Earn your stripes! An oarsome way to see the beauty of the City of Water
- There are 433 licensed gondoliers in Venice recognised by their striped shirts
- You’ll pay €80 (£70) for a daytime half-hour ride or €120 (£100) after 7pm
- Toby Walne has a go at rowing a gondola and finds it’s quite the workout
Venice lived up to its billing as the City of Water during the autumn – 80 per cent of its streets flooded following an unusual November high tide.
Thankfully, tourists are now once again able to explore this archipelago without the need for wellies.
Venice is made up of 118 islands. Visitors can marvel at the architecture of St Mark’s Basilica and take in the magnificent art of Titian and Tintoretto, but at some point they would do well to explore the labyrinth of 150 waterways and the Grand Canal from a different perspective.
Earning his stripes: Official gondoliers wear red or blue-striped tops
There are 433 licensed gondoliers – recognised by their tourist-friendly red or blue-striped shirts and straw hats. You’ll pay €80 (£70) for a daytime half-hour ride, and €120 (£100) after 7pm. But if you fancy an exciting new experience, why not grab hold of that long oar and have a go yourself?
Rowing a gondola provides the perfect antidote to art appreciation of Byzantine altar-pieces, as well as a great new workout routine – burning off those delicious ‘cicchetti’ snacks and glasses of wine that are part of that necessary Venetian lifestyle.
A one-hour gondolier training session for two can be enjoyed at the Canottieri Querini rowing club as part of a €430 (£370) package, including breakfast for two with a deluxe room overlooking the canal at the Splendid Venice in the central Rialto district. The introduction to the skills of a gondolier is being billed as an unusual romantic excursion or a fresh activity idea for groups – even a hen or stag party.
Gondolier Antonio Visentini offers an introduction to the ‘voga alla veneta’ rowing style. First, you are taught how to stand up straight and face forward without falling into the murky water. It sounds simple enough, but for good reason your gondola is initially strapped to a floating platform.
The ‘remo’ or oar never touches the ground. Instead the 13ft pole sits in an oar-lock fixed on the rear of the boat. Do nothing and it naturally turns right because a gondola is designed lopsided – so an occasional push forwards is required to move in a straight line. Pull back on that oar and the vessel should turn left.
Visitors can marvel at the architecture of St Mark’s Basilica, pictured
Within a few minutes of pushing and pulling, a novice like me not only discovers how difficult it is to steer a 36ft gondola but notices the strain it puts on back and leg muscles. Yet this workout is nothing but a short, fun exercise, offering a glimpse of the skills a gondolier takes years to master.
Antonio, 31, has been a gondolier for a decade. As with most of those in this profession, he is following in the footsteps of his ancestors – his great-grandfather obtained his licence in 1873. Antonio also spent 18 months at the Arte del Gondoliere school before earning his stripes.
It’s not just boat skills that are developed at the helm of one of these black-lacquered £50,000 vessels – but the art of romance.
During busy summer months, Antonio witnesses one or two marriage proposals a day as he rows serenely along the canals – and his record is five.
For me, learning to play cupid is a lesson for another day.
Toby Walne was a guest of Splendid Venice Starhotels Collezione. For Gondolier For A Day packages, email firstname.lastname@example.org. ArtViva (artviva.com) offers 90-minute gondolier lessons for €129 (£110), as does Venice on Board (veniceonboard.it) from €40 (£34).