Torcello: getting away from the tourists in Venice
Torcello: if you are overwhelmed by the labyrinth of little alleys and the crowds of tourists in Venice, all you have to do is to take a day trip to one of the smaller islands in the middle of the Venetian lagoon.
Today I would like to talk to you about Torcello and how to avoid Venice tourist places.
You can easily reach it by catching a Vaporetto (the local Venetian water buses) in Fondamenta Nove.
You must catch Vaporetto Number 12, which leaves every 30 minutes and which will also take you to the island of Burano. I suggest you get yourself a daily Water Bus Pass, which will last 24 hours and will allow you to hop on and off the various vaporettos, just in case you decide to stop in Burano and Murano as well.
Or you can treat yourself to a luxury water ride by hopping on a water taxi. This will probably take you back about 100 euros each way, but it will be a wonderful ride on the waters of the lagoon, with lots of style!
Torcello, the cradle of Venetian civilization
It was one of the first islands of the lagoon to be inhabited by the Veneti, the original people of this region, right from the beginning of the seventh century.
The name of Torcello derives, according to tradition, from the name of one of the doors of the ancient Roman city of Altino or, maybe, according to another etymology, the term dates back to the word Dorceum, i.e. emerged marshy island, saltmarsh.
Today the island counts just over 10 permanent residents.
A few hotels and restaurants, the famous Locanda Cipriani and some typical Venetian houses: that’s all there is on this tiny strip of land.
Despite this, or perhaps because of this, today Torcello is one of the favorite Venetian islands visited by many tourists during the year and it is a great way to get away from Venice tourist places.
The calm, permeating throughout its territory, and the important historical and archaeological evidence, make it the ideal place to spend a day away from the bustle and crowds of Venice.
History of the island of Torcello
Archaeological campaigns, conducted at the beginning of the 1960s, have shown that Torcello was inhabited by the population of the Veneti since the Roman Period.
It is most likely that the site was home to a population devoted to hunting, fishing and the harvesting of salt and that there were also some suburban villas, next to the fishermen’s houses.
It seems that the Veneti had fled the terra ferma (mainland) escaping from the recurring Barbarian invasions, especially after Attila the Hun had destroyed the city of Altinum and all of the surrounding settlements in 452.
It is very likely that, following the transfer of the Catholic Bishop of Altino on the island, which occurred in 638, much of the population followed their high priest in Torcello. It is in fact in the following year that the Basilica of Santa Maria was founded.
Soon the smaller islands located next to it began to repopulate.
In memory of the ancient city of Altino on the mainland, the islands took the name of Altino’s doors: thus the names of Mazzorbo, Burano, Murano, Costanziaca, Ammiana, Ammianella, Centranica, islands that over time, will shine for their churches and convents.
The X-XI centuries were undoubtedly the period of maximum splendor for the entire archipelago of Torcello, when, the ability of the people in the trade, allowed a steady growth of the activities on the island.
The big rise of Venice, during the following centuries, and the gradual diversion of the most important activities towards the growing city, accentuated the decline of the island, which depopulated definitively due to various causes.
One of the causes of the depopulation of the upper lagoon territory was, undoubtedly, the burial of the rivers, especially the Sile, which reduced Torcello and the neighboring islands into marshlands, systematically infested by malaria and invaded by snakes.
Even the bishop left the island in the middle of the 1600s and moved to the island of Murano.
With the decline of Torcello, the island was transformed into a vast quarry. The buildings, which were now in ruins, were dismantled to provide bricks and material for building the amazing Palazzos in Venice.
Fortunately, the resistance of the inhabitants of the island allowed the preservation of the medieval forms of the Basilica and of the Church of Santa Fosca, avoiding the reconstruction in Renaissance or Baroque style, as was the case for almost all the churches of Venice.
Arriving in Torcello
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the island of Torcello is almost completely uninhabited; it is not touched by a frequent transit of vaporetti and it is in a very marginal position with respect to Venice. You get there after you stop in Burano and you are immediately wrapped in a motionless silence atmosphere.
It is definitely the “wild” look of the island, which attracts visitors in search of an oasis of peace after touring the streets of Venice.
At every step, as soon as you step off the vaporetto, you are greeted by a variety of landscapes, made up of thorns, of leaves shaken by the breeze of the lagoon, of ruins, of dense vegetation, of paths that appear to have never been trodden before.
Following the long walkway leading from the water bus stop to the square and bordering the main canal, you are immediately immersed in a landscape that seems left to the period of the late Roman Empire, with a rhythm occasionally broken by a colonial-style restaurant.
In the middle of this walk, about 7-8 minutes long, you encounter the famous Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge), so named because according to legend, it was built in one night by the devil himself. But it was probably the lack of protection on the sides and then the feeling that the bridge was built in a hurry, to have influenced the collective imagination of the time. Over the bridge there is an area purely used for vegetable gardens.
The Devil’s Bridge, the legend
There is a very interesting legend, which surrounds this particular bridge, which is only one of two bridges in the territory of Venice with no side railings. The other one is in the Cannaregio district.
During the Austrian occupation, a Venetian girl fell in love with an officer of the enemy’s army. Her family obviously did not agree, so much so that her lover was found dead, murdered.
The girl was so desperate at that point that she went and spoke to a witch. The witch made a pact with the devil, promising to bring back to life the young man, in exchange for the soul of 7 children. The contract was drawn and a meeting place was appointed: at the Torcello bridge. The girl and the witch went to the meeting and they saw on the other side of the bridge, the devil and the boy.
The girl crossed the bridge and was once again rejoined with her beloved. They fled together. Now it was the time for the witch to make the payment to the Devil. She fixed a meeting time and place for the next seven days, the time when she would have given the Devil the soul of the children. One per day. But the irony was that she died of natural causes, before she could keep her promise.
From that day onwards, every night, the devil appears on top of the bridge waiting for the promised souls of the seven children.
Walking in Torcello
A little further, a second bridge takes you to the town square, still entirely in earth and gravel.
As you reach the second bridge and the point where the canal splits in two, if you turn your gaze to the right, you can see a red house decorated with a large roof terrace, called Altana.
It is the house where Ernest Hemingway lived, worked, dreamed. Actually this is not a house, but the famous Locanda Cipriani. In 1949 Hemingway forced his friend Giuseppe Cipriani to keep open the Locanda di Torcello, to allow him to spend some time there, as Arrigo Cipriani recalled in his memoirs.
The centre of Torcello island
As you cross over the bridge, the centre of Torcello island opens before your eyes.
Over the centuries two major structures have remained in the center of the island: the Cathedral and the Church of Santa Fosca.
The cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, founded in about 639, is among the most ancient Venetian-Byzantine building, which still remains in the Venetian lagoon.
The reconstruction of the Cathedral dates back to 1008 thanks to Orso, son of the Doge Pietro Orseolo II and grandson of Pietro Orseolo the Santo.
The cathedral is in Romanesque style and has seen many changes over the centuries. It preserves, among other things, multi-colored and wonderful marble mosaics of Byzantine art. It is worth noting the great stone shutters, hinged also in stone, which protect the side windows.
Nearby is the IX century bell tower with a square base and unmistakable in the lagoon landscape.
The Church of Santa Fosca, near the cathedral, was built around 1100. The church of Santa Fosca has a central plant and outside it displays a porch on five sides with arches.
The interior is in the shape of a Greek cross, and is characterized by an unusual connection between the quadrangular base and the circular dome.
There are clear affinity links between this sacred building and the cathedral in Christianou Triphylia and the Panagia Lykodimou of Athens, both dating back to the eleventh century.
The cathedral, the church of Santa Fosca and a small hall all look towards the square, a grassy area with a central massive stone seat called “Attila’s Throne”.
The throne of Attila The Hun
Attila’s throne, called like this although the King of the Huns never sat down there, is a marble chair, probably used by tribunes of the administration of justice.
The legend has it that, during the invasion of the Huns in Italy In the fifth century, they arrived to the island of Torcello, where the inhabitants of the nearby City Of Altino Romana had fled.
Attila himself would have used the Throne Of Stone, located in front of the Cathedral.
But according to historical sources, the Huns never made it to Torcello, cause the Barbarians did not know how to sail the waters of the lagoon.
On the left side of the square is the Palazzo del Consiglio, in Gothic style and built in the ‘400 as the seat of government of the island. Together with the Palazzo Dell’Archivio, it constitutes the Museum of Torcello, which contains numerous archaeological remains found on the island and belonging to the late Roman, Medieval and Byzantine times.
The Museo di Torcello is open from Tuesday to Saturday
Morning from 10.30 till 12.30
Afternoon from 14.00 till 16.00.
Tel. +39 041 730 761
Where to Eat in Torcello
The most famous restaurant on the island, La Locanda Cipriani always offers rare and sought after menus, and the courses are a wise interpretation of the Venetian dishes and local products.
Villa ‘600 Restaurant, thanks to his elegant and large garden, is the ideal spot for big celebration parties, like wedding and other important large events. They are family run and they offer typical Venetian cooking.
Taverna Tipica Veneziana
This is the typical Venetian family run trattoria, where all the locals, during the summer weekends, docking their boat along the canal after their family excursions in the lagoon, go for lunch or dinner. Unpretentious, lively, with a large garden and wood tables, they offer a large range of typical Venetian dishes and drinks. The food is so good that at the end of the meal you even get to eat the plate, since it is made of bread!