The water was so close. So tempting on a hot summer’s day. I wanted to reach my hand out and trail my fingers in it as we glided along the Grand Canal. I refrained for fear of being scolded in a string of Italian I wouldn’t understand. Most likely our gondolier would have just laughed. He seemed friendly like that.
The larger vaporetto passed us carrying their crowds, depositing passengers at the various stops as we cruised our way by. I relished being the open air instead of being crammed like sweaty sardines. It somehow detracts from the charm of being in Venice when you’re vying for limited foot space while breathing boat fumes.
We gently rocked and swayed, guided down our floating path by the expert oarsman standing at the rear. Gondoliers steer these vessels with only one oar. The gondolas themselves are built asymmetrically, with the left side being 24cm (10in) longer than the right. This may seem a bit wonky at first, but this design ensures the boat doesn’t veer off in one direction. Otherwise it would probably look a lot like trying to paddle a canoe with one paddle – essentially turning around in circles.
Becoming a gondolier requires more than knowing how to wield a stick in water. There is an extensive training and licensing procedure in place. In 2010, there were only 425 licensed gondoliers in Venice. These men (it is mainly men – Giogria Boscolo became the first female gondolier in 2010) must find a mentor, complete intensive schooling (Mrs. Boscolo’s course had 400 hours of instruction), spend hours in practice, and finally take the exam offered by the Gondolier Association. No mistakes are allowed, so no bumping into buildings by accident. Then you are a gondolier, free to charge tourists an arm and a leg for a spin around town.
Given the part of history we took part in (gondoliers have been around for 900 years) and the uniqueness of the experience, we were happy to pay the price. Consider this one bucket list item checked!
As a visitor (and therefore no threat to local competition) you too can learn how to be a gondolier. There are short courses available that let you try your hand at wielding one oar while standing on a lop-sided boat floating. Too easy, right?