The southern Venice lagoon, passing by the islands of Lido and Pellestrina all the way towards the fishing town of Chioggia, has a completely different flavour from what you see north of Venice. In fact, once you start exploring the lagoon on a slow pace, you can see its dynamism and its incredible variety. I was determined to explore the southern part right because it seemed to have very little in common with the northern part.
So, after spending a few days rowing north of Venice and Torcello (see my post here), I took a few more days off to explore the southern part of the lagoon on our traditional boat “sanpierota” to reach the town of Chioggia. This time however, it would be sailing. I have been part of the Associazione Vela al Terzo in Venice for a while and it’s been really a great experience!
Vela al terzo: traditional sails in Venice
What does a traditional sail in Venice look like? What you will notice first are the vivid colours! This is a photo I took at our last sailing regatta, called Regata del Presidente della Repubblica on September 13th, 2020. We arrived last, just for the record, but that allowed for less stress and better photos 🙂
Stars, figurative elements of any kind (winged horses, octopus, sea horses, lions just to mention some), stripes, circles, stars… And then blue, red, yellow and orange, red of all tones, brown and gold. The typical sails are called “vela al terzo”, which translates into “sails at the third” referring to the fact that two thirds of the sail is above the mast and one third is below.
You may have also heard of the Red Regatta project by Melissa McGill employing “vela al terzo” sailboats (https://www.melissamcgillartist.com/work/red-regatta/). As the artist describes it in her website:
“a site-specific performative work that celebrates local maritime culture and history and raises awareness about the balance between the city of Venice and the sea”. (Melissa McGill, 2019)
A special form for a special sail
If you observe attentively, the form of the sail is not triangular as in normal sailboats, but trapezoidal. This kind of sail used to be the only means of propulsion together with the oars in the Venetian lagoon. The form and the size are designed to get more wind. But there is one more problem for the sailboats of the Venetian lagoon: due to the shallowness of the water, you need flat bottoms and the tendency to leeway needs to be contrasted. The rudder is quite big, works as as a drop keel and can be lifted whenever you are sailing on shallow water —to be honest, it’s far too heavy for me to lift, but that’s a footnote 🙂
The southern Venice lagoon and the Canale dei Petroli
Open. This is what the southern Venice lagoon looks like. Very little marshland and a few islands. You will pass by the islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Poveglia and then, once you have reached the inlet between Lido-Malamocco and Pellestrina, then you enter a no-one’s land. At least this is what I felt.
You may have heard of the so-called Canale dei Petroli, the Oil Canal that crosses the lagoon to help oil tankers reach the industrial area of Marghera. This canal is artificial and although it was first dug in the early 1700s, it reached the length, width and direction it has today in the 1960s. It’s around 15 km long, 200 hundred meters wide and at its inlet by the Adriatic Sea it’s 17 meter deep (not to mention tides). This deep canal in the southern Venice lagoon has strongly eroded marshland, increased the speed of high tide and clearly worsened the phenomenon of high water. When we arrived, I saw an oil tanker approaching and we agreed it was better to wait, till it passed before we could move on. Who was out of place? The oil tanker or our little sailboat?
The fishing nets and cormorants are part of the landscape. Fishes, especially breams and mullets, keep on jumping all around. It feels however you are in the open sea rather than in a lagoon.
Chioggia, the fishing town
The arrival in Chioggia was moving and spectacular. Its port looked like a calm, reassuring place where to dock for the next night. The sun was warm in its sunset light and we moved to the hotel Grand Italia, by the Piazzetta Vigo in our room facing the lagoon, welcomed by the Liberty style of this construction founded in 1914.
In the southern Venice lagoon, Chioggia is the highlight. We visited the 300 year old Palazzo Grassi, the site of the University of Maritime Biology with a great museum giving the idea of how sea-life has changed in the last two centuries.
Olivia, the elephant shark, welcomes you in the first room.
The fish market, the museum of the civilisation of the southern lagoon together with more churches are more places where you can understand the history and the fishing tradition of this town, now counting almost 50,000 residents.
I also loved being there in the evening, or strolling around the canals, watching the beautiful historical buildings and passing by the port where the fishing ships were silently resting. And tasting some specialties, too, such as cuttle fish grilled and then cooked in vinegar.
Pellestrina and the nature area of Ca’ Roman
Just across the lagoon inlet, I would recommend a visit the nature oasis of Ca’ Roman, too.
Ca’ Roman nature oasis
Taken care by LIPU, the Italian partner of Birdlife International (www.lipu.it/oasi-naturale-ca-roman) and hosting a Marine Village where you can also find some sleeping facilities, the Ca’ Roman park with its wild beach is an interesting highlight of the island of Pellestrina. Historically it started with the construction of the Murazzi embankment of the 18th century, to protect the island and the lagoon from the Adriatic sea. Then, the area became larger and larger with the sedimentation of sand after the construction of the dam at the inlet between Pellestrina and Chioggia. The natural wealth of the area is very precious both for its plants and for its birds and features fortifications of WW2, now wrapped in wild weeds.
Pellestrina island in the southern Venice lagoon
It was just enchanting to move along the coast of the island of Pellestrina.
The peaceful character of the island with its settlements was every now and then still showing the memories of the devastating high water of last November and December. On the other side, you could see some octagons fortresses, quite a contrast.
In front of one of the most moving sunsets in my life, I promised I would be back. I understood there was much more awaiting… but always at a slow pace.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy