-feeding throngs is another world - the labyrinth of narrow streets, alleyways, a mind-bending 150 canals, 400 bridges and countless pedestrian conduits that can lead one on a journey of discovery.

Each of the city's six precincts (called sestieri) has its own tangle of alleyways with surprises, puzzles and enigmas at every turn. Venice is nothing less than a citywide aquatic gallery of art and architecture, a free-to-view open air museum in the form of an urban maze.

My exploratory ramble through the back streets reveals secrets and mysteries in the form of ornate palaces, fish-markets, hidden gardens, the Jewish ghetto, quaint churches, splendid artworks, unusual museums, irresistible shops and serenading gondoliers.

Well-worn cobblestones lead me on through unknown passageways and just at the point of desperation when I realise I'm lost, I emerge miraculously onto a familiar square. That is the magic of the merry maze of Venice.

Just as the quiet alleys of the labyrinth have the capacity to surprise and delight, so too, do the islands of the lagoon. Commercial cruise boats depart twice daily from Alilaguna boat stop near St Mark's Square, en route for the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.

Once out on the lagoon, it's easy to become disorientated as the indistinct skyline merges with the muddy waters. A shimmering mirage of illusory shapes gradually forms into towers, domes, chimneys, channel markers and boats. The scene is quite bland, as if all colour has been extracted and a heavy pall of mist hangs over the lagoon like a spirit of melancholy.

When Burano comes into view, two things strike me immediately. The first is Burano's campanile (tower); leaning at an impossible angle, suggesting that it is trying to outdo its rival in Pisa. The second is the stunning array of brightly coloured houses, garish colours thrown together with scant regard for harmony but fascinating none the less.

I try to capture on film the subtle play of light and shade on the colourful walls, awnings, footpaths, bridges and canals. From the main square, Piazza Galuppi, walkways border quiescent canals where fishing boats in garish reds, blues and yellows, seem to be frozen in time like a still-life painting.

The narrow streets are lines with shops selling white lace in the most intricate patterns. The astute Burghers of Burano long ago decided that the island's specialties would be fishing and the beautiful craft of lace making.

I sit in the shade of a canal-side open-air trattoria, enjoying a tasty fish dish and fine wine and admiring the colourful buildings reflected in the canal. If Venice is the main feast of sightseeing for the visitor, then Burano is surely the eye-catching dessert - a visual banquet for any traveller.

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