“The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent. It is twenty or thirty feet long and is narrow and deep like a canoe; its sharp bow and stern sweep upward from the water like the horns of a crescent…. The bow is ornamented with a battle axe attachment that threatens to cut passing boats in two.” – Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
In 2003 I visited Venice for the second time and took a ride through the canals in a gondola. At €80 for fifty minutes it was horrifically expensive of course but it was something that had to be done.
To be fair to the gondoliers, they invest a great deal in their boats, about €20,000 for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a life expectancy of about twenty years. They need to earn the bulk of their annual income in a few short tourist months and the cost of living is high in Venice because it is an expensive city in one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces.
Close to our hotel, the Locanda Orseola on the Orseola canal, there was a sort of gondola terminus where rows of boats and their rowers were waiting for business. We selected a sleek black one (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with purple brocade and a gondolier in traditional black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with a red ribbon and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water as the gondolier expertly paddled his way through the pea green waters with his oar.
The oar (or rèmo) is held in an oar lock known as a fórcola which is a critical component of the boat with a complicated shape allowing several positions of the oar for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping.
The profession of gondolier is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses granted after periods of training and apprenticeship, and a major comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola typically necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.
Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals and at a blind bend collided with another going in the other direction and then we joined a gondola jam as he manoeuvred into a busier waterway heading for the Grand Canal. The small canals were curiously quiet without pavements or people as we passed by the back doors of mansions, shops and restaurants but the main canals were busier lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges and stopping to take pictures of us as though we were celebrities.
At water level there was a different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco giving in to the corrosive power of the waters of the lagoon as the relentless assault of the sea gnaws and gouges away at the infrastructure of the city grinding away the brickwork and teasing away the mortar.
Everything looks decrepit and aged but appearances can be deceptive because it turns out that there is a very good reason for this. There is a city law that requires residents to use only approved paint products that are specially prepared to show signs of aging very soon after application to preserve the essential ambiance of the city.
Our boat was in perfect condition and lovingly cared for from aft to stern. Gondolas are hand-made using eight different types of wood – fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime and are composed of two hundred and eighty pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side and this asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke from the right hand side of the boat.
From the busy canal San Luca we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetti (the water bus service), the motor boat taxis and dozens more gondola each one full of gaping wide-eyed tourists admiring the elaborate mansions and palaces that make this Venice’s most exclusive area. The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and under the famous Rialto bridge and past the fish market and then with the clock ticking away the boat was turned off the Grand Canal into the canal San Salvador and the boatman expertly threaded his way back towards San Marco and the Orseola canal where the ride came to an end. We had enjoyed it.
Some more of my boat journeys: