Venice: A Visitor's Guide to the Island of Murano
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This article looks at the small island of Murano which lies just 1.5 kilometres from the old city of Venice, Italy. Many of course who visit Venice will never see any of the other nearby islands, but that would be a mistake, and particularly so in the case of Murano. The reasons for featuring this island in this article are three fold:
Firstly, the character of Murano makes it a different experience to Venice for a visit. Second, the island is world famous for its glass manufacture. And third, Murano offers quite different and interesting possibilities as a base from which to explore Venice itself.
The author booked four nights in a hotel on the island of Murano. All the photos on this page were taken during that visit in September 2014.
The Location of Murano in Relation to Venice and the Airport
The Facts About Murano
Murano is a short boat trip north of the historic city of Venice. More or less circular in outline and just 1.5 km (0.9 miles) from one side to the other, Murano is, in truth, a collection of 7 islands, albeit very close together and separated by waterways. In this it is a bit like a smaller, simpler version of Venice, as that city was founded on 117 islands crossed by a network of 177 canals.The Murano waterways are all appreciably wider than most of the canals in Venice, and they are of great importance to the community of 5000 people who live here.
But there is another factor besides the waterways which has enabled Murano to prosper over the centuries, and which attracts boat loads of visitors every day - this island throughout the late medieval and Renaissance period, became the world's leading centre for glass manufacture - a skill and a tradition which still exists to this day.
The History of Murano
The history of Murano is as old as Venice itself, first settled at least as long ago as the Roman era, and then by local people fleeing from Germanic invaders during the fall of the Roman Empire. The islands of the lagoon including Murano offered a safe haven from the Huns, Goths and Lombards, who were not noted for their seafaring prowess. During the first millennium, Murano developed, first as a fishing port, then as a producer of salt and as a trading centre. But it could never match the potential of Venice itself, and gradually that was where all trade and influence gravitated, and Murano became something of a backwater.
Venice prospered to such an extent that by the late 13th century it had become not just a city, but a city state of immense power, trading throughout Europe and as far as the Middle East. Its authority stretched to the mainland and across the Adriatic, and of course led to its domination of the islands of the lagoon including Murano. But ironically, this great economic success of Venice was now to gift a crucial lifeline to Murano.
Just one of Venice's many sources of income was as a glass manufacturing centre, a craft recorded as long ago as the 10th century AD. But the seat of Venice's power was a city crammed full of buildings, the majority of which were wooden. In the late 13th century a medieval equivelant of 'Health and Safety' came into force; Venice's Government had recognised that the open furnaces necessary for glass manufacture posed a serious fire hazard to the confined island city. An uncontrolled fire sweeping through the city would have destroyed all that Venice had achieved in the previous centuries. It could have wiped it out. So in 1291, it was decreed that Venice's glass manufacture should be moved to the less built up, neighbouring island of Murano.
And here the industry prospered, as leading craftsmen moved here. The island's wealth grew as the reputation of the island as a centre of manufacturing excellence and innovation spread worldwide. Window glass panes made in Murano were considered the largest and clearest in Europe. For a long time all mirror production was exclusive to Murano. And some say that the invention of spectacles took place here. Glass from the island was soon to be found throughout the royal palaces and mansions of Europe. And keen to preserve a virtual monopoly in quality glass which the island enjoyed, the skills were jealously protected. Murano manufacturers were accorded some of the highest rights and priveleges in the region. Conversely, there were sometimes severe penalties for any who tried to leave the island and use their knowledge to establish glassworks in other parts of Europe.
But inevitably as time passed, the secret techniques did become known elsewhere. Between the 16th and 18th centuries glass industries developed in Europe, and imports began to arrive from the Far East. Murano's importance seriously declined. The nadir perhaps was reached early in the 19th century, when most of the factories, and the mansions of those who had grown rich on the proceeds were lost. Many who worked here left the island.
However, it was not long before there was something of a revival in fortunes once more. By the end of the 19th century, some new factories had opened. And in the 20th century Murano began to regain its prestige as a world centre of production with a dramatic increase in international trade, and of course considerable benefit from the burgeoning tourist trade. As a result Murano today is once again renouned for its glass. The island may have lost the monopoly on quality glass it once enjoyed, but the 700 year long association between Murano and glass manufacture remains an inextricable and profitable bond.
Murano Glass Today
Today there is one principal reason why the tourists arrive from Venice to Murano. They come for the glass. There are companies offering free boat rides to Murano with a tour of one of the glass factories, and a brief explanation of the manufacturing process whilst watching the glass crafters at work. That of course is the easy way to do it, but anyone who chooses that option must expect a 'hard sell' of the factory's glass. What's more, a quick return trip will deny the visitor the chance to explore the island at their leisure. The alternative is to take a vaporetto (the water bus service) for an independent visit and find your own way to a glass factory. Here you can still listen to the guided talk and watch the process, before looking around the gift shop. But an independent visit allows one to explore the island to see a much wider range of glassware - everything from paperweights to elaborate chandeliers - in other outlets. There is also a glass museum - the Museo del Vetro - which one may wish to look around.
Several furnaces are open to the public, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Many more working factories exist away from the public gaze. And a look around Murano will demonstate just how important glass and the tourism it attracts really is. (The author of this article did a survey of a short stretch of canal side establishments; out of 18 businesses, 12 were glass and ornament retailers, whilst 4 others were involved in other aspects of the tourist trade such as restaurants and cafes.)
When purchasing glass, the principle of 'buyer beware' holds true here as much as anywhere else. Today much glass is imported and cheap imitations from elsewhere in Euope and from Asia have once again hit the local industry hard. To counter this, about 50 Murano companies have united to establish a trademark of origin. The presence of the trademark does not necessarily guarantee fine quality, but it does guarantee that the piece one is buying is genuine Murano glass.
Things to Do and See
Like Venice itself, all traffic on Murano is focused on the waterways, though with rather greater space to develop the land, the wide canals of Murano are mostly lined with pathways. On Murano one can actually get around pretty much everywhere on foot, and the canals are therefore quieter and more peaceful. And for those who can dwell a little longer on the island after visiting the glass factories, there is plenty to see. The preponderance of shops which are associated with the local industry has been mentioned, but there are also other outlets which sell more cosmopolitan souvenirs too.
And there are architectural attractions. Only four churches now exist on the island (many more were torn down long ago to make way for factories and housing). The most important of these churches is the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato which will be described below. Others include the Chiesa di San Pietro Martire, built in 1437 but reconstructed after extensive fire damage in 1509, and home to a number of art treasures. San Pietro Martire can be found on the Rio dei Vetrai, one of the smaller Murano canals. On the other side of the same canal is the Campo Santo Stefano, which possesses a small but decorative 19th century bell tower, made more conspicuous by its location near the confluence of the Rio dei Vetrai with the Canale Ponte Lungo and by the presence nearby of a large and impressive glass sculpture, shown in the photo.
There are also a few ancient mansions remaining from Murano's heyday (though nothing like the number in the city of Venice), and Murano has its own operational lighthouse. Built in 1912, the Murano Lighthouse stands 35 m (115 ft) tall with a visual range of about 30 km (19 mls). It's not open to the public but is interesting to see, and one of the island's water bus stops, 'Faro', is adjacent to the lighthouse.
Of the seven islands which comprise Murano, some are largely undeveloped and rural, and most are predominantly residential or industrial. Almost all that will be of interest to visitors, including the churches, the lighthouse and the museum, are to be found on the central island of San Donato and on two southern islands, and close to four waterways which serve these islands.These waterways are the very wide Canale Ponte Lungo and Canale San Giovanni and the narrower Rio dei Ventrai and Canale di San Donato.The proximity of these makes it very easy to find all the main attractions mentioned above in just a few hours, and impossible to get lost.
Santi Maria e Donato
Undoubtedly the most important and interesting building on Murano which tourists can visit is the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato. This is one of the most ancient churches anywhere in the Venice lagoon - originally a church was built here as long ago as the 7th century, although that was subsequently rebuilt at least twice in later centuries. It is believed that the current design mostly dates to the 11th or 12th century.
The church was originally named for the Virgin Mary, but was re-dedicated after bones said to be those of Saint Donatus of Arezzo were brought here in 1125 AD. Saint Donatus, who had been martyred in 362 AD, was made the patron saint of Murano, and his remains are now buried here in a marble sarcophagus. Intriguingly, just behind the altar there are four large rib bones on display, brought to the island at the same time. But these are not human bones - they are more than one metre long. Tradition has it that they are the bones of a dragon slain by Saint Donatus whilst he was in Greece, but more rational theorising has it that the indisputedly giant bones may be from an extinct animal like a mammoth dug up in antiquity and assumed to be those of a dragon.
Apart from these relics the walls of the church feature many works of art, and the mosaics which decorate the floor are especially renouned. Many feature animal designs including the ones illustrated here, and the date when at least some of the mosaics were laid is recorded in the mosaic floor - 1141.
Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato is easy to locate and it is free to enter, though a donation box is present to help with the upkeep of the church. The church is on the Canale di San Donato, and it is opposite an arched bridge which bears the name of Ponte San Donato.
Getting to and from Murano From the Island of Venice
As an island town, Murano can only be reached by boat. Most tourists will arrive directly from Venice itself, but some (including the author of this article who stayed in a hotel on the island) will go straight to Murano from the mainland, and specifically from Marco Polo Airport. Both options will be explored here.
For those arriving from Venice on a short excursion or a half day trip, the service to get to know is the vaporetto service. These boats are quite literally 'water buses' with many bus stops or stations sprinkled around the City of Venice, around the coast and along the Grand Canal. You can buy a ticket for a single trip, or buy a pass for a period of days enabling you to embark or disembark as often as you wish. And several of the vaporetto routes leave Venice and travel to the outlying islands including Murano, where there are no less than 7 water bus stations, all very close to the main attractions mentioned above, as well as the glass factories open to the public. Services to Murano are good, but the frequency and travel time depends on the route and the time of day. Throughout the daylight hours, boats run every 20-30 minutes on most of the lines which serve Murano. The nearest station to Murano is Fondamente Nove in the north of Venice, and the crossing to Murano takes just 10 minutes. But getting to the island from the major tourist attraction of St Mark's Square in Venice, or from the Venice railway station takes about 30-40 minutes depending on the number of stops. The vaporetti (plural) are run by the ACTV Company, and this link brings up the latest timetables for different routes between Venice and Murano in pdf format. Also, the Venice For Visitors website includes a simple and clear guide to all the routes to Murano.
A Personal Experience and a Cautionary Word of Warning
Any visit to Venice needs a little advance planning because the lack of cars in the old city may mean you have to carry your luggage some distance on foot to your hotel. On an outlying island like Murano, it's a problem which can be magnified. My flight was due to arrive at Marco Polo Airport in the evening, with ample time to catch a water bus to the island. Or so I thought. But torrential storms led to a flight diversion, and then an extraordinarily long delay in baggage unloading meant it was after midnight before I was through Customs. All the waterborne transport to Murano had ceased for the day. I - and lots of other tourists - had to spend the night at the airport, where the staff were singularly unhelpful. Explanations for the luggage delay were not given, and no services were available. I caught the first boat of the morning to Murano at about 6.30 am.
My recommendation is 'do NOT take an evening flight to Venice', especially if staying on one of the other islands. If delays occur, you may literally 'miss the boat' and have to spend the night in a very unhelpful airport.
Getting To and From Murano From Marco Polo Airport
For most visitors this section will not be relevant, but for those considering staying on the island of Murano - a topic which is discussed in the next section - please read on. Anyone who arrives by air to Marco Polo Airport on the mainland will need to take a boat to Murano. There are less options for travelling to the outlying islands than there are to the historic city of Venice, but two main systems exist, and both are easily accessible from the airport, as the boat piers are within walking distance. First of all there are privately hired water taxis, which can be relied on to take you directly to your waterside accommodation. But these are very expensive, unless you are part of a group which shares the cost. The taxis belong to a cooperative called the Consorzio Motoscafi Venezia, and can be hired at the airport or booked online for quick transfer.
Most travellers will opt for the second option of the Alilaguna water buses. These are cheap, but only stop at one bus station on Murano so there may be a short walk to get to your hotel. The journey takes about 30 minutes. The Alilaguna routes are colour coded and the line to take is the blue line which stops at the Colonna Station in the south of Murano. The red line also goes to the island to the Museo Station, though this is seasonal. Boats will depart every half hour during most of the day, but early and late services are hourly. And the last boat departs from Marco Polo at about 12.15 am. If arriving very late there is an all-night service from Fondamente Nove to Murano; the option is to take a land taxi to Venice, and then walk to Fondamente Nove Vaporetto Station before waiting for the boat to Murano (one every hour). But that's quite an ordeal in the small hours of the morning. With that in mind, if you are planning to stay on the island, please note the words of caution in the blue box.
The Alilaguna home page with all its routes and timetables can be accessed here.
To Stay or not to Stay on the Island of Murano
The author of this article stayed in a hotel on Murano for the duration of his visit. So why? Well, I booked late, and at the time of booking the only hotels on the main island of Venice were either exorbitantly expensive, or they were small family run concerns with even smaller rooms and few facilities. On the island of Murano, on the other hand, I could book in to the 4 star LaGare Hotel, for a price no greater than a 2 or 3 star establishment in Venice. And my hotel offered facilities which the smaller hotels did not offer. It may not always be so, but for a last minute booking, it was the best option.
Should anyone else visiting Venice as a tourist contemplate staying in a hotel on the island of Murano? I think it depends on three things - budget, duration of stay, and your personal needs. The big advantage is price. Rooms are much less expensive than comparable rooms in Venice. Is that the most important consideration for you?
The main disadvantages include the inconvenience of travelling each day to and from Venice. Also there is less nightlife on Murano. But how relevant in fact are these points? Travelling between Murano and Venice is a comparatively minor concern, as the vaporetto service is frequent, efficient and inexpensive. It is easy to use. (What's more, the LaGare Hotel Venezia also offers a free shuttle service to Venice or to the mainland during the day time.)
The nightlife issue is a bit more of a concern, although Venice itself is not exactly buzzing after dark. Residents of the city have a relatively high average age, and most day visitors have gone by nightfall. But there are bars and a few clubs and shows. And many advocate staying for the enchanting evening atmosphere in St Mark's Square. But if Venice is quiet at night, Murano is positively somnolescent. I went out for a meal mid evening and began to wonder if I'd get one. Almost everything was in darkness, all shops were closed and I saw no bars. There were just a few couples strolling long the water's edge, and occasional returnees on the boats from Venice. Restaurants were of course open, but no one was sitting outside as the weather was getting chilly. It was only the lights which alerted me to the signs of life inside. And when I'd finished at 9.30 pm, another nearby restaurant was in the process of closing up. There is a solution of course - just stay in Venice till after dark and then return to Murano before the last of the regular boat services depart at around midnight.
I would say that if you are only visiting the region for 2 or 3 days, Murano offers a great place to stay - well worth the money, and you should sleep well without noise pollution at night! There are of course hotel bars and restaurants, and in the day time there is a supermarket for any who self-cater, and also banks and pharmacies and other necessary outlets. But the range of accommodation options is unsurprisingly less than in Venice, and if the nightlife is important to you, or if you are staying for a week or more, well, you may feel the quietness of Murano may become tedious.
I emphasise however that I had a good experience of the LaGare Hotel Venezia, and I would not hesitate to stay there again.
References and Links
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Most who visit Murano will not bother to spend much time here. They will see a glass blowing demonstration, rush around a few retailers and leave. Maybe if it's around mid day they will stay for lunch. But most will not think much more about this island.
It has its historical interest, but does it have more to offer a tourist? Is it scenic? Some would say not. One 'tripadvisor' reviewer even describes the island as ugly. That is frankly absurd, as hopefully the photos here will demonstrate. If Murano is ugly then almost every town in the world is ugly. It's all relative. Murano of course lacks the plethora of must-see sights of Venice itself, and it lacks the bright colours of another famous Venetian island - the similarly named Burano. But if Venice and Burano did not exist, then Murano might be regarded as a scenic attraction in its own right.
The island is just a short boat trip from the city of Venice, and for anyone who spends more than a couple of days in Venice, a brief visit to Murano is highly recommended. And even a vactaion based in a Murano hotel in preference to a Venice hotel, is an idea to be seriously considered.
Southern Murano, Featuring the Main Tourist Attractions (the seven small blue squares are vaporetto water bus stations)
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