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Gondola Lessons in Venice

Author: Carolyn S.B.
Date of Trip: October 2009

For many travelers to Venice, the image of a gondolier, clad in black and white stripes and standing on the front of his Viking-like boat while tourists ride in cozy comfort, is an iconic one. Visiting Venice without at least once taking a ride through the canals in a gondola is like going to New York without ascending the Empire State Building.

But there's no need to limit your experience of the waterways of Venice to a passive one. Why not try to pilot your own gondola? On a recent trip there, a two-hour lesson on rowing -- Venetian style -- offered not just a great excuse to get out on the water but also an introduction into a distinctive local tradition.

venice gondola lesson rowing rowThe tour is aimed at reasonably adventurous travelers and requires little experience in rowing (my occasional forays into kayaking helped get me oriented but really, expertise was not essential). The trick here is that you don't row from a seated position. Like gondoliers, you climb on the top's flat surface and engage in the ultimate multi-tasking recreational experience. You're not just required to achieve the treacherous art of balance (the gondoliers make it look a bit easier than it really is). You also have to wield the one oar, stretching to a length of 15 meters, in the process.

"It's a lot harder to fall overboard than it looks," says Jane Caporal, my instructor, who operates the only Venetian rowing workshop for tourists. The British native grew up in Australia and has lived now in Venice for 20-plus years. The lesson starts in the wide, vast waters of Venice's lagoon (lots of room to make navigational errors there!) and, if students are relatively quick studies, may move into one of fabled canals.

There's one caveat to add here: the passionate rowing enthusiast hosts her training sessions in a prawn-tailed Batella, a style of wooden boat originally designed to carry cargo, rather than an actual gondola. "A gondola," she says, "is a very technical boat and it's something to aspire to, not to learn on. You wouldn't learn how to drive a car by jumping into a truck."


Jane's rowing tour caught my eye while I was researching for a short visit to Venice. On this, my 10th or 12th or trip -- I've lost count -- and having already experienced the usual tourist activities, from feeding the pigeons in San Marco Square to investigating the curiosities of the Peggy Guggenheim collection, among others, I longed to find a connection to a more authentic experience. I don't remember originally on which web site I found the info on Row Venice but I was heartened by the discovery and via email confirmed with Jane a time and date.

venice gondola canalI meet Jane at a canal that runs past the Campo Madonna dell'Orto on Venice's north side. After a quick primer on the techniques of rowing these kinds of vessels, we're off. "This is like walking to me," she says as she sets a languid pace in the canal. Her paddle barely ripples the water, reminding me of diving competitions in which top performers slice through the water with barely a splash.

She makes it look easy.

But as we enter the lagoon, an unusually brisk wind makes for choppy waters and balance. Jane's son Charlie, a graduate school student, has come along to row at the back and they do the hard work of getting us out of traffic lanes plied by cargo vessels and vaporettos, Venice's water buses. Soon enough we've entered a more placid part of the vast lagoon. Sitting on the comfy, padded bench seat watching as Jane, in front, and Charlie, in the back, demonstrate the twists and turns of the paddle head and the wristy movements used to slice it in and out of the water, the ride on the slightly bouncy lagoon is really rather fun. Indeed, if you've enjoyed cruising in the notoriously difficult waters of the North Sea or the Bay of Biscay or, come to think of it, anywhere in the Caribbean when a tropical storm is in the relative vicinity, this is kids' play.

It's entertaining too; as she paddles, Jane tells stories about Venetian history, like the Benedictine nuns who lived in a convent (later replaced by Dominican monks) who lived in a monastery on the compact isle of San Secondo, hard by the motor/railway bridge that connects Venice to the mainland. It was quite the hot spot for a night out -- there was a bed and breakfast inn and even a pub there for overnight guests until the place was destroyed after Napoleon's conquest of Venice. There's another unpopulated island just ahead; it's a favorite place for locals who take their boats out on summer weekends and eat picnics there. Jane points out the isle of San Michele -- the cemetery island -- where many Venetians (and some celebrities, like Ezra Pound, Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky) are buried.

She tells the story of her own boat, of how it was designed and built by a famous boatmaker in Burano who created the vessel from his own memories of a now-obsolete style of Venetian cargo rowboat. He only made this one.

You can see, in the distance, the golden funnel of a Costa Deliziosa, a new cruise ship being built at Fincantieri's shipyard in Marghera. The airplanes of Alitalia and easyJet thunder ahead as they prepare for landing at Marco Polo airport. Despite its odd scenery, one part industrial, countered with the unpopulated isles that simmer in the sunshine and of course the skyline of Venice in the background, this is the most peaceful spot I've ever found here.

forcola gondola veniceMy little respite ends pretty quickly as Charlie hands me the paddle. It's slim but top-heavy at the oar's end. He shows me how to rest it in the forcola, the oarlock, which is an open cradle and two notches and then how to crouch on the boat's bottom with one leg bent, another straight. I get my balance then pull the paddle back, brushing wrists over before moving the oar forward as if, Jane says, you're pushing against a truck. We head into the wind. There's a rhythm to this and it's not so hard to pick it up. "I normally find women are better at rowing," she says. "Men tend to be more intuitive about the process but they're also more heavy handed."

Rowing from this position, with feet planted firmly on the boat's bottom, toward the front, is the beginner's way to start. Because clumsy handling of the oar means it jerks out of the forcola's rungs on a regular basis, slapping into the lagoon with a splash, Jane ties the two together, loosely, with a shoestring. Ah, now that's easy. And so we move along a little bit, accompanied by the music of the relatively consistent slap, slap, slap of the oar against the water. A more accomplished rower would simply slice it cleanly into the sea but I'm holding my own and I'm happy with the relative progress.

Once the ability to row from the front of the boat stance has been accomplished, it's time to move on to the harder position. Just climbing onto the top surface at the aft, the boat rocks wildly and it's not the fault of the chop of the lagoon. It's definitely harder to find a rowing rhythm from this position and my oar perversely jumps out of the forcola. But I don't fall overboard and with a little help from Jane and Charlie, who's paddling up front, we do move forward, into the wind though I don't make the kind of progress that enables us to graduate on to the canals.

And, anyway, the time just melts away. Alternating positions (Jane and Charlie are really cool about taking over the oars and offering this novice some time to rest between exertions), we drink sweet iced tea that tastes like instant -- and is refreshing -- as they talk about living in Venice.

jane caporal row venice gondolaWhat's easy to miss about Venice, she says, is that it's more than an antique sort of Disneyland experience. It's a real city with its own rhythms. Most residents earn their livings from the business of tourism, via museums, shops, hotels and restaurants, or from serving the companies that support them, but it's a great place to bring up a family. Public schools, Jane says, are on a par with private institutions elsewhere. Parents of older kids don't have the same worries as suburban counterparts -- in Venice, teens are more interested in playing football than in binge drinking.

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