“Don’t look now,’ said John to his wife, ‘but there are two old girls two tables away, looking at me all the time. I don’t like it. There’s something very strange about their eyes.’
The wife, Laura, turned and saw what she saw and laughed as she commented that they were two men actually.
He said: ‘…You mustn’t laugh. Perhaps they’re dangerous. Murderers or something going around Europe, changing their clothes in each place. You know, sisters here in Torcello this morning; brothers tomorrow, or tonight, back in Venice.’
We walked past a trattoria where Daphne du Maurier’s John and Laura might have sat as they demurred about the identity of the two women in the supernatural thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ .
Cross the commercialism of Murano, get past the chirpiness of Burano , and you find yourself on this tiny, once-abandoned island (about six miles off Venice) where tranquility has taken up residence. Most people would skip Torcello of the shy personality. You have to look beneath the reserve and maybe, just maybe, you will fall for Torcello?
The vaporetto from Burano dropped us at a small pier where a Madonna with a child is carved into a niche on the walls. A stone tablet above confirms that you are indeed in Torcello. Past a curiously stagnant and winding river, framed by droopy willows and scraggly trees, you walk into the island. Red and green colours pop up along the promenade that leads into the heart of it. A small bridge straddles it with no protection on its sides. If you wobble on it, you would be in the river surely. Though I would not risk those waters. They lie strangely still and the weeds in them look like the life has been sucked out of them.
Plus the bridge was built by the devil himself in one night to win a bet. Then you have tales of unlucky lovers, the heartbroken heroine of the tale consorting with a witch (who you know is hand in glove with the devil) to bring back her dead lover to life, and then, the devil being the devil claiming the souls of children as his gift. The witch, however, died midway. Did the devil get his fix of dead children’s souls? Who knows. I climbed gingerly up that bridge and stood looking either way, staring at the lonely campanile sticking out above the pastel coloured house fronts, and wondered about Torcello’s ‘haunted’ reputation.
A handful of people live on it – the maximum number is possibly 20. A deep irony given that it was the first island to be inhabited in the lagoon, by the Romans of Altino who were fleeing marauding Huns. It preceded Venice. At the height of its glory when 20,000 people are said to have lived on it, Torcello acquired a utopian renown through the words of a 6th century writer. This man, Cassiodorous, wrote: “There is no distinction between rich and poor. the same food for all ; the houses are all alike and so envy – that vice which rules the world – is absent here.” Possibly laying the roots of for the democratic Venetian Republic that came up by and by. Torcello was eventually abandoned because malaria struck along with other problems. Now there are just two churches, a museum and a handful of eateries.
At an unpretentious trattoria called Locondo Cipriani, Ernest Hemingway spent four months in the 1940s as he wrote his book Across the River and Into the Tree. It is easy even now to slip into that world of Hemingway. Little would have changed since on this desolate island of reeds and bracken, where time tends to float by as if in a dream.
Get Your Pert Behind to Torcello:
Hire a private water taxi (if you are willing to fork out the big notes) or better still just board a regular ACTV waterbus from Venice. If you are working your way through the various islands, Torcello is a short boat ride from Burano. Vaporetto line 9 makes half hour runs between the two.
Where to Stay:
If you want to brood and contemplate upon the vagaries of life on the island of Torcello, do it like Hemingway and stay at Loconda Cipriani (www.locandacipriani.com). A double room is priced at €110 per night.
What to do:
You do not have much to do on the island – which is the delicious beauty of it.
Torcello’s Byzantine-Gothic cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Climb the 11th century campanile for views across the marshy island.
Museum of Torcello. Look out for the Throne of Attila. Who knows if he sat on it or not, but the bishops of Torcello surely did.
Church of Santa Fosca which is said to home the remains of a 15-year-old martyr beneath its altar.