I recently visited Italy for the first time, hoping to experience the romance of Venice’s gondolas.
I have always dreamed of visiting Venice, as it seemed to be such an amorous, magical place in books and travel articles. Friends have raved about it so I was actually afraid to be disappointed.
This fear subsided the moment my dream materialized. Venice is the epitome of old world charm and beautiful architecture. There are no words to adequately describe this unique place. It’s easy to get lost in the quaint shopfronts and unique bridges and canals that give visitors the sensation of walking through medieval times. All of the grace and beauty of historic Venice are embodied in the traditions of the gondola.
Maybe this sounds hokey but you haven’t experienced Venice unless you’ve taken a Gondola ride. And yes, it’s pricey. But you will forever cherish the memory of cruising through time in this storied city. Just ask my husband, who believes he is the Casanova of romance, even though he insisted on negotiating price with our gondolier before we could enjoy a glorious sunset cruise. He thought why not save a few bucks to shower me with other baubles of love? Okay, maybe this is not a bad idea.
Most people don’t realize that gondola prices are set by the city government, with 2017 rates ranging from $80 Euros for a midday cruise (which lasts about 30 minutes), to $100 Euros at for a sunset ride. Budget- conscious tourists can always share a gondola ride with fellow travelers if a couple’s ride is too expensive, and enjoy some added merriment with new found friends!
I recommend chatting with your gondolier before sealing the deal. If you want a tour guide and ride in one, ask if what he can do for you. If it doesn’t feel right, talk to another gondolier before stepping into the boat. Once you’ve agreed to the terms, sit back with your companion, enjoy the lovely upholstered love-seat and bask in the gorgeous views of Venice from the canal!
It’s always nice to know a little history about a place when you visit, even though many people realize Venice is a floating city.
Gondolas came into use when horses were banned during the 14th century. The aristocracy adopted the gondola as the primary mode of transportation, traveling by the 1600’s in personal gondolas decorated in bright colors, custom cabins and elaborate fittings. It functioned as a personal sports car for the wealthy who flaunted their vessels like a bad “Pimp My Ride” reality television episode!
In fact, the real Casanova – Giacomo Casanova – earned his reputation as a great lover and “seduced women by gondola”. He installed an enclosed cabin on the top of his gondola so he was free to ravish his female guests undetected from public view! Eventually, gondolas were so encumbered by excessive, weighty flourishes that the government banned all ornamentation to minimize ostentatiousness, and preserve the gondolas’ seaworthiness.
This explains today’s simple, black gondola style, with only three flourishes: a pair of seahorses, a curly tail and a multi-pronged ferro or prow. These are the only metal parts of the gondola and they are steeped in symbolism. The decorative seahorses on either side of the gondola are a symbol of protection. These hippocampus were named from the Greek word “hippo”, meaning horse or seahorse, and represented the horses of Poseidon’s chariot in ancient mythology. The curly tail on the stern adds balance to the heavier prow at the bow of the gondola. You can see the elaborate details in the gondolas pictured below
The iron prow head of the gondola is called the ferro. It provides counterbalance to the weight of the gondolier at the stern. It is in the shape of a large “S” which is symbolic of the many twists of the Grand Canal. The top of the ferro has a comb like structure with six “teeth”.
These teeth represent the six districts or sestieri of Venice. The curved top is in homage to the Rialto Bridge, one of the most famous bridges in Venice. Some ferro feature three friezes in between the teeth to recognize the three islands, Murano, Burano and Torcello.
Back in the 1600’s, there were an estimated 10,000 gondolas!
Unimaginable, given the boat traffic on my recent visit. Today, there are about 400 gondolas that cater to the many tourists who visit Venezia. Today’s boats are typically about 35 feet long and 5 feet wide, with the traditional six coats of black lacquer paint and customary metal decoration. You can see from this “gondola repair shop” pictured below that gondola are fitted with very personal touches, from their unique upholstered seating to their decorative trim. Gondoliers maintain their vessels, traveling at about 3 miles per hour. It’s the same pace as someone walking on land but walking on water is obviously not an option!
Commandeering a gondola is one oldest professions in the world. It is still a very closed profession and controlled by the Gondolier Guild; which has been in existence for 1,000 years and is strictly controlled. A gondolier can pass his license down from father to son or any male member of the family.
So who can be a gondolier? The average salary of a gondolier is around $150,000 US. but it’s “who you know” matters. An aspiring gondolier, must find an experienced, licensed gondolier to act as his mentor, and attend 400 hours of instruction. Upon completing said instruction, he must pass a comprehensive exam that includes knowledge of: the physical operation of the gondola, navigation, foreign languages and Venice’s unique sights, culture and history!
What if you’re a woman and want to break into this all male profession?
In 2010, Giorgia Boscolo became the first female gondolier! She completed the rigorous training and exams, becoming the first female gondolier. The Gondolier Guild expressed reservations about granting her license and even her father admitted that he didn’t know if it was a suitable profession for a woman. That said, Giorgia is only allowed to operate a gondola as a stand-in for a male gondolier and she remains the only licensed female gondolier ever.
It’s impossible to know Venice without discovering its wonders by gondola. There is no other place in the world that offers the same experience or perspective. Whether you glide through quiet, romantic alleyways or jostle for space in the traffic of the Grand Canal, the gondola tradition is the most storied tradition and universal symbol of Venice.
Article & Photos by Denise Benson