When you’re enclosed in the labyrinthine streets of Venice it’s easy to forget that Venice is actually a whole series of islands dotted across the lagoon, and that some of them are not quite as manically busy and claustrophobic.
When the twists and turns of the stone streets between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco all gets a bit much for you, hop on a vaporetto and head out to the island of Murano. Murano is where the famous glass-makers in Venice were exiled in 1291 when the regular accidental kiln fires threatened the main city one time too many. The industrial secrets of Venice’s glass-makers were so crucial to the wealth of the republic that any possibility of betrayal was punishable by death. In fact, glass-makers were banned from leaving the republic, although some of them did, moving to England and The Netherlands, but it was Venetian glass that continued to amaze the world, as it still does today.
Mass production of much cheaper glass has taken much of Venice’s trade away, but there are still a few companies producing some of the world’s best glass in Murano. In every other shop in Venice you will find glass beads, small glass animals, glasses, and decorative plates. But it’s not until you see the chandeliers in Murano that you really feel the magnificence of this art. They are exquisite – all hand blown – with lots of flowers and petals, different coloured glass, traditional and modern designs.
Make sure you time your visit to Murano when the factories are open and you can see a demonstration of glass-blowing. Watching a rearing horse emerge from a blob of molten glass is something to see. The other claim to fame of Murano – actually a series of small lagoon islands linked by wooden bridges – is the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato, which is reputed to have the bones of a slayed dragon behind the altar. I once did a tour of three islands: Torcello, Burano and Murano – highly recommended.