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Glass Madonna, Murano



Murano is an island town close to Venice's northern shore (skip down to read about travel to Murano). It's not as large or as important as its neighbour, but it does still have a Grand Canal, some elegant palazzi and a couple of fine churches. Murano is most famous for its glassmaking factories, and tourists throng the main canalsides, which are lined with shops and showrooms. In 1291 Venice's glass furnaces were all moved to this island, to protect the city from outbreaks of fire. Venice was famed for its glass, and any glass-makers who left the lagoon were viewed as traitors - there are lurid tales of them being pursued and assassinated. Glass is still Murano's trade, although it's as much a tourist attraction as a centre of industry nowadays, and lots of the glass on sale comes from China. You'll see glass everywhere you turn: an outdoors Christmas tree of glass; a street-shrine with a glass Madonna and Child. It's a good place to buy your gifts, and although the canalsides get crowded, there are so many shops that you can generally manage to browse in peace.

Murano glass and shopping

Murano is packed with glassmaking factories, showrooms and gift shops, although we're inclined to agree with the author Jan Morris that 'almost everything they make ... is perfectly hideous'. Some of the small novelty items are staggeringly tasteless, while even the showrooms' prize exhibits can make you feel queasy. Fortunately, if you look around you'll find a few more minimal or stylish pieces in most showrooms. Some glassmakers experiment with modern styles, others recreate traditional designs so whatever your taste, there's a chance you'll find something you like.

The local authorities are constantly issuing warnings to visitors to buy only 'genuine' Murano glass, although the effect can be to paralyse them with doubt and see them leave empty-handed. Like the lace on Burano, if it is cheap, it is almost certainly not the authentic article. We tend to trust the big-name producers, along with the more reputable - and expensive - showrooms, and when it comes to trinkets, pick those that match your taste and budget without attempting to analyse their origins.

If you get off the ferry at Murano Colonna you'll find yourself at the start of Murano's busiest shopping fondamenta (canalside). Often shifty-looking representatives from glass-furnaces hang around the vaporetto stop to attract tourists. We'd recommend you just wander, instead. Along to the right, on Fondamenta dei Vetrai you'll find a full range of glass shops, from cheap tourist novelties to high-quality designer glassware at crippling prices. Over the canal are some more shops, and yet more can be found on Murano's Canal Grande over a wide wooden bridge at the end of the Fondamenta dei Vetrai.

For a range of tasteful glassware, Manin 56 (Fondamenta Manin, 56) has good sets of wine glasses and tumblers. Two shops close together on Fondamenta dei Vetrai, Pesce Pesce and Fiore Fiore, sell their own attractive jewellery (the two shops are under the same management), often with a stylish twist, and offering a more novel range than competitors. As well as the ubiquitous 'goldfish in a bowl' you'll find more unusual items like glass rose pendants for a reasonable €14. If the styles or the prices of quality Murano glassware makes you cringe, jewellery can make a good alternative. You'll find a big range of pendants, rings, necklaces, cuff-links and so on, and often these are much simpler and more appealing than the overwrought vases and chandeliers. Glass jewellery also makes good - and portable - gifts to take home, but be wary - it does break easily. For something a little different, you may prefer to buy glass beads and make your own creations. A couple of shops sell loose beads, although they're not actually cheaper than buying pre-strung necklaces. Murano glass is also used for mosaics (there is a conspicuous example on a building on Regent Street, near Oxford Circus), and a specialist shop on Murano, Mosaici Donà Murano (Fondamenta Manin, 86) sells tesserae by weight along with mosaic-making equipment.

To add to the experience, you could visit a glass furnace (fornace) to see glass products being made - many of the factories will hawk for custom around the boat stops, and in Venice itself. Often they have deals with hotels, who will encourage you to take a 'free trip to Murano'. If you want to accept this offer, be prepared for some tough selling. If you have a travelcard then travelling to Murano is free anyway, and you can wander into any furnaces that are open. At the Fornace Mian (entrance at the Canal Grande end of Fondamenta dei Vetrai) you can watch without being hassled, and it's more a case of spying on men at work - complete with their topless pin-up posters - than being lectured. You'll see the work that goes into each item as colours and ornamentations are added, details melted on or snipped off ... and like Jan Morris and like us, you may marvel at the garishness of the item produced by such skill, expertise and patient craftsmanship.

Shops and furnaces on Murano operate surprisingly tight hours, presumably hoping that tourists will spend their money in a hurry, and then leave the islanders to peace and quiet. Some shops are actually closed on Saturday afternoons, and after six o'clock you'll find everything shut.

To learn more about the island's history of glass-making, visit the Glass Museum, the Museo del Vetro, on Fondamenta Giustinian, which is included in a combined ticket from the Musei Civici Veneziani. The museum is open from 10am until 6pm (or 5pm between September and March) and is closed on Wednesdays.

Basilica Santi Maria e Donato

Around the island

Most of the eager tourists piling off the vaporetto from Venice are just looking for glass-shopping opportunities. But Murano has some picturesque canals and two churches which deserve a visit. The shore alongside Murano's lighthouse, the Faro, is a nice calm place to sit and relax. Away from the large canals, much of Murano is quite drab, although there are one or two smart villas, presumably belonging to successful glass-making families. The contrast between the residential areas and the tourist streets is striking, but unless you have masses of time, it's not really worth wandering far.

The island's greatest architectural treat is the lovely 12th-century Veneto-Byzantine Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, just past the glass museum on Fondamenta San Giustinian. It's open from 8:30am to 12 noon and from 4pm until 6pm (closed Sunday mornings); try to visit Murano when the church is open. Inside is a lovely coloured mosaic floor, and dominating the church is a grand Byzantine mosaic in the apse, portraying the Madonna against a gold background. As well as the remains of St. Donato, the church also supposedly possesses the bones of the dragon he killed with his holy spit; they are hanging up behind the altar.

Murano's other important church is San Pietro Martire, which has several significant artworks including a painting by Giovanni Bellini of the Virgin and saints.

Travel to Murano

The circular boat services 41 and 42 run in opposite directions around the outside of Venice and up to Murano. They stop between Venice and Murano at the cemetery island of San Michele, which makes a possible addition to the day's itinerary. For shopping, Murano Colonna (the boats' first stop in Murano) is the best place to get off. There is also a direct boat, the DM, from Tronchetto, Piazzale Roma and the railway station (Ferrovia). Murano's Faro stop is the first halt on the LN (Laguna Nord) ferry from the Fondamenta Nove on Venice's northern shore, which continues to Burano, where you can change for Torcello. The Alilaguna Blu and Alilaguna Rossa ferry services from Marco Polo Airport also call at Murano, at the Colonna and Museo stops respectively. Normal Venice travel tickets and travelcards apply for travel to Murano and the other islands.

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