This article appears in Volume 21: The Islands Issue.

On the Venetian island of Giudecca, standing on the steps of the gleaming Il Redentore church, I meet a friar from Tanzania called Oswald. Taking in the strange beauty of this ghostly place we gaze out to the medieval Manhattan that is Venice and, in that wonderful confluence of timing, mood and coincidence, strike up a conversation.

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He tells me the backstory of the church and how it was promised by the Senate in 1575 as a tribute to God if he spared the city from yet another attack of the plague. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the church, pointing out the nearby convent where seven nuns still reside, before taking me to see artworks by Tintoretto, Veronese and Bassano, as well as 18th-century wax heads of Franciscan saints, complete with real hair and glass eyes. We then head down the side street of Calle dei Frati to a secret wooden door, where Friar Oswald turns to me and says: “Anyone can come in, all you have to do is knock.” This is the secret side of Venice that I’ve always dreamed of.

We walk beyond the cloisters and into a vast garden that drops down to the water – a protected oasis where ancient cypresses, wild roses, olive trees and even kiwis grow. The remoteness is tangible, the silence ineffable and the romance intense. This, for me, is the magic of the lagoon islands of Venice.

So close yet so far away from the crowds, these islands offer a refuge from the thousands of tourists who descend daily on this fragile city. While most people try to pack the usual itinerary – Giudecca, Burano, Mazzorbo, Torcello and Murano – into one day, the best advice is to slow down and spend a few days on each.

Real lagoon life is about simple pleasures such as foraging for salicornia veneta, the sea asparagus that only grows in these waters, in the garden of an inn named Venissa after the golden wine from its walled vineyard. It’s sitting under the shade of the oldest magnolia tree in Venice in the gardens of Bauer Palladio in Giudecca, or making a pilgrimage to the rural retreat of Locanda Cipriani in Torcello. Ultimately, it’s finding a hinterland that preserves its own particular culture and heart – a place that is still home to fishermen who know the lagoon waters like the lines on their palms and don’t really care who comes and goes so long as their rituals remain unchanged.

Indeed, it’s people who make the lagoon islands “real” rather than a Disneyland dreamscape. People such as Matteo Bisol, the visionary director of Venissa, who is pioneering a new housing restoration project in Burano, or Francesca Bortolotto Possati, the hotelier who recently launched a scheme that helps to rehabilitate female Venetian prisoners, who now make all of her hotel’s beauty products. Some other names to know are Bonifacio Brass, the owner of Locanda Cipriani, who can describe the history and magic of Torcello like no one else, and Emily FitzRoy of Bellini Travel, who can literally open doors to incredible villas, or even your own private island.

Skye McAlpine, a native Venetian and the author of the food blog From My Dining Table, whose book A Table in Venice will come out next spring, tells me that she has always been inspired by the islands. “I love how peaceful it is,” she says. “From the moment you board your boat and start speeding away from the city centre it’s like stepping into another world – one with open blue skies, deep green expanses of water, brightly coloured cottages and flurries of pink flamingos flying through the sky. Each island is wonderfully unique and yet somehow distils the character of real Venetian life, which is increasingly difficult to find.”

It is hardly surprising that these islands make such coveted locations for parties and weddings, or sought-after retreats for artists and writers who want to get off-grid and get lost in their work. My idea of the Venetian lagoons was formed by Ernest Hemingway in his novel Across the River and into the Trees, where he outlines his Venetian travels in Torcello, a remote village that still has only a dozen or so citizens alongside a 1,000-year-old basilica, the church of Santa Fosca and a baptistry. In his great love letter to the strange lagoon islands of Venice, Hemingway described them as “a place that that fills and frees your imagination, where you feel both humble and proud.” Eighty years later, you can feel this magic now more than ever.

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