Instead of hiding in the garden on a particularly hot August afternoon, I discovered a special secret place, so cool and breezy, amongst lush plants growing on an island south of Venice. A garden island, not walled, so you can enjoy a wonderful view of the Lagoonscape, San Clemente, Santo Spirito, and even Poveglia.
You may have heard of Sacca Sessola as Isola delle Rose, the name given to the island by the JW Marriott Spa & Resort, opening three years ago. Until the 1970s, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients was located here. The name Rose Island derives from a campaign launched 100 years ago, when roses were sold from the garden of the sanatorium to finance measures in Venice for preventing more cases of tuberculosis.
Please note: This articles mentions JW Marriot Venice Spa&Resort. It is NOT a paid post, but our personal opinion, and tells how a piece of Venetian botanical heritage, the largest olive grove in the Lagoon, was restored.
You can reach the Sacca Sessola island in under 20 minutes from San Marco on an Alilaguna boat, with a sign JW Marriot Venice, FOR FREE: Thus, this island is accessible for both residents and visitors at no expense.
I always enjoy the short trip, when the boat passes by San Giorgio Maggiore to the left and Hotel Cipriani to the right. You can even make out Cipriani’s gardens lined with oleander while your boat is gathering speed and turning right, off the island La Grazia, another island with an undecided fate (La Grazia also hosted a sanatorium until 2007. In 2016, this island was sold to Giovanna Stefanel, sister of the well-known entrepreneur from Treviso).
After passing the island San Clemente on your left, you can make out your destination, Sacca Sessola, straight ahead. La centrale termica is the landmark of this island, a generator producing electricity. Upon arrival you are enveloped in a warm and humid breeze, not too hot and infused with the scent of pines and oleander blossoms, even more intense during the heat. Lots of pink, red and yellow-blossoming oleander bushes welcome the guests, creating wild hedges protected by tall magnolia trees and mimosa on the right.
Perhaps this is the most verdant island in the Lagoon, after all. Plants really take well here due to the special climate, created to some extent by wise gardeners who divided the island into “rooms” and sections separated by tall trees and hedges from each other.
This style of gardening, often used in the Lagoon, allows creating climate zones while protecting plants from the four decisive winds which have the potential of damaging sensitive plants on their own.
So this is my refreshing, cool and breezy spot, ideal for light lunch or coffee, on an otherwise parching afternoon in Venice. JW Marriott Spa & Resort hosts a number of restaurants open to external guests. Amongst them is a nice garden restaurant protected by poplars, behind the garden (family) pool, from where you can see part of the olive grove and the chapel.
Sacca Sessola is an artificial island, built on debris when the Austrians, during their occupation of Venice, excavated the Santa Marta industrial port zone in 1860. This is why Sacca Sessola is the youngest island of the Lagoon, looking like a lush, botanical garden crisscrossed by white gravel paths.
Turn right in front of the hotel building, and crossing the verdant lawns, you are in for a surprise. In front of you, a large olive grove opens up, and in the distance, you can see a chapel built in the Byzantine style. My impression is always sheer confusion because this view instantly transports me to Greece. But then, building in the Byzantine style in the Lagoon was normal, and there are a few prominent examples, such as the churches on Torcello.
The olive grove on Sacca Sessola is the largest in the Lagoon. Olive trees took well, and thus, the Romans introduced olives on the islands. Soon, olive oil was highly appreciated by the noble families who used it for cooking instead of using lard and butter like everyone else did.
Venice needed the oil for cooking, but to a larger extent, the oil went into producing soaps! During the times of the Republic, forty saponifici (soap factories) containing 70 production lines were located in Venice. In addition to considerable amounts of blossoms, they needed olive oil as main ingredient, in order to produce soaps, beauty and cosmetic products. Click here to read my article: Harvesting Blossoms in Venice – Ancient Soap Manufactures.
Lots of olive oil was required in Venice, and growing olives in the Lagoon soon didn’t suffice: Venetians had to import more olive oil from Bari and the Greek islands. The Republic even paid for large olive groves on Corfù and Candia (Crete), while growing new olive trees in the Lagoon, on Torcello and the adjacent Ammiana archipelago.
In 1709, all olive trees in the Lagoon died (!) during a cold spell, a consequence of the small ice age hitting Europe. Venice had to buy olive trees from the southern Mediterranean regions, and make up for the loss by importing more of it.
Today on Sacca Sessola, the olive grove consists of 100 trees, planted in 1870. It was a miracle that the trees have survived, for the sanatorium on the island was closed during WW1 and its garden abandoned.
Olives in the Lagoon are harvested in October, and perhaps one day you can watch the harvest on Sacca Sessola :-) Cooperativia Reitia, based in Treviso, fills the olive oil harvested on the island in bottles, used at the resort’s restaurants, and in particular, at the Michelin-starred Dopolavoro located next to the chapel. You can also buy your own olive oil bottle in the gift shop area in the main building, in addition to a book written by the chef, Giancarlo Perbellini, Casa Perbellini, covering the history of food in the Veneto.
By the way – the Dopolavoro restaurant has its own vegetable garden, based on the principles of monastery gardening. In spring, the vegetable garden is surrounded by pink cosmea blossoms as outer circle to protect herbs and edible blossoms, artichokes, and lavender (which goes into their signature lavender blossom tiramesù!).