Journalist for Life

The village you want to lick

BURANO, Italy — A few minutes after stepping off the ferry to this island, you start looking for the people with clipboards, the ones asking your opinion of the brilliant colors into which every house and shop has been dipped. This must be where paint manufacturers challenge the sun to fade their most audacious colors.

Wonder what a 40- by 25-foot wall of raspberry looks like? Look at the house over there, between the tangerine and lemon, just across from the chocolate. You want to lick this village.

Brilliantly painted Burano houses.

Boo-RAH-no? Take the big boat, over there,” advises the water-bus ticket-seller near Venice’s famed St. Mark’s Square.

He is indicating the two-deck boat that is headed first for the beach island of Lido, then the little-visited island of Torcello, and 70 minutes after the lines are first pulled in, Burano.

This Sunday morning the boat is crammed with couples pushing strollers, people carrying fold-up beach chairs, pretty young things and too-cool guys wearing the darkest of shades and bobbing to the beat coming from earbuds plugged into iPods. There are tourists, too, clutching maps and guidebooks.

The boat docks at Lido, and almost everyone gets off, but we head toward the sherbet-colored island.

Boo-RAH-no! Boo-RAH-no!” shouts the muscular young deckhand on the boat as it docks. The men living here have broad shoulders and thick forearms from hauling in fishing nets. Their wives and daughters operate tourist shops or embroider or, much less frequently now, make lace.

For centuries, Burano has been distinguished by its contrary signatures: loudly colored houses and dainty needlework.

Small fishing boats are tied along one of the narrow canals that criss-cross Burano.
The island is all narrow streets, tinier alleys and canals just wide enough to tie up narrow boats on each side. The houses are built in rows, with precious little space for privacy.

That’s what caused one resident to reach across the alley this morning and pound a broom handle against the wooden window shutters of a neighbor, protesting the volume of the rap music pouring from that house.
Bam bam bam, went the broom handle, without success. Bam BAM BAMMM!

However, that is the only jarring note in this ice-cream parlor of a village, as lunchtime arrives.
Dozens of residents, and more than a few visitors, set up small tables in the dockside park for picnics. The maitre’d of the well-regarded Al Gatto Nero-Da Ruggero cheerfully turns away would-be customers because the entire canalside restaurant, short blocks from the tourist-filled main square, is reserved for lunch.

That means more business for Da Romano, which for more than 60 years has been on the plaza. Operated by the fourth generation of its founding family, Da Romano has a menu that is an eye-opener as much for its illustrations as for its dishes:

Reproduced on the menu are the autographs of such customers as Ernest Hemingway (“To Romano, a friend of the arts – too few of them now”), Charlie Chaplin, Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, Giorgio Armani and Federico Fellini.

The shrimp risotto, for about $20, is pretty impressive, too.

Colorfully painted homes frame the leaning campanile of Burano's main church.
Just around the corner from the restaurant, and across the plaza from the old church with its dizzily leaning bell tower, is the Scuola del Merletti. For 98 years, it was the School of the Lacemakers, a government effort to preserve a once-legendary skill and to rejuvenate the island’s sagging economy.

In the 16th century, the lace made in and around Venice was so prized throughout Europe, it was known as punta in aria, points (or stitches) in air. But there was much competition to decorate the finery of the well-to-do. And by the early 19th century, machine-made lace and embroidery reduced the area’s share of the market. Handmade lace, exquisite but time-consuming to create, became too expensive to support any sizable number of artisans.

Burano slumped.

In 1872, the government created the school to teach again the graceful art. The school was closed in 1970 and was later converted to a museum. Now, village women demonstrate the work to tourists in the museum, where cases display marvelous pieces of handiwork dating nearly 400 years.

Though shopkeepers say vaguely that “hundreds” of islanders still sew, most of them are embroidering, which is quicker and far easier on the eyesight. Prices in the shop L’Orchidea demonstrate the commercial value of the two skills:

A standard linen tablecloth with colored-thread embroidery is about $195; the same cloth with an insert of Burano lacework is about $1,200. And an all-lace tablecloth, which took four groups of women three years to make, is about $7,100.

A visit here fills no more than a half day, and then it’s time to catch the ferry. The boat moves slowly from the dock, which is a few hundred yards from the square, the leaning church tower, the lace museum, Da Romano.

Visible for several minutes, though, are the houses, painted so many vivid colors: That visibility, the story goes, is to help fishermen spot their homes as they motor in with their catch.

Some less-charitable people, allof them living in glamorous Venice, say the full-palette treatment has been utilized simply to brighten dreary winter days on Burano.

Either way, it would seem to work.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *