Peace on water

Though besieged by visitors to nearby Venice, the island of Burano is a tranquil place

The view from my local vaporetto (water bus) stop on the island of Burano is hard to ignore. Most of the Buranelli known to me feel the same way. The bell tower on Torcello, the abandoned island, is pale in the early morning light and there is a curious syn copation as early risers take the 05.56 boat to Venice. On Burano, as the boat prepares to dock, house doors swing open punctually (just as the boats are punctual) and sleepwalkers spill out into the clean, deserted alleyways, take their newspapers without a glance, drop ?1 into the honesty box, and then doze off for another 20 minutes, like automata from a film by Fritz Lang, on their way to a hell that lasts until five in the afternoon.

Most of the men get off on Murano, where they work, often in appalling temperatures, making glass. Other people work in hotels or shops, or in government offices, or are policemen, firemen or street sweepers. Most are glad to come home to tranquillity. Like the Buranelli, I often dread going in to Venice in a vaporettto packed to overflowing with tourists, and having to force my way through crowds of visitors, complete with name badges, as they trot behind umbrella-wielding guides. Though punctuality is usually a way of life in Venice, one increasingly hears Venetians calling home from blocked alleys: "I'm sorry I'm late, dear, but I'm stuck in traffic in the Frezzaria . . ."

People come from all over the world, just once in a lifetime, to see this view, to visit these islands, and to see Venice, too. A friend of mine, who has run a fish stall in the Rialto Market for more than 40 years, leaves home on Burano at 2.30am in all weathers and, although he returns only after 12 hours of grindingly hard work, he will still describe a spectacular dawn in the city, or be struck by the splendour of the Grand Canal, or take note of the light falling on a building.

In Venice five years ago, a woman whose stationery shop overlooks the main door of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari told me that whenever the church's portals were opened and she caught a glimpse of Titian's great, windy portrait over the altar at the far end, her heart still missed a beat. She was in her seventies at the time, and had been born above the shop. And even then she, like the rest of us, was appalled by the gro tesque spectacle of mass tourism.

This is the north. Venetians have never really seen themselves as Italian. Venetians are, perhaps, largely unaware that they have earned an enhanced sense of spatial awareness. If Venetians dislike being pressed by a crowd, this dislike is felt tenfold by the Buranelli. In Venice you can always spot a local because he or she moves aside, just in time, as you approach from behind. On Burano you know when you are being watched because the watcher is a hundred metres distant and has his back to you.

The Buranelli (and Venetians, still, to some extent) have an extraordinarily privileged infancy and childhood, as they are bumped up and down the steps of bridges in a pram to the sound of water and a mellifluous local dialect. Their hearing - so important to spatial awareness - becomes highly sensitised. Outsiders simply stand there expecting to be pushed past. Even Venetians seem slightly clumsy when they step on to Buranese soil.

So, are the Buranelli spoilt? They have good public transport and excellent medical care, with three doctors (at night, a patient can have a doctor at his or her bedside within a quarter of an hour), a dentist and the island's own volunteer ambulance service. Peace and quiet. This is a small, tight-knit community with a strong sense of values: practically zero crime on the island; a daily rubbish collection run by people who are friends or neighbours (no menial shame and no class system here); no supermarket apart from a small Spar - just excellent small bakers, butchers and greengrocers with (at least some) local sources; a fish market with (at least some) local sources; a small cinema in winter (where there were once five); boatbuilders; metal workshops; and small family restaurants serving good, fresh, home-cooked food.

Hotels in Venice (population circa 50,000) cater for nearly 7.5 million tourists and another 2.1 million visitors are housed elsewhere. Not long ago, 82.5 per cent of Venetians polled by a local paper were in favour of a toll for visitors, at seasonal rates. Yet more hotels are on the way. More water is consumed, more sewage must be dealt with. Venice always was an alimentary canal for money: put money in one end and the Venice Carnival comes out of the other.

This last, money-spinning idea was revived in Venice in the early 1980s, stolen from Burano, where the tradition had been quietly maintained for centuries. In a custom that is echoed in Britain on different dates, islanders still burn an old witch, Guy Fawkes-style. On the evening of Epiphany (6 January), children receive a stocking full of sweets and nuts if they are good, or coal if they are not - pagan traditions drawn from the mainland, where the origins of the Torcellani and Buranelli lie from more than 1,500 years ago, before they founded Venice, and where the Buranelli park their cars, for the time being.

When the oil runs out, we can still row.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’