It was on one of these afternoons when Venice is packed with tourists and the heat is reaching into the little courtyards baking in the sun. Visiting Sacca Sessola island, also called Isola delle Rose (Rose Island) had been on my mind for quite some time, since it became accessible to the public on 24 June 2015 when the Hotel and Spa JW Marriott opened. It was one of those cases when Venetians were not sure what to think of the project. They never cease to think about the islands surrounding their town and their fate, and this was one of them, rather off-limits and abandoned since the sanitorium closed in 1979.
Sacca Sessola’s fate was on my mind too, and I often thought of it all those years looking across the Lagoon from the bell towers of San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore. In particular from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore, one can make the island out very well, beyond the islands of San Clemente and La Grazia.
It’s partly an artificial island emerging amongst le barene (marshlands) creating a sacca (shallow waters). With river debris piling up, it would have become an island anyway. But in the 19th century, when the canals in Venice were still excavated and cleaned regularly every ten years, heaps of mud were brought here in the midst of the southern Lagoon. In 1870, Sacca Sessola, the youngest island of the Lagoon was created. Soon, a hospital for cholera and tuberculosis patients was opened and a large orchard and woodland garden took shape, complete with fountains, palm trees, cedars and magnolias. You can watch the opening of the hospital-sanitorium in 1919 in this little video.
This is a blessed location, just perfect to get well again, and the microclimate is the best in the Lagoon, my father used to say. It’s strange how the winds cease to blow here. It’s a humid and mild spot and just perfect to plant a woodland garden with Mediterranean oaks (lecci), planes (platani) and magnolias. An olive grove (uliveto) was created to deliver olive oil to the sanatorium’s patients, and large vegetable fields occupied the southern part of the island.
Eventually, the hospital was closed and the island handed over to a marine technology research station. Venetians in private boats did go there sometimes, but it looked neglected just like La Grazia, the neighboring island, does to this day. From a boat passing by, you could see the typical red brick walls supporting the Lagoon islands, overgrown gardens, cedar trees, pines, planes and reeds. And finally, all this has changed. Nowadays, when you arrive on Sacca Sessola, you are welcomed by huge pink oleander shrubs.
It didn’t take me more than five minutes to find the imbarcadero (landing stage) in front of the Giardini Reali in Venice. From here, the shuttle boats leave, taking the passengers to Isola delle Rose, just next to the landing stages of Hotel Excelsior on the Lido and to San Clemente island. It’s actually an Alilaguna boat rented by the JW Marriot, clad in a luxurious light-brown leather outfit seating around fifty people.
It took us twenty minutes to arrive at the island, passing by Hotel Cipriani on the right and the islands La Grazia and San Clemente on our left. Just before arriving at our destination, I thought I felt a difference in the air. The breeze was less strong yet the sun didn’t seem so hot after all. The heart of the southern Lagoon seems to be a special spot after all. We were greeted by huge pink oleander on the left and a magnolia grove on the right. Walking up a terraced path towards the hotel lawn, I turned right heading towards the olive grove.
At the far end of the olive grove, a church is located. For a few moments I felt I was taken somewhere to Greece, because the little church built in 1913 looks antique from the distance. La Grecia a Venezia, but then, Byzantine culture is the real and ancient soul of Venice … Behind the church, the restaurant Dopolavoro is located. As its name suggests, this is a luxurious lounge retreat and starred restaurant boasting a wooden terrace surrounded by vegetable gardens. I forgot – before you reach the building, you must cross their rose garden … so here they are, masses of white and yellow tea roses greeting the guests of this restaurant and also the main hotel building on the other side of the island.
I walked past the restaurant to the south-eastern shores along wild artichoke gardens, enjoying the calm salty air. Remembering that it was really hot, I retraced my steps and found the pool-side cafe from which you have a nice view of the church. This is the picnic zone of the hotel, and behind it, the large woodland garden crisscrossed by gravel paths extends. It must be great to sit on the wooden terrace and enjoy tea or coffee, but as it was too hot I opted for lemon water :-)
When I ventured into the curated woodland garden, amongst pines and magnolias providing much-needed shade, I reached the southern shores of the island. And here I had a wonderful surprise, a view of another special island, just one and a half miles to the south. Yes, this is our Poveglia, whose fate still hasn’t been decided. Since the civil movement to restore the island was started in 2014, we still can’t see a result. You can keep in touch with Poveglia here on their website, Associazione Poveglia, telling the real story of this island and all the latest news.
The wooden poles you can see between us and the shallow waters of Poveglia protect several archeological zones dedicated to excavating ancient Roman villas on sunken islands (the Lagoon was populated during Roman times too and given the name Sette Mari – Seven Seas). On the other hand, those poles could represent a sort of fence protecting mussels cultivation grounds, there are quite a few of these in the southern Lagoon.
Continuing towards the east and northeastern shores, a different view of Venice opened up between Mediterranean oak trees and reeds, and finally, from the stairs of the terraced hotel building, I could see their palm grove and in the distance, Venice …
This is certainly a scenery worth visiting, for the Ristorante Dopolavoro is also open for visitors not staying at the hotel. Take a look at this video showing the hotel grounds in June 2015, its spa and hotel.