How to escape the crowds of Venice
It’s hard to imagine what Venice was like before all the tourists. By recent estimates, up to 70,000 tourists flood Venice each day during the peak months of June, July and August. But despite the crowds, Venice is still a city that can’t be missed. The magic of the water and the architecture captures the imagination like nowhere else in the world.
During my last visit to Venice in late September, I took on the challenge of finding some less crowded and less traveled places in the area. To find one of those places, I left the city and headed to the small lagoon island of Sant’Erasmo.
A 25-minute and 15 euro vaporetto ride from Fondamente Nove, Sant’Erasmo looks and feels miles and centuries away.
Most of the islands around Venice are known for what they produce: Murano for glass, Burano for lace. Sant’Erasmo is no exception. It is known as the agricultural “bread basket” of Venice. Specifically, the island is renowned for its purple artichokes. This is what I have come to see, not just the famed purple artichokes (unfortunately it’s not the right season for those) but the birthplace of the most delicious fruits and vegetables that grace the tables of the finest restaurants in Venice.
As the vaporetto chugs toward Sant’Erasmo, most of the passengers disembark at the more familiar islands of the northern lagoon such as Burano, Murano and Torcello. By the time we reach Camannaro, the first stop on Sant’Erasmo, there are only three of us left on board.
I step off the boat and immediately notice the absence of city noise and the presence of the fragrant smell of farm fields and flowers. The only sounds I hear are distant boat engines in the lagoon and the crowing of farmyard roosters.
The road ahead of me is literally deserted, the other two passengers turned left as I turned right, and there isn’t a person or vehicle in sight on the narrow lane ahead. I’m already feeling further and further from the crowds and confusion of Venice’s maze-like streets. Open, green space and blue sky surrounds me.
To the left and right of me the land is crisscrossed by ancient irrigation canals, giving it the feel of Holland. Along the canals grow wild reeds and I see ducks, geese and white egrets tucked among the tall grasses of the waterways.
A 1-mile walk from the ferry is Il Lato Azzurro, a small and simple hotel. Luca, the hotel manager is waiting for me there to take me to a local family farm, Sapori Sant’Erasmo, to see where the agricultural magic happens. No one on the farm speaks English so I need Luca to interpret. As it turns out, Luca is picking up a vegetable order for the restaurant at Il Lato Azzurro so we hop in the van for the quick drive over.
We enter the property on a muddy, rutted road and park by an open shed where Carlo, the eldest son, and a few other family members are assembling the vegetable and herb orders for the day. Although the farm accepts visitors and has a few jars of its privately labeled pickles and spreads for sale in the shed, this is definitely a working farm.
The land has been passed down from father to son for many, many generations. Exactly how many generations is unclear, when I ask Carlo, he laughs and says “forever!”
During that time, Not much has changed, but through Luca’s translation, I learn that Carlo is the first family member to take a more commercial approach to the farm by branding the Sapori Sant’Erasmo name. He has built exclusive relationships with certain Venetian restaurants specializing in “slow food”. The chefs of these restaurants have the ability to pre-order produce from the farm for delivery. In return, these restaurants enjoy the cache of promoting their exclusive relationship with the locally sourced and family owned Sapori Sant’Erasmo.
It’s clear that Carlo is passionate about the land and the crops it yields. Again, through Luca, he tells me that it’s the mix of part fresh, part salty, or brackish water that gives the produce of Sant’Erasmo its distinctive flavor. “Like no other in the world”, he says. He goes on to express that he is fortunate to do work that he loves in a place he describes as “a paradise on earth.” I have to agree with that one!
I purchase a jar of preserved artichoke hearts from the farm and Luca and I head back to Il Lato Azzurro with today’s produce order. My plan is to rent a bike from Il Lato Azzurro (6 euros for 3 hours) and be back in time for lunch at the restaurant there. As Luca unloads the produce, I ask him what’s on today’s lunch menu and he replies: “you’re looking at it.”
He tells me to be back in about an hour for the meal, which is the perfect amount of time to take a quick bike loop around this tiny island.
I head toward the beach and within 15 minutes I’m sidetracked by an adorable honey farm behind a wrought iron gate. Those allergic to bee stings take heed– there are over 30 brightly colored beehives filled swarms of bees and gardens of fruit trees and flowers with bees roaming freely!
It’s an enchanting little place and the bee keeper let’s me wander around the garden and sample the honey for sale in his little store. Of course, I buy some of that too.
A half hour later, I realize I need to get back on my bike and finish my loop quickly to be back for lunch. The loop takes me past the small local cemetery and through the center of “town”, which is an elementary school, a church and a small dry goods shop. Along this part of the island, the snowcapped peaks of the Dolomites are visible in the distance beyond the boat filled harbor. A unique sight.
I pass the tiny Orto vineyard which is on my post-lunch itinerary, then return to Il Lato Azzurro for my farm fresh lunch. During the entire bike ride I only encounter three people on the road, and one of them was Carlo from the farm.
The meal at Il Lato Azzurro is simple, but flavorful and I recognize all the ingredients from the crate Luca brought back from the farm: creamy pumpkin risotto with finely diced onions and a vibrant salad of field greens, radishes, carrots and tomatoes. Luca offers a glass of locally produced prosecco, which I can’t pass up.
After lunch, I walk the mile back toward the ferry. Just beyond the Campanella ferry stop is the Orto vineyard that I passed earlier on my bike ride, another casually rustic spot set directly on the marsh. While I taste the crisp Orto whites beside the channel, local fisherman in colorful wooden boats cast their lines and effortlessly chic Italians in sleek yachts glide past. The nautical location of Orto is more than just an idyllic setting, its part of their wine making process. Some of the wines are bottled and aged underwater.
Sadly, It’s now time for the boat back to Venice. As much as I’d like to linger on this charming island, I know that if I miss the last of the hourly vaporettos, the schedule becomes much more sporadic. At this time of day, not many people are leaving the island. The traffic is in the opposite direction: the boat that approaches Sant’Erasmo drops 15-20 people on the island, a mix of teenagers coming home from school and adults returning from their workday in Venice. I’m the only one who boards the ferry returning to the chaos and crowds of Venice, But fortunately, now I know where to go when I want to see what the area looked like before tourists: quaint and peaceful Sant’Erasmo island.