Our apartment is on the Grand Canal, and we watch gondoliers ferry passengers up and down. So when we heard about a Gondola School, we decided to give it a try.
There are different companies that do this, but our school is run by a fabulous group of women rowers who are enthusiastic about teaching this dying art. They teach lessons to help support their rowing club, Row Venice (www.rowvenice.com). If you read through their bios, you will be super impressed – not only are they smart career women, but most speak a few languages – in addition to being able to row. They are rock stars!
We met up with our instructor, Sofia, on a backwater canal – better to practice on. Our boat was called a batellina coda di gamero (shrimp-tailed boat), which is wider and more stable for learning.
Sofia snapped our oarlock in place and went through the steps – keep the oar straight with the diamond side up, twist the wrists, lower the oar, push forward, twist the wrists, and start over. If you don’t do each step, the oar jerks out of the oarlock and is hard to recover and put back in (I know this from experience – quite a few times).
Sofia took the back position (where she rows AND steers), while Frank and I traded off on the front.
We tentatively made our way through the quiet canals, gaining speed as we gained confidence – although, really, we know that if it wasn’t for Sofia on the back-end, we’d probably still be there.
Soon, we turned into the Venetian Lagoon itself – our eyes got big. There is a LOT of traffic out there!
We quickly moved to the shallow part outside of the channel, but we still had to contend with waves, making it hard to keep our balance.
Then Sofia let us try our hand at steering from the back. These are pictures of Frank, who was pretty good! (He is better at rowing than picture-taking, so none of the pictures of me came out.)
At the end, Frank and I actually rowed us part-way home (him in back, me in front).
Our 90-minute lesson flew by and before we knew it, Sofia announced that it was time to open the Prosecco and head in for cicchetti – small Italian appetizers. These are popular all over Venice, where locals line up to cicchetti bars for a glass of vino and a few little snacks. You can make a whole meal out of cicchetti.
And even cooler, Sofia knew of a couple cicchetti bars where you can pull up by boat.
We rowed up and rafted to another gondola, with fenders in between (just like sailboats), sampling the local wine and cicchetti offerings.
Then, we rowed a little farther down the canal and tied up to the seawall in front of another cicchetti bar. We felt like true locals.
P.S. The next morning we admit to being a teeny bit (or maybe a lot) sore in places where we didn’t even know we had muscles! But every time we see a gondolier go by our window, we smile with pride to be part of the tradition.