Burano, Italy: Tracing lace to its rich beginnings
Hard to believe lace was once so valuable, it was used as currency in Europe during the Renaissance, when no tea set, collar or pantaloon was complete without a tat here or a spray there. In those days, women—usually nuns, who had a lot of time on their hands—sat around painstakingly making lace, often going blind from the work.
Today, that distant hum you hear is machines churning out in an hour what it once took days to create. But you can still gape at the magnificence of lace-craft at the Scuola di Merletti, on Burano, a small island off of Venice known for colorful houses, fishing, and, since the 15th century, lace.
Once a school, it's now a museum whose exhibits will give you a good primer in the history and laborious nature of lace-making (fun fact: it thrived in Burano because wives of fishermen were so adept at making and mending fishing nets, and the skills translated to lace). You'll see plenty of early examples and, if you're lucky, you might even catch a group of women onsite putting this dying art into practice.
If you're looking to pick up some pieces, the main street is dotted with lace shops, but buyer beware: The real stuff is rare and doesn't come cheap.
You can reach Burano via boat from Venice's Fondamente Nuove (it takes about 20 minutes), connected to the city by vaporetto no. 52.