Don’t just take a ride on a gondola: learn how to row one. Or try, at least. Can our writer, Stephen Bleach, earn his stripes?
Venice is, clearly, the most beautiful city on earth. This is why its little streets are jammed with wandering hordes of gawpers, armed to the teeth with selfie sticks. It’s making the locals quite grumpy: recently, they even held a demonstration about it (it would have been a march, but there wasn’t room).
So, how can you go, but not be one of the alley-choking throng they’re so cross with? The answer’s obvious when you think about it. Get out on the water and learn how to row a gondola. Can’t get more Venetian than that. You’ll fit right in. Possibly.
And this is why I’m wobbling precariously on a boat in Arsenale, dropping my oar and forgetting the words to O Sole Mio, while Andrea Bertolazzi patiently tries to show me how it’s done. Andrea is a native Venetian who also happens to be a leading light of the Canottieri Querini, a venerable local club devoted to keeping the threatened art of Venetian rowing alive. And by arrangement with a local hotel, he’ll give you a lesson.
He picks me up from the Hotel Splendid (unimaginative name, but it’s really awfully nice) and leads me through a baffling maze of back alleys to a quay, where I’m immediately disappointed. We don’t use an actual gondola. To row one you need to be part of the closed shop of gondoliers, a secretive elite a bit like the masons, but less benign. Learners use a sandolo — same rowing technique, just as traditional, but a bit smaller and not quite as sexy. Ah well: given the way I look in my gondoliering shirt, it might be just as well.
As we wait for the little crane to lower the boat into the water, Andrea gives me some background. Venetian rowing is unique, developed to fit the demands of the canals and local commerce. In the narrow, busy waterways, boatmen had to see where they were going — hence facing forwards, standing up. Space in the middle of the boat was needed for cargo or passengers — hence rowing at the front or back. And you use just one oar because it’s harder, so you can humiliate foreigners who gave it a go.
He didn’t say the last bit. That’s my suspicious mind, and anyway Andrea confounds the Venetian stereotype by being utterly charming. But it is fiendishly tricky.
He rows us from the club’s dock out into the choppy lagoon. The sandolo bucks like a horse with every ripple.
“Now, you row,” he says. “You must stand.” I get up gingerly, feet and arms spread wide for balance. “Place the feet so.” He puts them far too close together for stability. “Now take the oar and push like this.” I push, miss the water, and stumble into an untidy heap on the prow.
It’s the start of 30 minutes of unscripted slapstick, like a Cornetto advert directed by Buster Keaton. I teeter, I lurch, I stagger, but somehow I don’t fall in. To give me a fighting chance, Andrea rows us into Arsenale dock, a mercifully calm expanse that’s still a restricted military area (Canottieri Querini has a special dispensation to use it). In this secret enclave, I slowly improve, and he addresses the most important part of rowing: looking good. (We’re in Italy, after all.)
“Do not crouch like that,” he tells me. “A Venetian rower must stand proud, legs apart, shoulders back.”
“Is that a more efficient rowing stance?”
“It is more elegant. This is most important.”
I do my best. As with all these things, there’s a knack to it, and after an hour I reckon I’m getting it. My chest is out, my strokes are firm, the oar magically stays in place, the words of O Sole Mio have come back to me. I gamely volunteer to steer us out of the dock and back to the club.
In retrospect, what happened next had a certain inevitability about it. We can’t have been more than 100 yards off the dock when the gentle wake of a distant vaporetto gave the rocking an extra nudge, my centre of gravity shifted to the wrong side of the port gunwale, and I tipped unstoppably into the lagoon. I like to think I did it with style.
“This must happen a lot,” I said to Andrea after he’d fished me out.
“No. You are the first.” Oh.