Venice and its lagoon are two of Italy’s most stunning UNESCO World Heritage sites. For visitors the big draw is, of course, the city — with the lagoon often being just a way to get to the airport in a water taxi, or to visit the two picturesque islands of Murano and Burano on a vaporetto water bus.
But what most visitors do not realize is that the lagoon is every bit as fascinating as Venice, with countless exciting and beautiful things to do and see. It is also a great way to escape the bottleneck crowds that invade the city’s narrow streets and eateries, spoiling a lot of the enjoyment of Venice’s extraordinary beauty and famous sites.
We discovered the lagoon’s outer islands, tranquil landscapes and unique ecosystem cruising on Eolo, a 56-foot traditional bragozzo barge with distinctive russet sails (www.cruisingvenice.com). The old fishing boat was built in 1946 and has been handsomely refurbished by its owner Mauro Stoppa ([email protected]; 011-00-393-497-431-552). Mauro is one of Venice’s legendary skippers and also being a chef extraordinaire, his guests get to experience great gourmet dining on board. “I personalize my cruises, depending on what interests my guests have and how long they can spend on the lagoon. Then, we have to factor in the winds and the tides, and our starting points are organized to facilitate guests, so no two cruises are exactly the same,” says Mauro. “It’s the same with the food I cook onboard. I only use seasonal produce, so the menus vary, depending on what my fishermen friends bring me and what I find in the local markets.”
With their blend of discovery and traditional lagoon dining, Eolo’s expeditions revolve around Mauro and his expert crew who tell guests all about the lagoon, its history and nature, making the days fly by.
On our three-day bespoke Magical Lagoon expedition north of the city, we first stopped at the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, one of the world’s leading centers of Armenian culture. Eolo’s guests were given a guided tour to admire a Tiepolo painting, a 3,500-year-old Egyptian mummy and a library with over 140,000 rare books and ancient documents.
In the evenings, Eolo docks close to boutique hotels, heritage inns, castles and ancestral homes where guests overnight. On the island of Burano, which is famous for its brightly colored houses and lacemaking traditions, we stayed in Casa Burano, a charming design hotel with contemporary rooms and suites in five smartly renovated fishermen’s houses.
Mauro Stoppa is one of Venice’s legendary skippers and also being a chef extraordinaire, his guests get to experience great gourmet dining on board. // Photography: Paolo Spigariol
Our suite looked out on a romantic canal and brightly painted houses; the large bathroom had a bathtub and a high-tech shower. The following night we stayed close to the Adriatic coast at La Locanda alle Porte. A heritage inn dating back to 1632, it has six comfortable bedrooms, al fresco dining in summer and roaring fires in winter.
On our cruise, we enjoyed Mauro’s lunches on board, and in the evenings, we dined in some of the lagoon’s most celebrated eateries. At the Michelin-star Venissa Wine Resort on Burano’s next-door island of Mazzorbo, our dinner was as eye-catching as it was memorable; five courses accompanied by fine local wines.
Another night we dined at Saorè, a traditional fishing hut on the Sile River. Here, owner and chef Giovanni Simeoni showed us the traditional lever-net fishing technique before we sat down to a feast of baked scallops, baby octopus, whipped salt cod, spring asparagus and baby artichokes.
Eolo also stopped at the island of Torcello where we visited the Basilica with its stunning Byzantine mosaics, and climbed the bell tower with views across the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea and to Venice’s most famous bell tower in St. Mark’s Square.
Eolo cruises take a maximum of 10 people.// Photography: Paolo Spigariol
On the island of Sant’Erasmo, where the fruit and vegetables sold in Venice’s markets are grown, we visited the Orto di Venezia winery. Owner Michel Thoulouze explained how he matures his wines for a year in a sunken gondola in the lagoon. Mauro serves Michel’s crisp Orto white wine on Eolo.
Mauro’s cruises take up to 10 people and include the eight-day “From the Hills to the Lagoon” itinerary, starting close to Padua to explore castles, historical towns and sites, and spending the nights in heritage villas and grand hotels. “Venice and the Lagoon” takes guests to the Brenta Canal to admire Andrea Palladio’s beautiful villas, and the six-day “Cooking Cruise” stops in the town of Chioggia to pick up the day’s catch and then sails on to the islands of Torcello and Sant’Erasmo.
During the warmer months, Mauro’s morning or afternoon “Pearls of the Lagoon” mini-cruises host up to 30 guests, with Eolo sailing alongside a second old fishing barge. One of the highlights is when the barges drop anchor at an enchanting spot and guests relax at long tables on deck (or downstairs next to the galley during the cooler months) to enjoy Mauro’s magnificent signature lunches and dinners.
To the traditional recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother, Mauro adds his own brand of creativity and panache. Featuring beautiful table settings and exquisitely plated food, Mauro’s repertoire includes typical local delicacies like risotto with squid ink, homemade pasta with wild herbs, sweet and sour sardines, baked sea bass, game and the famous caparosoli lagoon clams.