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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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