Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/3 posted by hidden europe on

The monastery on the Isola di San Francesco del Deserto is a place apart, an island retreat in the shallow recesses of the northern lagoon well away from the hustle and bustle of Venice. It is an island where blessed solitude is punctuated by the Liturgy of the Hours. Franciscan monks have prayed on San Francesco del Deserto for eight centuries, their chants shaping a soundscape that otherwise is dominated by bird song, the breeze running through avenues of cypresses and the ripple of water.

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Dear fellow travellers

Jan Morris captures the difference between the two islands perfectly: "San Lazzaro is a plump little Riviera, but San Francesco is Shangri-la." The Armenian monastery-island of San Lazzaro has become an established stop on the visitor circuit. It is, as Jan Morris nicely puts it in her book Venice, a place "that never feels far from the great world, and takes modernity easily in its stride."

But the monastery on the Isola di San Francesco del Deserto is a place apart, an island retreat in the shallow recesses of the northern lagoon well away from the hustle and bustle of Venice. It is an island where blessed solitude is punctuated by the Liturgy of the Hours. Franciscan monks have prayed on San Francesco del Deserto for eight centuries, their chants shaping a soundscape that otherwise is dominated by bird song, the breeze running through avenues of cypresses and the ripple of water. Only the occasional intrusion of a plane taking off from nearby Marco Polo Airport breaks the spell of antiquity.

An inscription by the entrance to the monastery sets the agenda:

'O beatitudo sola, o beata solitudo'.

The world of modern commerce could learn a thing or two from the Franciscans when it comes to writing mission statements. Heaven has granted many special favours to the monks of San Francesco del Deserto, and the community generously allows visitors to share in the spirit of life on the island.

From the moment of boarding the vaporetto at the Fondamente Nuove in Venice, there is a palpable sense of retreating into the desert. The boat passes Venice's island of the dead - the Isola di San Michele where Stravinsky and Diaghilev are laid to rest with thousands of ordinary Venetians. After a brief stop at the island of Murano, still celebrated for its glassware, the vaporetto chugs on through salt shallows to reach Burano - where a local boatman called Massimiliano can be persuaded, for a fee, to ferry visitors across to San Francesco del Deserto in his multicoloured boat.

"So near, and yet so far," says the Franciscan friar who greets those who have come across the water in search of the solitude of the desert. But the journey to the island is merely a prelude to the journey of the spirit that takes place on San Francesco del Deserto. The day is structured around the Divine Office, starting with Mass at 6.45 in the morning and ending with Compline at nine each evening. It is a place to read and reflect, a chance to discover the fruits of solitude.

'O beatitudo sola, o beata solitudo'.

Guests, both male and female, are welcome to stay at the monastery. For those who want just a brief visit to this extraordinary retreat in the Venice lagoon, short trips are arranged twice daily (except on Mondays) from Burano to Isola di San Francesco del Deserto. They permit a stay of about 90 minutes on the island, during which time one of the Franciscan friars offers a tour of the cloisters, gardens and the monastic church.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.