Burano is a tiny place crammed with tiny shops and restaurants for day-trippers from Venice. Rainbow-hued houses are reflected in the murky green waters of narrow canals. Above it all looms the optical illusion of San Martino’s bell tower. Depending on the viewer’s location on the island, the single spire appears straight or slanting.
A 40-minute vaporetti ride from Venice,this small island, or rather series of tiny islands, is home to a population of about 2,800. And from the looks of it, all of the locals hang their clothes out to dry. Winter coats, bed sheets, a faded flowered comforter, mismatched trouser socks, all these things and more tremble precariously from clotheslines strung out windows and zigzagged across walkways and tiny plazas.
Clothes hung to dry in Burano, Italy
While to passersby, the houses may seem haphazardly painted in screaming pinks, electric blues, mustard yellows, lipstick reds, and ripe citrus shades, paint colors for buildings on the island must follow a specific system, and residents have to request permission from the local government before painting their homes. Local legend has it that the original function of the brightly colored houses was that fisherman could identify their homes from far away, out at sea.
Jesus and I stroll the island, pausing occasionally to take in the view from the bridges that crisscross the canals. On one of them, we take pictures for an American couple with three children that are under the misguided impression that I don’t speak English, (they came upon us chattering away in Spanish). They’re having so much fun communicating in gestures that I just go along with it, nodding and smiling. Who am I to ruin their fun? Now they’ll be able to talk about the nice Spanish couple that took their picture when they have a post-trip slideshow party back home.
Nearing Galuppi Square, the overpowering aroma of caramelized sugar mixes with subtle notes of briny seawater. S-shaped cookies, a local specialty called “esse,” are on display in bakery windows, and intricate lace masks and fans decorate the long tables outside many shops. Ever a fan of playing dress-up, I drag Jesus into one of the shops and start trying on masks. I’m almost decided on a black cat-eye number, when I think about the two masks I have from New Orleans back in Barcelona. Do I need to spend 14 euros on a mask I will likely not wear or display? Jesus is poised, hand on wallet, to purchase it for me as a gift, but I’m not so sure. I put it down, take his hand and we hightail it out of the store.
Midwesterner Abroad on a bridge in Burano, Italy
Two shops down, a teal peacock drawn in beads on a velour scarf catches my eye. It’s simply gorgeous, and I’m ready to walk away, until I see a purple version. My mother needs that scarf. I ask an employee or the shop-owner—hovering about “Quanto costa?” 35 euros, she says, but for you, special price, 30 euros. I finger the elaborately embroidered scarf, and shake my head. I’m not sure. I eye Jesus. He shrugs. I shake my head at the woman, smile, and tell her “no grazie.” We walk on until I spot another shop with the same scarves for sale and stop to check them out.
It was here, on this island, once famous for its handmade lace made with needles, that Leonardo da Vinci bought a cloth for the main altar of the Duomo in Milan in 1481. The woman that emerges from the shadows of the shop could be his mother. Dressed in shades of black from headscarf to foot, I would peg her age at somewhere between 89 and 200. Crooked and bony, she barely reaches my shoulder and makes me think of the Italian Christmas witch, La Befana. She smiles, revealing her three good teeth, and distracting me from her goatee of coarse white hair. I point to the scarf. “Quanto costa?”
“20 euros,” she says.
“Do you take credit cards?” I ask her in Spanish, showing her my visa. She shakes her head and uncurls a gnarled finger to point further down the street, but there is a “macchina” that way. I smile and nod, heading in that direction to buy myself some decision time. I actually have cash, am just loath to use it and have to hit up another ATM later. We turn around after a few minutes, and head back. I really must have that scrap of purple fabric for my mother.
Back in the dimly lit shop, la Befana shows me a photo of her as a younger woman, hunched over some type of fabric with a needle, and points out delicate lace jewelry with exorbitant handwritten price tags. She points at the beads on the scarf and makes a sewing motion with her hands, then pats her chest. I smile at her, and take out 20 euros. She carefully folds the scarf and puts it in a plastic bag, ignoring the dusty register in the back corner of the store. I hand her the bill, which she quickly pockets and tote the bag with me out of the store.
I’ve spent more than my daily allowance for non-food items, so we walk beyond the shopping area, all the way to the far side of the edge and look out at the Venetian Lagoon. We sit down along one of the canals, dangling our legs above the water. A fluffy white cat stalks a sea gull as it swoops and swerves, obviously taunting, coming closer, and closer, but never soars within reach of the feline’s sharp claws and teeth.
A Friendly Face in an Unexpected Place, Burano, Italy
Later on, we find a small trattoria and order up white wine and salad to share, and individual plates of pasta. Jesus has shrimp on pasta swimming in tangy pomodoro sauce, and I have linguine with clams. When they serve it to me, I’m immediately disappointed. The pasta looks completely dry and undressed, the white of the noodles punctuated by silvery clams and deep green flecks of parsley. But then I try it. The noodles and the tiny clams tossed into them taste of butter, white wine and garlic. Simple but full of flavor, just how I imagine life on a tiny Italian island….
Recipe for Linguine and Clams in White Wine Sauce (serves 4-6)
½ lb cleaned clams in shell
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup minced parsley
2 cloves of finely minced garlic
¼ cup dry white wine
Cook clams in boiling water 5-10 minutes, until they pop open. Discard any that don’t pop open. put the clams aside. Cook pasta in the water from the clams until they are al dente (6-8) minutes.
Heat butter in a skillet. Sauté the clams and garlic in the skillet until the garlic begins to look transparent. Splash in the white wine. Toss in pasta and the minced parsley and add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve with chilled white wine and a smile.
P.S. If there are enough questions in the comments, I might be convinced to share my three-tomato pomodoro sauce recipe inspired by this trip as well.