Learning to Row a Gondola in Venice

Several months have passed since our most recent trip to Venice, and I still haven’t shared with you our favourite Venice experience, the highlight of our third holiday in the magical Serene City. You have permission to slap my wrist; go on, give it a good wallop, because I’ve been holding out on you!

We got to play at being a gondolier!

Torist rowing along Venice canal during a lesson with Row Venice

I always advocate walking in Venice – there’s no other city in which I’d rather get lost on foot, meandering through narrow zig-zagging alleys and myriad open spaces with their cafes, gelateria and fruit stalls. It’s also worth climbing up to enjoy the best panoramic views of Venice, as beautiful from above as it is from the ground.

But surely one of the best ways to appreciate Venice is from the water.

Typically, for tourists, that means booking a very expensive gondola ride – we’re talking €120 for an hour, €150 an hour in the evening, and over €300 if you want a gondolier who sings!

On our first two trips to Venice, we instead hopped into traghetti to make quick crossings of the Grand Canal; these skiffs are much like gondolas but without the fancy chairs, ferro bow decoration and chintzy trimmings and it costs just a couple of euros to make the quick journey.

We also make full use of Venice’s public waterbuses, the vaporetti (that ply the protected canals of Venice) and the motoscafi (that are used for the longer routes between the islands of the lagoon). Single fares are high so it’s worth buying a tourist travel card for unlimited journeys during your stay.

About Row Venice

On our most recent trip, we discovered the best way to see Venice by water when we signed up for a private lesson with Row Venice. This non-profit organisation aims to preserve and promote traditional Venetian cultura acquea (water culture) by way of teaching visitors how to row, Venetian style.

Run by women vogatrici (standing-style rowers), Row Venice was established 9 years ago by Jane Caporal, a British-born Australian-raised financier who moved to Venice with her Italian husband nearly 30 years ago. Jane took up Venetian rowing as a hobby soon after she moved to Venice, and has participated in regattas and events ever since. She witnessed first hand the resistance to female vogatrici that prevails – even today there are very few certified gondolieri plying the tourist trade, thanks to the intransigence of professional bodies, and disinterest from the council. Thus, all of the instructors at Row Venice are women, all of them passionate about sharing this skill with visitors.

Jane Caporal founder of Row Venice, during a lesson Instructor showing Row Venice student how to steer and scull from the stern of the boat.

Note that lessons aren’t in traditional black-painted gondolas with their distinctive ferro at the bow and their brocaded passenger stools; when it comes to rowing passengers, these are strictly reserved for professionally certified gondolieri (gondola rowers). They are also used by clubs and individual racers for the regattas.

Row Venice use shrimp-tailed batele for their lessons, these flat-bottomed rowboats are very similar to gondolas but are a touch smaller and more stable. They were originally used for the transport of goods rather than passengers, and are extremely rare in Venice today. Jane tells us that Row Venice had their beautiful batele made by the Tramontin Boatyard, one of the few gondola building yards still in operation; the master craftsmen relied on a combination of their childhood memories of batele, supported by old plans supplied by the naval museum.

The Row Venice Experience

On the day of our lesson, we enjoyed walking across Venice from our apartment in the sestiere (district) of Castello to the meeting point at the Ponte dela Saca in Cannaregio.

Pete was really nervous, since I’d pre-nominated myself as passenger-photographer for this experience, leaving the practical lesson all to him. He’d been watching the gondolieri serenely manoeuvre their boats amid the heavy water traffic, and was convinced he wouldn’t be able to do it at all.

Student rowing a Row Venice batele, a narrow row boat that is similar to a Venetian gondola. Sculling the remo (oar) of a Venetian batele, similar to a gondola

We were met by Row Venice founder, Jane, and after a brief introduction, it was time to clamber down into our batela, moored along the quiet less graceful than others; I have appallingly poor balance!

The first thing we learned is that, whilst it may look as though gondolieri pole their boats, pushing against the bottom like the punts of Cambridge and Oxford, in fact the canals and lagoons of Venice are too deep for that. The boats are propelled by sculling a remo (oar), held within a specially-shaped carved forcola (oarlock) which holds the oar a suitable height for a standing rower.

After a brief demonstration, Jane had Pete standing up inside the boat, taking the oar, and practicing the basic stroke that moves the boat forward, while she stood at the back steering. This corner of Venice is much quieter than the Grand Canal and busier buzzing waterways around it, so it’s a great place for tentative beginners. Later, with more guidance from Jane on just how to hold and move the oar, Pete progressed to turning the boat accurately, standing up on the stern from where a rower can steer and propel the boat single-handedly.

Tourist rowing along Venice canal during a lesson with Row Venice Tourist rowing along Venice canal during a lesson with Row Venice

Despite his nerves ahead of the lesson, and for the first few minutes standing up, finding his balance and handling the oar, Pete learned quickly and was soon enthusiastically rowing us along canals, around corners, under bridges, and to the edge of the lagoon.

Tourists taking a rowing lesson with Row Venice Man in tourist batele taking a rowing lesson in Venice

I was delighted to sit, enjoy and occasionally giggle at Pete’s cries of alarm as he steered the wrong way or thought he might lose his balance! Reassuringly, Jane tells us that in all the years Row Venice has been in operation, no one has fallen in, save one teenage girl who hurled herself overboard deliberately for a bet with her friends.

Student and instructor for Row Venice rowing lesson View of two nuns taken from a rowboat on the Venetian canal

We found it thrilling to experience the cultura acquea of Venice in this way, briefly joining the many people purposefully making their way around the waterways of the city – it felt much closer to being a part of the story of Venice.

Practical Tips for Row Venice

Book your lesson in advance via the website – up to 4 people can learn together in a regular batela; if your group is larger, you will need to book two boats.

Each booking is for a 90 minute private lesson, so you won’t be sharing the boat, or teaching time, with others. Pricing is €85 for 1-2 people, €120 for 3 and €140 for 4 and Row Venice instructors can give lessons in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish.

Book your lesson for early on during your visit, so that if the weather is unsuitable, the lesson can be rescheduled for later in your stay.

Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes and flexible shoes – preferably flat, rubber-soled ones that will help you stand firm as you row.

We spent all of our lesson time within the canals, but you can also go out into the open lagoon for part of your lesson time if you like, unless it’s too windy.

We booked a mid-morning lesson so that we finished up shortly before noon; perfect timing for a short stroll to Fondamente Misericordia, a great spot with several excellent places to eat cicchetti.

Save for later:

Tourist rowing along Venice canal during a lesson with Row Venice Tourist rowing along Venice canal during a lesson with Row Venice

Click here for more from our trips to Venice.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
50 Comments to "Learning to Row a Gondola in Venice"

  1. ROSEANN MALY

    On your Row Venice recommendation Kavita Favelle, rather than going with my grand daughter’s group to Murano, I treated her and two of her friends to Row Venice. The girls loved it and so did I. Besides being a blast, as we used to say, we got to see the canals where everyday Venetians actually live. We even oared by a funeral procession of gandole. It was an outstanding experience and easily done.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    So happy you enjoyed it, I think it’s such a unique activity and much more intimate an insight into Venice than the usual gondola ride. Love that it’s in a quieter area too, it just have been something to see a water-borne funeral procession, never seen anything like that.

    Reply
  2. Angelica Kajiwara

    Oh my goodness, this sounds like so much fun! Venice, for me, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I celebrated my graduation there, and I’ll never forget it. Thanks for sharing this adventure! I’ll add it to the list for our next visit.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    What an amazing place to celebrate your graduation! Hope you are able to go back again soon, and definitely do book with Row Venice when you do!

    Reply
  3. Pooja

    Wow. This is so much fun. You must had a great time trying to learn it. Venice is such a beautiful city. This must have added to the fun.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yeah, it was a great activity to feel like we were more a part of Venice for a moment, and lots of fun!

    Reply
  4. Katie

    Row Venice was such a fun way to see some of the different canals and feels like you are getting a very authentic experience!! My husband and I both tried the rowing and had many giggles!! A much nicer experience than the standard gondola! Thanks so much Kavita for the recommendation!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    So glad you loved it too, I think you went only a month or two after we did, from what I recall? Such a fun activity! Thanks Katie!

    Reply
  5. Francesca M

    I’ve been to Venice a number of times and love getting lost in the city. It’s so much fun finding your way back! I have never done anything like this though. Love that Row Venice is female-led and such a unique way of carrying on a tradition. I’m going to pin this for my next visit!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It’s definitely something a little different to the usual tourist gondola ride, and yes, great that it’s run by women!

    Reply
  6. Louise

    That looks like sooo much fun! I would love to do the same with Jerome! You are right – Venice is better from the water!
    I hope to go back to Venice soon! Its been so long, since I was there
    Louise x

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I hope you are able to return soon, and definitely do book onto this, it’s such a great experience!

    Reply
  7. Martha

    First of all, I love that this company supports and advocates for women. That is a fabulous mission! I definitely love immersive experiences like this when I travel. It’s like taking cooking lessons while on vacation. You might not be able to use this skill again, but what a memorable time!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, I really liked that aspect of the organisation too, it’s a great mission. We love taking cooking lessons when travelling too, so definitely on the same wavelength!

    Reply
  8. Sinjana

    This is a fantastic recommendation. I want to have such experiences when I visit Europe next time. Wondering what happened to the teenage girl who went overboard

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    She was fine, she did so deliberately, I’m sure their fished her out!🤣

    Reply
  9. Adele

    That is definitely an interesting thing to do in Venice. I have not heard about it before and would definitely book this the next time round – especially for my partner to do since he always looks for sportive things to do while I love lounging around and so this sounds perfect! Thank you for the information.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yeah it’s a great choice for those who like to do more sporty activities!

    Reply
  10. Manjulika

    Almost all the travel experiences around Venice mention about Gondola rides and the beautiful canals but I haven’t stumbled on any which talked about learning to row a Gondola. This really got me curious. I bet this is a lovely way to enjoy the trip and experience Venice in a unique way. I would love to do this.

    Reply
  11. Cato

    Definitely looks like a lot more fun than just a stand up gondola. You get a completely different feeling when you row. Especially cruising through Venice! The photos look amazing too!

    Reply
  12. Priya

    Oh, wow! Looks like you guys had quite a fantastic experience rowing a gondola in Venice!
    Venice is a dream destination for me, riding on a gondola is a bucket-list item. Thank you for taking us on a tour of the Venetian canals through your eyes. 🙂

    Reply
  13. MEENAKSHI

    Aahhhaa…what lovely narration and I too was giggling with you as Pete rowed the Gondola (My apologies) Thanks for giving us a peek into the certified women gondolieri story. It is quite encouraging that women are taking up this profession seriously and also disappointing that there isn’t ample support for such ventures from authorities. Nevertheless, your experience is a ray of hope!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed and I’m sure Pete will forgive the giggling! It’s still very hard for women to become professional gondolieri in Venice but Row Venice ensures that women who want to row are supported to do so, for regattas and other events, and they love sharing this part of Venetian history and life too.

    Reply
  14. Caro

    That must have been a great experience, I’d love to try this and Pete looks like a natural. It really does seem the best way to see Venice too. I had no idea it was so expensive to take a ride in the real gondolas though! This I will add to my list of things to do! I haven’t visited Venice in years…time I went back.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, tourist rides in the gondolas are super expensive. This is not only absolutely fantastic fun but such crazy good value too!

    Reply
  15. kaveyeats

    I’ll tell him! It’s definitely not just for sporty types though a basic ability to balance is helpful! 👍

    Reply
  16. Choclette

    Pete looks like a real pro. What a fabulous experience. I’ve never been to Venice, never been to Italy at all for that matter. I’ve always wanted to go and still hoping I’ll make it one day.

    Reply
  17. Jane Dempster-Smith

    I have never heard of Row Venice – this is a perfect alternative to a Gondolier ride. I never knew the cost was so high if you wanted a Gondolier to sing during the boat ride. For that price, you would want a good singer LOL. I definitely want to do this when we return to Venice.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yeah, it’s crazy high isn’t it? Pete’s not a singer, even at home, so sadly no singing and rowing from him on this occasion!!

    Reply
  18. Annick

    What a great find and unique experience! Pete was quite the sport serving as the student. This looks like so much fun and a great activity for teenagers on up. Consider your hand slapped for not mentioning this earlier. 😉

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    He was a bit miffed with me at first, before we actually did the lesson, then he admitted he really enjoyed it!!

    Reply
  19. umiko

    That’s really a cool and unique experience! Not just rowing, but looks like you got to explore the part of Venice that you wouldn’t see when riding a gondola. I wonder if the 90 minutes lesson turned Pete to a singing gondolier on the way back. 😉

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Sadly, no singing while he rowed from Pete though I’d have enjoyed that!!!

    Reply
  20. blair villanueva

    Wow this is an amazing experience and it was awesome that they offer rowing class for guests. I would love to experience this, coz apparently it isn’t easily to row and sing romantic Italian songs without distractions. Glad you have a fantastic vacation.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Ha ha, well Pete definitely didn’t try to sing as he rowed, but he seemed to pick up the rowing pretty well and we had a lot of fun!

    Reply
  21. Yukti

    What a great way to explore this romantic city of Venice by rowing your own Gondola. I knew that there are Gondola classes running here. I would surely opt for one and Row Venice looks worth for taking classes. As it is a nonprofit organization and also saved one girl this company is good in ethics too. Thanks for sharing all tips and guidelines about how to book the lessons and what to wear during the learning lessons.

    Reply
  22. Parnashree Devi

    Wow..I didn’t have the idea that you can also learn gondola ride in Venice. It seems like a great learning experience. I am sure that now you know at least how to operate a Gondola. Gondola ride in Venice is still on my bucket list and I am more interested to even try my hand on it.

    Reply

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *