Picture Venice at twilight on an autumn evening: The Rialto is thick with backpack-wearing, camera-wielding tourists wearing cargo shorts or sweat suits; the Piazza San Marco is a sea of pigeons, interrupted here and there by ranks of caffè tables where more tourists, maybe slightly better dressed, sip $12 espressos and listen to sour string orchestras play "The Theme from 'The Godfather'." You, meanwhile, are lounging in the stern of a 52-and-a-half-foot, 1946-vintage larchwood Venetian fishing boat beneath a billowing terra cotta-colored sail, cooled by gentle breezes as you sip a glass of icy prosecco while gliding past the brightly colored houses of Burano, the ancient lace-makers' island about a mile-and-a-half northeast of the pigeons and the cargo shorts. Who is having the more authentic Venetian experience?
When it comes to this one-of-a-kind city, says Mauro Stoppa, the Eolo's soft-spoken, avuncular-looking captain, "Everybody knows the canals, but they almost never notice the lagoon."
Venice itself is a collection of 117 tiny islands, mostly linked by footbridges, but it's only a small portion of an immense ecosystem that includes scores of other, larger islands, at least 30 of which are inhabited. Casual visitors to the city might take a day trip to Murano to visit one of the few remaining glass factories and buy gaudy, fragile souvenirs, or to neighboring Burano, where little lace is still produced but a fair amount is sold. If they're attending the Venice Film Festival, they'll get out to the Lido, a strand of sand and concrete (with cars!) at the mouth of the lagoon. They might possibly visit Torcello for lunch at the romantic Locanda Cipriani, where Hemingway once stayed and worked, or to see the island's small cathedral, where Gothic architecture (according to Ruskin) was born. Beyond that, they'll see little of the lagoon — which, Stoppa thinks, is very unfortunate — because the lagoon defines Venice, feeds it in more ways than one, and protects it (however imperfectly) from flooding.
Our very word lagoon derives from the old Venetian name for this body of water, Laguna Veneta, lake of the Venetii. This particular "lake", which covers a little over 200 square miles (or 136,000 acres), is the largest wetland in the Mediterranean. Indeed, only ten percent of it or so is open water, with another eight percent dry land; the rest is marshland or mud flats. The water and the wetland are ecologically rich, full of plant and animal species not found anywhere else in quite the same form. (The lagoon's marshy fringes are full of the wild ducks and other game birds that are an unexpectedly important part of traditional Venetian cooking.)
The islands are diverse as well, as typified by San Francesco del Deserto, where a handful of Franciscan monks live and welcome overnight visitors; or San Lazzaro degli Armeni, one of the world capitals of Armenian culture since the 18th century (the library contains some 150,000 volumes; Lord Byron once studied there); or Sant'Erasmo, name-checked on all the best Venetian menus, which produces extraordinary vegetables, especially artichokes and peas.