Torcello. Dawn. This is the fulfilment of a longstanding ambition; to arrive in Venice under sail and to sleep among the outreaches of the lagoon.

The arrival did not disappoint. Landfall is through the huge breakwaters and tidal barriers of project MOSE, the scheme to protect Venice from the depredations of surge high tides that threaten the city. The engineers were tasked with coming up with a system that left the marsh environment of the lagoon undamaged and also allowed the hustle and bustle of its maritime traffic to continue as normal. They came up with an ingenious system of huge metal gates that lie flat on the seabed but can be activated by pumping in compressed air that raise them to the vertical.

The final bend approaching St Marks needs no description. It is tense at the wheel of a yacht as you negotiate the swirl of Vapporetti, water-taxies, vast cruise ships under tug and the weekend rush of Venetians in their speedboats. The marina on San Giorgio Maggiore must be the most spectacular in the world under the shadow of Palladio's masterpiece looking directly towards the Salute and the Piazetta. No hotel, or Palazzo, has this view.

We sailed to Torcello the next day. The lagoon on a sunny Saturday is the Venetians' playground. In the same way as the A3 fills with caravans and cars loaded with bicycles and camping equipment heading for the beach, the Venetian equivalent contains every sort of boat and owner out to enjoy the sunshine; families packed onto a converted barges; sleek men in speedos and reflecting sunglasses with bikinied beauties on the sun-beds of their Bayliners; likely lads at the helms of the maritime equivalent of a hot-shot motorbike; elderly couples setting out for a quiet picnic.

All this fades away as night settles and we anchor under the lee of Torcello's campanile and cathedral. This is where Venice began when the barbarian hordes overwhelmed what remained of the western Roman empire and the inhabitants of the Veneto fled into the fastness of the lagoon for security amidst its mosquito-riven channels. It was from this tower that the anxious refugees spied the fires on the mainland and contemplated the end of world as they knew it. All that remains of a city of twenty-thousand are a few houses and the beauty of its Byzantine Cathedral with its 'sea-washed pillars' as Ruskin saw them and mosaics of a quality only seen in the west in Ravenna. In the apse behind the alter is a Madonna and child on a gold background with a single tear running down her cheek 'for the sins of all the world'. It is the most moving of icons. A small tablet to its left proclaims the foundation of the cathedral by the western emperor in 639 - the earliest written piece of Venetian history.

In this place of such sadness and history we spent the night gently aground in the silky mud of the edge of the channel with the calls of wading birds and the whine of the descendants of the mosquitos that forced the inhabitants across the lagoon to the islands that became Venice. Apart from the conversation of fishermen repairing their nets, we were alone with the melancholy of the marshes and cool of the velvet dawn.

Torcello: Lagoon at dawn

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