The Italian city also offers a quiet lagoon experience
As the plane begins its descent to Venice's Marco Polo airport, like most of the passengers, I'm staring out of the window at the birds-eye view over La Serenissima's maze of canals, churches and palaces. But from up here it's also clear that Venice is not much more than a dot in a lagoon that stretches over 200 square miles. And this is just the beginning of a spider's web of wetlands - lagoons, canals, deltas and wildlife reserves - that line the Adriatic as far as north Trieste. We head towards the vast valli da pesca (fish reserves) that occupy much of this northern part of the lagoon. First, though, we are stopped by the gatekeeper of a quite surreal bridge over the Sile canal: it's a ponte a pagamento (toll bridge) resting on World War II pontoons. The lane gets narrower and narrower as we enter the barene, the otherwordly sandflats that stretch as far as the eye can see. There's not a house or a person in sight: just heron, egrets and geese skimming the still waters.
It is the site of Agriturismo La Barena, an ancient redbrick farmhouse overlooking the lagoon, with six guest rooms. This is the perfect place to get a feel for life in the wetlands: the Vianello family, who own it, also rent out rowing and motorboats, or take guests out on fishing trips.
"My grandfather built this house 100 years ago," Michele Vianello tells me, "and what I want is for tourists to come out here and see a different kind of Venice - the Venice of the lagoon, the silence, the stunning beauty of the ecosystem. We could be a million miles from the crowds that teem around San Marco every day, rather than an hour's boat ride away. This is another world; just listen to the silence - all you can hear is the quacking of ducks, a fish plopping out of the water."
Caorle, a few miles further east, was immortalised by Ernest Hemingway in his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees but so we carry on east, over the Tagliamento river, to much less well-known Marano Lagunare.
Marano looks out on to one of the most stunning wetlands on this part of the Adriatic, with an educational nature reserve, and a birdwatching paradise in the Stella river delta. There are no beaches on this stretch of coast, so tourism has passed Marano by, and it remains a functioning port, with 300 of its 2,000 inhabitants still working as fishermen.
Glauco Vicario runs the magical Valle Canal Novo nature reserve, which you can walk straight into from the town centre. He says: "Marano has fortunately not been ruined by floods of tourists in summer, and more and more people are waking up to sustainable tourism and coming here all year round. They can explore the reserve and wetlands of the Stella river by hiking, biking and kayaking, or go out on boats with fishermen, and in winter we have our laguna in tecia gastronomic cruises, where passengers sail across the lagoon and enjoy a meal of traditional lagoon cooking - freshly caught bream, bass and scampi."
Unique to these Adriatic lagoons are the casoni, spartan fishermen's huts built on isolated sandflats from canna palustre, bamboo-like reeds that grow in these estuaries. Marano has more than 30 beautifully preserved casoni, all still owned by fishermen.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014