norman miller writer and photographer
norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer norman miller writer and photographer

The Times

The ghost speaks suddenly in the ruined hospital on the abandoned Venetian island of Poveglia – a piercing whisper of Italian from high up the building's shattered stone stairs, as if the Lagoon breeze had decided to share a memory. I tune back into the comforting cicada symphony pouring in from the overgrown gardens, and stare at a wall covered with mysterious vignettes of a jagged-toothed wolf in blue squares. Back out in the sun, my wife Jessica asks if I had called out from inside. I say no. We hurry back to our boat.  

The notoriously-haunted Poveglia is one of around 45 islands dotted round the Venetian lagoon -  yet only Murano and Burano regularly draw visitors away from the crowded canals of Venice. Cast wider and you find an archipelago of wonders - mesmerising monasteries within bell-ring of ruined forts, bucolic vineyards a loud hail from wild havens. Barring a couple requiring a Lagoon tour boat or water taxi, all are on the vaporetto (waterbus) network – though we bed down each night at distinctive island hangouts to enjoy the full archipelago experience.  

Venissa eases us into this kaleidoscopic Alt Lagoon. Thirty minutes after leaving the airport, we're deposited on Mazzorbo, where Matteo Bisol welcomes us to the Lagoon's newest gourmet beacon -  set in a campanile-dominated vineyard making superb whites from Venice's ancient Dorona grape, rediscovered a decade ago when Matteo's father Gianluca found a few old vines on nearby Torcello.

The vibe is laidback luxe. Allotments tended by island pensioners feed Venissa's Michelin-starred restaurant, where chef Antonia Klugmann creates sublime menus celebrating Lagoon produce – eel, prosecco, samphire plucked from an adjacent inlet. We dine al fresco, then cross a little wooden bridge linking Mazzorbo to the polychromatic canalside houses of Burano, before retreating to a  woody loft room facing bird-filled saltmarshes.

We see the original vineyard on Torcello a few days later, decorated with crumbling old statuary in the lee of the Lagoon's oldest church, the magnificent 7th century mosaic-filled Santa Maria dell'Asunta. Torcello is where La Serenissima was born when mainland refugees fled into the islands to escape marauding Huns, before a medieval shift of power took the Doges briefly to Malamocco on the Lido then present-day Venice. Today, Torcello draws history buffs for its archaeological splendours and Hemingway nuts soaking up the bucolic vibe Ernest scribbled about in the late 1940s. We lunch in the garden at Taverna Tipica Venezia on vongole and grilled seabass for less than a starter at somewhere posh like Locanda Cipriani just along the canal.

Our guide next day turns out to be one of Torcello's dozen full-time residents. Martino Rizzi is a Lagoon man to the core, mixing past knowledge with ire at present idiocies like deep channel dredging so cruise ships can blight the Grand Canal. “Venice is a terrible magnet,” he sighs. “People miss so much of the Lagoon.”

Out on the water, we spy the jagged peaks of the Dolomites 60 miles north, but my attention keeps veering to little islands topped by mysterious ruins which Martino identifies - abandoned Napoleonic barracks, old medical outposts among the so-called 'Hospital Islands' where Venice's sick were once banished. We drop in on San Servolo, where 200,000 'mad' Venetians were committed over the centuries to an asylum now replaced by a swish private university – though the past is recalled by a chilling Museum of Madness displaying barbaric contraptions and 'treatments'.

By contrast, Venetian death presents a beautiful face on the walled cemetery island of San Michelle. From the vaporetto stop simply known as 'Cimitero', we plunge into a tangle of distinctive graveyards. A children's section full of poignant faded portraits of departed young angels contrasts with the austere grey mausoleum newly crafted by British starchitect David Chipperfield. We hunt out the final resting places of Stravinsky and Diaghilev, the latter topped by a mish-mash of ballet paraphernalia left by dance devotees.  

The end point of Lagoon life is the northernmost island of Pellestrina, a sleepy slender fishermen's hangout where we moor for lunch yards from our quayside table at Da Celeste. Over gorgeous fried soft-shell crab (moeche), we admire ramshackle boat tackle huts set on stilts far out in the water, feeling a million miles from San Marco rather than a dozen.

Other islands are green havens. Allotments cover Venice's kitchen garden of Sant'Erasmo, its  artichokes deemed worthy of their own May festival. But we prefer the wild end of La Vignole, dominated by the ruined 16th century Fort San Andrea. Scaling its battlements, we gawp at the views, high above a jungly landscape pierced by aquamarine inlets more Louisiana bayou than Italy. That night we stay on La Certosa, a parkland and marina island near Venice's Arsenale shipyards. Circumnavigating its shoreline woods, we settle on a little beach opposite the Lido and draw in the sand watching boats surge by in warm evening sunshine.

The Lagoon is also home to two holy islands adorned by contrasting monasteries. Sailing into San Francesco del Deserto, Father Lorenzo waits by a giant waterside cross to steer us round a northern Lagoon idyll made godly when St Francis landed in 1220. Bells toll sonorously as we step out from the austerely beautiful 15th century monastery into cypress-shaded gardens. 

San Lazzaro degli Armeni is very different – an abandoned medieval leper colony reborn when Armenian monk Mechitar sought sanctuary here from Turkish persecutors in 1715. His monastery sits amid ornate gardens, but its the interior treasures that impress – dazzling chapels, libraries stuffed with glittering manuscripts, a little museum of printing, plus a section nodding to Lord Byron's visits while working on an Armenian dictionary. Father Kechichian is a passionate guide, his parting gift of the monastery's rose petal jam a sweet memento. 

Byron was a regular too on the Lido, galloping around 19th century fields and woods admired by Henry James 50 years later. Beneath today's resort veneer of gelato-scoffing and beach frolics, there remain sophisticated beguilements – and not just when the Venice Film Festival brings Hollywood here in late August. By the dune-backed pines of Alberoni, I pay cinematic homage to Visconti's 1950s film of Death In Venice, admiring evocative stills displayed by its vast sandy set. The sensuous Art Deco styling of the 1930s Nicelli aerodrome vies for architectural points with an array of 'Liberty' villas showcasing Italy's lovely riff on Art Nouveau.

We stay at the Villa Innes, the luxury B&B home of Gianluca Seguso, whose eponymous family glass-making firm has crafted transparent masterpieces on Murano since 1397, their work now displayed in over 70 museums worldwide. Chatting about glass design in his top-floor apartment, we jump at the offer of a foundry visit which proves spell-binding. Delicate chandeliers glitter surreally above grey metal furnaces as we watch master makers work molten magic. I spy a lovely solitary broken wine glass waiting to be copied on a dusty shelf, bearing a discrete name tag identifying its Hollywood star owner. I can't reveal who - but I can tell you Venice is not the only star of the Lagoon.


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