“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’
Today we were returning to Venice with the main objective being to take a gondola ride so after breakfast we made our way to the railway station for a second train ride to the city and after arriving there plotted a walking course around the northern loop of the Grand Canal in the general direction of Ponte Di Rialto.
The plan was to choose a gondola in San Marco but after a while the girls became impatient and spotting a handsome gondolier in his trademark black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and after some sales talk and a little negotiation we had agreed to take the ride earlier than originally planned.
At €80 for forty minutes it was still ridiculously expensive of course but it was something that had to be done, there were six of us to share the fare and 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.
The handsome gondolier in the black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons then passed us on to a colleague who was not so handsome, wore a black fleece and didn’t have a straw hat with dangling red silk ribbons and the man who had done the deal went about finding more gullible customers.
The substitute gondolier led us to a sleek and lovingly varnished black boat (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with crimson brocade and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water, boring into the network of waterways as he expertly paddled his way through the pea green water, barely wrinkling the surface as we slipped through.
Rather like a London taxi driver not just anyone can become a gondolier and the profession is controlled by a guild which issues a limited number of licenses granted after a long period of training and apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills as well as the practical skills of handling the gondola necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.
To quote Mark Twain again: “I am afraid that I study the gondolier’s marvelous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among” and I like to think that I understood that as our gondolier navigated tight corners and narrow bridges, slipping past brick walls within barely a hairs-breadth (which in a collision could strip the varnish down to the wood), skilfully avoiding other boats and never making a mistake as he rocked the paddle back and forth and from side to side in its intricate wooden cradle. The oar or rèmo is held in an oar lock known as a fórcola which is the most 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.
Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals heading for the Grand Canal that without pavements or people were curiously quiet as we passed by the back doors and water garages of mansions, shops and restaurants where supplies were being delivered and rubbish removed but the main canals were busier, lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges every few metres or so.
At water level there was a completely different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco, sun blistered and frost picked and giving in to the constant assault of the waters of the lagoon as it gnaws and gouges its relentless way into the fabric of the buildings.
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 Rio di Noale we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetto 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.
Three bridges cross this arterial waterway that is easy to think of as a river rather than a canal, three kilometres long, a hundred metres wide but only three metres deep, forty-six side canals flow into an out of it like veins and arteries and at least two hundred grand palaces and ten magnificent churches line its banks. The railway station stands modernistically at one end representing the twentieth century link to the mainland and St. Marks square stands at the other as a bulwark of city conservatism standing proudly and defiantly against progress.
The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and almost to the famous Rialto bridge but we weren’t going that far so we had to make do with only a look before he turned the gondola into the calmer waters of Rio dei Santi Apostoli and we began a new journey into the back canals of Venice which after twenty minutes or so returned us to the bridge where we had started.
Back on the streets we now continued our walk and followed streets and crossed bridges explored alleyways until we came to a small courtyard with a trattoria and pavement tables and so as it was now more or less lunchtime we stopped for a while for Peroni and Pizza.
“And always somewhere on the Grand Canal, drifting pleasantly with the tide, struggling loftily into the lagoon, tossing at a post or protruding its aristocratic beak between a pair of palaces, there stands a high-prowed, lop sides, black painted, brass embellished gondola, the very soul and symbol of Venice.” Jan Morris – ‘Venice’