O Sole Mio
Who hasn’t dreamt of a trip to Venice? The canals, the architecture, the food, the Italians, it’s all so unique and steeped in history. Venice was built on 118 islands in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon. The Venetians dug hundreds of canals and shored up the banks with wood pilings and used similar wood pilings as foundations for their buildings. The settlers pounded thousands of these into the mud, so close together they were touching. Then, they cut off the tops and created solid platforms for the foundations of their city. It is essentially, a city built in water. There are no cars, no mopeds, no bicycles. It seems almost un-Italian in that way. But there are boats, lots of them.
Everything in Venice is done by foot or boat. You see delivery vessels loaded with vegetables and fish, the garbage barge comes by every morning and locals have to dispose of their rubbish on it. It’s a unique way of life, and perhaps only a Venetian would truly understand its ebbs and flows.
I had a trip planned for Venice with two girlfriends who are perhaps the best women in the world to travel with, and our adventures together are always brilliant. But when we received a text asking if we wanted to take gondolier lessons, I was thrilled. Umm, who wouldn’t want to take gondolier lessons? Who knew this was even a thing? I knew from that moment on, we were going to have a top-du-top Venetian weekend.
Saturday morning arrived with a bright blue sky filled with sunshine. We met Beatrice and Luigiana, our all-women team at Row Venice to begin our lesson. They told us the boat we were going to use was called a batela a coda di gambero, a shrimp-tailed batela. This was an all-purpose cargo boat used for everything from fishing to hauling anything and everything around the city and across the lagoon. A traditional gondola is made with a curved bottom and a bit difficult to keep stable for first-timers; this boat had a flat bottom. It was a beautiful old wooden craft, so there were no complaints from us.
Beatrice walked us through the special shape of the oars and the general idea of the paddling motion. Five minutes later, we were off. The small canal waters were calm but busy with traffic, so we had to learn to keep our paddle out of the way and navigate it carefully. We took turns and I found it quite challenging to figure out the rhythmic motion. Eventually we made our way out to the lagoon, where there were plenty of motorboats and waves. It was much more difficult terrain, and it was in the lagoon where they told us we’d learn to steer on the back of the gondola. Getting on the top of the boat in wavey water was a bit daunting, and neither of us ever really moved the boat anywhere, but it was ridiculous amounts of fun.
Our guides told us there are virtually no women gondoliers in Venice, however Luigiana is a certified rowing champion and has been doing it for 40 years. We were excited to have an all-female crew, and they certainly had some mad skills. Rowing is a sport in Venice, so many people do it for exercise or competition. For those looking for a unique travel experience, Row Venice is well worth it. They are a non-profit organization, and a portion of the fee goes to supporting women and youth athletes, along with a variety of associations that organize activities that promote and sustain the distinctive rowing lifestyle of Venice.
Water is the soul of this city and it appears rowing is in the blood of many Venetians. I can’t think of an experience any more authentic than this.