Burano: The Island Experience – Part 1
“I can’t wait to get out of here,” rambles the young shop assistant down the corridor. I turn to look at him: he’s kneeling on the floor, shoulders to the till, stacking tins of dog food. The place is narrow. People watch their steps so they don’t trample on him. From where I stand, by the breakfast biscuits, I watch his listless moves and sympathise viscerally. Out of here. Not out of this dreary shift, not out of this cramped supermarket, but out of this island ––this small world of crafts and colours and contentment. The same island that, ironically, the rest of the world is coming to see.
I went recently myself, not for the first time, yet with a different viewpoint. On my previous visits, I had always stayed for a fleeting handful of hours on some scorching summers days ––sun shining harshly on the canal-side promenades and streams of sweat running down my back.
This time, I wanted to see what the island looked like at dawn and dusk, quiet, emptied of tourists. So I went; I checked into a little pink house with a statue of the Virgin Mary nestled in a nook just above the front door and windows opening onto a courtyard, where bold primary-coloured walls were backdrops to scenes of daily living; I sat in a corner, and watched.
Islands are such a great metaphor. For solitude, surely, but also for community, resilience and resourcefulness. In Burano, solitude seems to come and go with the tide. Winters are lonesome, long. Then, summer comes, and tourists with it, and suddenly that solitude feels like a half-remembered dream.
The number of visitors who land in Burano has increased exponentially in recent years. Most of them are day-trippers. They arrive en masse with the first ferry from Venice, spend a few hours wandering around, snap one-too-many photos of the colourful houses, and leave just as the sun begins to dip into the still water of the lagoon.
The colourful houses are the obvious reason people set foot on the island. Owning a catalogue of pictures posing against Pantone-like backdrops ––the blue with the hanging flowers, the green with the sleepy cat, the magenta with the canary shutters–– has become integral to the newly Instagram-documented travel experience of Venice and its surroundings. Except, the experience often stops there, as if the houses were empty containers, staged purposefully like props in a theatre, actors hiding behind the (stripy) curtains, rehearsing their lines or, more often, having no lines at all. You fill your picture-perfect sticker album and you leave.
I did it myself. But then, finally, I didn't. And I realised, by just staying a few days, that I was made a privileged witness of a chunk of reality that was invisible to the hurried eye ––a reality that had no match elsewhere and that might, in a not-too-far future, disappear.
About two thousand people remain on this dragée-like island north of Venice. Many of them are in the final chapter of their lives. Sitting by their front door, they watch their youth leave (or ache to leave, like the young shop assistant). But they don't. They stay. With their cats and their boats and their clothes drying in the salty sea air, they stand last. And the reason why they stay is that there is nowhere else they'd rather be.
Locals aren’t immune to the beauty of their island. They love their bold colours, take pride in their quirkiness. They don’t blame people for wanting to see it, and actually seem to genuinely enjoy the flux. Isolation hasn’t made them surly. They are curious, open, affable. On a good day, they place a plastic chair on the canal bank, and people-watch. They are inquisitive, eager to be talked to. They smile a lot. The old adage that no man is an island very much applies here: their openness defeats any thoughts of isolation.
On a community level, connection rules. Everybody knows everybody. Communal spaces are key, particularly in the warm season. Lacking private gardens, people pour onto the handkerchief-sized pieces of shared pavement to enjoy the breeze while carrying out all sorts of businesses. Women clean mussels or sew lace or contemplate. Men read the paper or discuss the matter of the day. Retired, with much time on hand, they choose to come together ––to show up. And so, as you pass by once, twice, three times, they slowly begin to know you. And, in turn, you begin to know them.
An evening in August, the air is balmy. Most of the tourists crowding the main alleys have left. Some linger for a drink but then head on. A handful ––a French family with two children who entertain themselves chasing pigeons; a young couple with backpacks–– take a seat outside the Chinese-run Osteria Galuppi. They ask for bowlfuls of spaghetti with mussels and a plate of fried-from-frozen seafood medley. On the other side of the road, we order spritz.
The bells of the crooked church tower ring 7 pm. Following the bong, bong, bong, the locals begin to emerge from their sleepy enclaves and reclaim their space on the street. The heat, all the while, has subsided. Wine begins to flow. A few regulars gather at Osteria del Pescatore, where we're also sitting, for their evening catch up. Our crimson-coloured drinks arrive; they shine in the golden light, project a warm hue on our already-red faces. Empty-stomached, my head soon turns light. There's no skimping on the Campari around here. I sip slowly and look around.
Soon enough, life begins to unfold before our eyes. “Vecio, ti xè mal ciapà! [Dude, you don’t look too good!]” yells the balding man in a black tank top sitting next to us, two of the same head-spinningly-strong spritzes already in his body. He’s yelling to a 70-something, round-spectacled character in an unbuttoned navy shirt tucked into a pair of wrinkly white shorts. The latter is walking by, aimed home. His gait seems unsteady. One-too-many glasses of house wine at the nearby Laguna Bar? Likely.
Meanwhile, the table next to ours is a riot. The tank-topped guy is part of a quartet of opinionated natives who, glass in hand, discuss the most pressing matters of the day. The price of sardines is a hot topic. But so is international politics: Korea, missiles, the atomic bomb. “They’ll wipe us all off,” says the tank-topped one. He has toned, tanned arms, which he agitates in the air as he speaks, like the director of an imaginary orchestra. He must be of fisherman's ancestry, I gather. But then again, many of them are.
On so many levels, Burano is miles away from the sparkles and luxury of Venice. An informal atmosphere sets the tone of the island. There are no heels tic-toking on the pavement, no blingy gems outshining the brightness of the houses. Dress up and you’ll get noticed. Discreet elegance and casual wear are the norms ––the first for mass, the second for everything else. In my white linen pants and a striped linen shirt, I feel overdressed. There's a group of socialites in heels and evening dresses, loafers and crisp shirts strolling by after mooring their yacht in Mazzorbo. They stand out like a sore thumb. Clearly, they didn't get the memo. The quartet by my side stops talking and stares, puzzled.
We soon move on to the iconic restaurant Al Gatto Nero. Admittedly, dining options are meagre in Burano, and our utter incompetence in booking sought-after places in advance meant that we had always shown up to a busy lunch service with no hope for a table. Dinner, counterintuitively, is a relaxed affair. Spare tables abound. We snatch one with a grin, sit in front of two impossibly colourful maiolica plates with sketches of Burano and effigies of black cats, and prepare for a much-awaited seafood feast. The room all around us boasts marine art and traditional pebbled floor tiles that ooze low-key Venetian flair. The same can be said for Ruggiero, the owner. I watch him as he dashes to our table and asks about the wine. "Prosecco," we utter in unison. He knows we mean "draft" and rushes out.
It's hot. The chilled sparkling wine flows freely. We soon drain our carafe and ask for seconds. Irreverent towards the blazing heat, we order risotto col go, the signature dish of the restaurant and of the whole island. I'm at once sceptical and ecstatic. Expectations grow by the minute, until the risotto finally comes, perlaceous and dense, fuming threateningly. We suffer, but relish, too. Every mouthful is a subtle symphony from the sea exploding in pure creaminess. More prosecco is summoned. I'm, at that point, dangerously drunk.
At midnight, after chats with the neighbouring table and coffee and cookies (the signature buranelli) and, as if the wine wasn't enough, a digestif, we head home. The sight of the little pink house with the madonna nook is like a vision in the dark. I roll into bed and plunge into a sound 8-hour oblivion.