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Exploring the Ancient Past

Torcello: A Visitor's Guide to Venice's Hidden Treasure

By Natasha Sheldon

Byzantine churches, the oldest building in the Venetian lagoon and a renowned restaurant are a few of the attractions of this peaceful island near Burano.

No holiday to Venice is complete without visiting the islands of the Venetian lagoon. Torcello is one of its hidden treasures. One of the first settled island’s of the lagoon, it was once as rich and powerful as Venice. Today, inhabited by only a handful of people, grasses and olive trees grow in place of the palazzos and palaces.

 

But this much beloved haunt of Hemingway has much to offer the visitor. Torcello’s beautiful byzantine cathedral - the oldest building in the lagoon, campanile and medieval churches, coupled with its peaceful vistas and one of Venice’s best restaurants, makes it the perfect place to sightsee and enjoy a peaceful retreat from the crowds.

 

Famous Sights-The Medieval Church of Santa Fosca and Santa Maria dell Assunta.

 

Torcello’s one remaining palazzo contains some of the oldest remains in the lagoon islands. The byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria dell Assunta is the oldest building in the Venetian lagoon, built from materials reclaimed from the mainland. Its baptistery may be ruined but not all is lost. The basilica with its famous 12th century wall mosaics depicting the last judgment and campanile remains open to the public and the campanile offers panoramic views of the island and lagoon beyond.

 

Nearby are the small 12th century church of Santa Fosca and Torcello’s former council chamber and archives which are now a small museum. All around are fragments of architectural features from Torcello’s past. Amongst them is the so called throne of Attila, which is in fact all that remains of the chairs of the island’s tribunes.

 

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Assunta is open from 10.30am-6pm march to October and 10am-5pm November to February. The campanile which is accessible separately is open from 10.30am-5.30pm April to October and 10am-5pm November to march. The museum is open 10.30-5.30 Mar-Oct and 10am-5pm Tue-Sun, Nov –Feb.

 

The Locanda Cipriani –The Place to Eat.

 

Torcello has several small restaurants lining its canals which cater for the needs of visiting tourists. Despite the islands out of the way location, it is also home to one of Venice’s most famous restaurants, Locanda Cipriani.

Founded by Giusseppi Cipriani, who also founded Venice’s famous ‘Harry’s Bar’, the Locanda serves a classic Italian menu which makes the most of the fresh island grown vegetables and local fish. Specialties include John Dory served with tomatoes and capers and Risotto alla Torcellana, which uses local seasonal vegetables and herbs.

 

The locanda serves both dinner and lunch and it is recommended to reserve in advance. The proprietor can arrange for diners from Venice to be transported to and from Piazza san Marco by water taxi (041-730150)

 

The Locanda also offers accommodation to overnight guests. Torcello has been valued as a peaceful retreat by celebrities such as Elton John, Charles and Diana and the novelist Ernest Hemingway, who stayed on the island whilst writing his 1948 novel of Venice ‘Across the River and into The Trees’.

 

Whoever they are, Torcello has much to offer anyone seeking tranquility and respite from the crowds of Venice- for a few days or a few hours. Visitors can walk the abandoned canals, haunted now by silver willows and olives which cover long forgotten pathways or explore the island’s grassy wilderness, passing by its handful of farm houses, dressed in the distinct red and green livery that defines Torcello.

 

It is easy to see why Torcello captivated Hemingway. Even with its grandeur long gone, it is an enchanting place.