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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.

The 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.

I 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.

My 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.

What’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.

Charlie weighs in on the best spots for hanging out in town — these include Santa Margherita and, further afield, the beaches of the Lido. If you want pizza, he advises, avoid restaurants in Venice (they just cook up frozen) and head instead to dedicated pizzerias like Al Nono Risorto in Santa Croce and Pizzeria Vesuvio Trattoria, near Cannareggio.

For Jane, this effort to teach the art of Venetian rowing to tourists is more than a job. It’s also a way to ensure that this style of rowing lives on, and she has a lot of company in that regard. If your interests are more with other traditional Venice art forms then rowing, per say, a new organization called The Venetian Club offers small group connections in areas such as bookbinding, mosaics, jewelry making, masks, and cooking; Jane’s rowing lessons are available through the organization, too.

***

While I’m never going to morph into any kind of serious rowing aficionado, today’s lagoon adventure was more than just a way to pass a couple of hours. The experience was a first glimmer for me of a connection below the surface of the tourists’ Venice that is so difficult to penetrate.

Tonight, for the first time on this trip, we chose our restaurant well, thanks in no small measure to a suggestion Jane offered. Ristoteca Oniga is a small, cozy place at Campo Barnaba whose cooking philosophy is part of the Slow Food movement that’s growing here in Italy and even at home in America. It subscribes to the theory that you take your time and rediscover your tastebuds. The restaurant, packed with locals rather than tourists and featuring an all-Italian menu that refuses to condescend to those who won’t learn Italian, was a refreshing change. In two days, we’d already had way too many forgettable meals at places whose menus featured third-rate color photographs (and fourth rate food) and whose servers bustled you in and out with more efficiency than passion.

If, after my first ever (and quite romantic) trip to Venice a certain ho-hum, overly touristic cynical attitude had begun to seep in, this visit, especially because of the rowing experience, gave me a fresh new look at this venerable old place. Ultimately, if I lack the passion to be a serious rowing aficionado (though I would like to graduate to the canals, just for that experience), I feel newly re-energized and ready to return, and soon. The Venetian Club’s list of possibilities intrigues. Next trip — mosaics, Venetian mask making or cooking? Maybe I’ll expand my stay to try all three.

Info: A two-hour session with Row Venice (http://www.rowvenice.com/) costs 50 euros for one person, 40 euros for two. Two’s the ideal number though Caporal can handle a maximum of four people. No credit cards accepted.

For more details on The Venetian Club opportunities, go here: http://www.thevenetianclub.co.uk/.

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