In Venetian lagoon

Venice and its rivers

Rivers connecting south and north with Venice, explain why this city was built. Still nowadays, even considering how much geographical surroundings of Venice have changed throughout several centuries, you can tell how well connected Venice is to its hinterland via water. The network of water ways is impressive: connecting Venice to Piedmont or all the way to the mountain chains and across the Padana valley allowed strong commercial links.

Risks and advantages rivers bring to a lagoon

Rivers posed several issues to the existence of Venice with their action of silting up navigable canals in the lagoon. As a matter of fact, many noteworthy interventions were carried out to divert the natural course of many rivers or reducing the quantity of silt by turning a major river into several rivulets or bringing the river to empty out into the open Adriatic Sea.

Sile River on the way to Caorle

But while Venetians diverted the Brenta, Marzanego, Zero, Piave, Adige rivers, they used them as today we use the railway. Timber, metal, textile, grain and food, live cattle… not to mention human resources traveled by boat along these waterways.

Some infos on the Venice lagoon’s drainage basin

It has been calculated that the drainage basin currently delivering fluvial waters and rainwater into the lagoon of Venice has a surface area of about 2000 km2. Something like 2,5 million m3 of water a day bring in 30,000 m3 of sediments per year into the Venetian lagoon in 27 different places. Over 70% of the area is used for agriculture. This fact also explains why it is better not to lock the lagoon with the MOSE gates against high water too often: imagine the quantity of pollution, pesticides and more reaching a locked lagoon… (source:

Piave vecchia “lock” river, near Cortellazzo

Not just rivers, but lagoons, too in the “Gulf of Venice”

Lagoons extend still today from the Po river all the way up to Grado and then further up to Trieste. Shallow water, marshland crossed by a myriad of small channels. Some of the lagoons are quite ancient. The lagoon of Venice as the lagoon of Marano seem to have originated around 5000 years ago, the lagoon of Caorle is even older, as it started 9000 years ago. In Grado the lagoon is instead pretty young, as it’s only 1000 years old.

The island of Barbana and its sanctuary in the lagoon of Grado, Friuli Venezia Giulia

It does not matter for a city if it directly faces the sea. Venice in the end is a maritime city which does not lie by the sea, just like Hamburg, or Amsterdam. But as long as you have the right boats, a deep knowledge of the dynamism of these lagoons, it is possible to establish an economy based on fishing, hunting, salt extraction and, of course, commerce.

Fishermen village near the Isonzo river, Friuli Venezia Giulia

What is it left of this ancient water network?

Exploring rivers and lagoons north of Venice is possible still today, but not for every boat. In fact, around ten years ago it is some brave women had an amazing experience following the waterways properly, i.e. using traditional flat-bottomed, rowboats, with no damage made to the delicate environment they would observe. No motor wake, no high speed. Their logbook edited by Luana Castelli, recently published by Venipedia, “Viaggiare a remi tra Venezia e le idrovie del nord Italia” (2022) and the book written by Gianni Pasin, “Rotta su Venezia” published by Ediciclo (2021), provide you with maps so one can arrange a multiple-day long trip. Needless to say, even the traditional sailboats “vela al terzo” prove to be a perfect way you can respectfully explore these areas.

Sailboats “vela al terzo” sailing in the lagoon of Caorle

The environment of the rivers and lagoons surrounding Venice

Rivers and lagoons (and the open sea) seem to entertain an intense dialogue overwhelmed by tides. Birds living in these borderline areas find their nesting spots, especially in fish farms reconverted into natural reserves. Near Marano or close to Grado, you can find protected reserves where you can silently admire from close a wide range of birds: white egrets, silver herons, flamingoes, hawks, ducks, black-winged stilts, lapwings. Without disturbing them.

Photos of birds typical of these areas

Lapwing in the lagoon of Marano Lagunare, Natural reserve of Valle Canal Novo, Friuli Venezia Giulia

Black-winged stilt in the lagoon of Marano Lagunare, Natural reserve of Valle Canal Novo, Friuli Venezia Giulia

Pied avocet in the lagoon of Marano Lagunare, Natural reserve of Valle Canal Novo, Friuli Venezia Giulia

Silver heron along the canals on the way to Porto Baseleghe

Flamingoes in the lagoon of Marano Lagunare, Natural reserve of Valle Canal Novo, Friuli Venezia Giulia

Fish farms turned into protected areas for birds nesting provide also the conditions for special plants to grow. Such as bamboos, tamarisks, limonium and its pink blossoms.

Human constructions in the Lagoons: “casoni” and “coveia”

In Caorle, Grado and Marano you can also admire the typical villages of fishermen. Huts known as “casoni” are scattered around the marshland. Many of them are privately owned and they are used during the nice seasons as special retreats to relax with a BBQ among selected friends. You can also find some “casoni” open to public.

Casone in the lagoon of Caorle

Traditional “coveia” in the lagoon of Caorle for hunting purposes

There, you can learn how they used to be, when bamboos canes grew stronger and bigger. Now the sea water has weakened the plants and you can see that in the different thickness of the casoni’s roofs, now much thinner. I loved the reserve in Marano Lagunare as it also showed a lagoon aquarium with its traditional fish and crabs. 

A contrasting co-existence: tourism and nature preservation

True, it’s not gold all that glitters. There is a worrying project to design a stainless steel factory by the Marano reserve. Many ancient towns are surrounded by beach resorts looking all alike, with their water parks which contrast with the uniqueness of the environment. While returning to Venice and its lagoon, it is easy to understand strategies for slow tourism exist —how about creating a foundation protecting parts of the lagoon as a nature reserve?—, “just” they need to be applied and well communicated.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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