The picturesque island of Burano in Italy reminds me of a gelato shop. Its homes line up like tubs stacked tight in a freezer—raspberry, cherry, lemon, peach, chocolate, vanilla and hazelnut. The only flavor missing is stracciatella, the Italian specialty of swirled chocolate and vanilla studded with cherries.
The only way for me to visit the island is by boat—whether the vaporetta, ferry, Alilaguna or private speedboat. The island is located just four miles from Venice. The boat trips takes 40 minutes.
Upon landing at the Burano dock, I walk uphill to cross a path toward the wide canal, consider it a baby Venice Grand Canal. Boats “park” outside homes on both sides of the canal—the proverbial family van in the driveway. Simple rowhouses are painted extravagantly bright shades of red, orange, yellow, blue and green. Atlas Obscura describes the residences as the Mad colored houses of Murano:
“This community on a small Venetian island has taken to painting their houses in bright neon hues.”
Reportedly, the bright colors helped the fishermen find their way home. Choice of color is not a whim. If a homeowner wants to paint his house, he must contact the government. Only certain colors are permitted by location.
Leaning Tower of Burano
The island is home to Chiesa di San Martino, with its leaning tower of Burano. So if you can’t get to see its more famous cousin, the leaning tower of Pisa, this watch tower is an Italian substitute. Notably, Ernest Hemingway made this tower’s pronounced tilt quite famous in his novel Across the River and Into the Trees:
” . . . beyond Torcello you will see the lovely campanile on Burano that has damn near as much list on it as the leaning tower of Pisa.”
If there wasn’t the constant traffic of the tourists parading down the street, the perfect part time would be to sit on a bench and just read Italian poetry or savor the brightly-hued architecture like a life-sized modern art exhibit.
I don’t know what I am expecting exactly when I book my three-island tour of Murano, Burano and Torcello but I know from reading tourists’ reviews on Trip Advisor that Murano is a favorite side trip on a vacation in Venice.
Chalk it up to the island’s Disney-style cheerfulness. I just feel happy on this gelato-colored island. It feels like a Caribbean getaway. But I have a mission on my tour.
While most tourists are here to see an elderly seamstress make lace, I am stalking the island’s black cat, known affectionately as the feline “Mayor of Burano.” I had researched YouTube prior to my trip but I cannot find a video of this mystery cat.
My tour guide is Andrea, a handsome 30-something Venetian who speaks with the lilting singsong English adopted by Italian speakers. He promises me that he will be on the lookout for the “Mayor.” Our walk down the Main Street (aka canal) is uneventful. I like to linger at homes to observe the curtains in the windows and the plants on the steps. Stringed “vines” of paper daisies hang from a front door, like vines. A clay pot nestles in a window sill.
Claim to Fame
Andrea tells us that most of Burano’s population is elderly and the island population continues to dwindle. Nowadays there are only 2,700 residents living on the 210,000m island. But its financial fortunes are bolstered by tourists’ voracious desire for culturally-significant items to bring back from their trip to Venice. It is proof—like the perfect trip photo on Instagram—that you visited this foreign place.
And Burano’s claim to fame is lace. Reportedly the art of making lace came from Venetian-controlled Cyprus. Starting in the 16th century, Burano began to distinguish itself with talented lace makers. Leonardo di Vinci purchased a tablecloth for the Duomo di Milan. Soon Murano’s lace was exported throughout Europe.
In 1872, the island established a school to teach the fine art of making lace. I marvel at a black and white framed photo I see of young women who were students in the 1950s. The lacemaking demonstration by the grey-haired woman sitting in a well-lit corner of the store intrigues me.
Her needle darts in and out of the cardboard as she “tats,” which is a seamstress term for lacemaking. In Italy, tatting is called chiacchierino, which means “chatty”. Since she speaks no English, I ask her permission by lifting my iPhone up in the air before I photograph her. I also zoom in for a closeup of the lace card. Our group then gets a tour of the shop which offers handmade tablecloths, napkins, sheets, comforters and clothes.
But I am not interested in lace. I want to see fur—notably a black fur “gatto” (Italian word for cat). While I investigate every possible hideaway, including down alleys, behind houses and at the deserted fish market (Campo Pescheria), I cannot find this elusive cat. Perhaps he is fishing.
Suddenly Andrea sounds the alarm.
“There is a cat!”
“Where?” I shout.
“Over there,” he answers, pointing across the canal.
Interim Mayor of Burano
I am off, running to cross the bridge. I don’t want to spook this elegant grey striped cat with white paws who is posing on a stool. He is surrounded by cat lovers who are marveling at his calm. I videotape him for my YouTube channel.
I settle myself on the ground to frame my portrait. The shop in the background is cerulean blue. It perfectly complements this grey tabby’s fur. He sits contentedly as we all happily photograph him.
“The cat that you met is called Grey,” said Andrea. I give Grey the honorary title as “Interim Mayor of Burano.” He does the town proud.
Trattoria al Gatto Nero
I rejoin my group as they saunter by. Andrea has one more surprise in store for me. While he was unsuccessful in locating the actual black cat, he proudly points to a little restaurant—Trattoria al Gatto Nero—which was purchased by Ruggero Bovo in 1946. It is famous for its tagliolini (ribbon pasta) with spider crab, Risotto of Goby fish Burano style and whole grilled fish.
“The black cat belongs to Ruggero the owner of the Osteria al Gatto Nero,” jokes Andrea.
“The cat is famous here as the ONLY ONE that can eat seafood for free.”
I pose in front of the simple blue façade restaurant. The patio is filled with tables clad in simple white tablecloths. I have finally found the stand-in for the elusive black cat. His figure is carved on the wooden sign that adorns the restaurant’s wooden door. It reads: “Chiuoso. Closed.”
Next time in Venice, I vow to spend a night in Burano and stalk the Mayor of Burano … and eat at Trattoria al Gatto Nero. Who knows? Maybe the black cat will join me for dinner!
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