In 2003 I visited Venice for the second time and on 13th April took a ride through the canals in a gondola. At €80 for fifty minutes it was ridiculously expensive of course but it was something that had to be done and to be fair to the gondoliers, they invest a great deal in their boats, about €20,000 for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a life expectancy of about twenty years. They need to earn the bulk of their annual income in a few short tourist months and the cost of living is high in Venice because it is an expensive city in one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces.
Close to our hotel, the Locanda Orseola on the Orseola canal, there was a sort of gondola terminus where rows of boats and their rowers were waiting for business. We selected a sleek black one (actually like a Ford Model T they are all black) with elaborate paintings on the interior and black velvet seats with purple brocade and a gondolier in traditional black and white hooped shirt and straw hat with a red ribbon and after we had settled into our seats we set off into the labyrinth of tiny canals slipping quietly through the water as the gondolier expertly paddled his way through the pea green waters. The oar or rèmo is held in an oar lock known as a fórcola which is a critical component of the boat with a of a complicated shape allowing several positions of the oar for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping.
The profession of gondolier is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses granted after periods of training and apprenticeship, and a major comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola typically necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.
Our friendly guide took us first through some narrow back canals and at a blind bend collided with another going in the other direction and then we joined a gondola jam as he maneuvered into a busier canal heading for the Grand Canal. The small canals were curiously quiet without pavements or people as we passed by the back doors of mansions, shops and restaurants but the main canals were busier lined with cafés and restaurants and with crowds of people crossing the narrow bridges every few metres or so. At water level there was a slightly different perspective to the buildings and down here we could see the exposed brickwork and the crumbling pastel coloured stucco giving in to the constant assault of the waters of the lagoon.
Our boat was in perfect condition and lovingly cared for from aft to stern. Gondolas are hand made using eight different types of wood, fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime and are composed of two hundred and eighty pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side and this asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke from the right hand side of the boat.
From the busy canal San Luca we emerged into the Grand Canal where the gondolier had to have his wits about him as he competed for space with the Vaporetto (the water bus service), the motor boat taxis and dozens more gondola each one full of gaping wide eyed tourists admiring the elaborate mansions and palaces that make this Venice’s most exclusive area. The ride continued past rows of gaily coloured mooring poles and under the famous Rialto bridge and past the fish market and then with the clock ticking away the boat was turned off the Grand Canal into the canal San Salvador and the boatman expertly threaded his way back towards San Marco and the Orseola canal where the ride came to an end. We had enjoyed it.
While there are no historical records that deal directly with the origins of Venice, tradition and the available evidence have led several historians to agree that the original population of Venice consisted of refugees from Roman cities near Venice and from the undefended countryside, who were fleeing successive waves of invasions from the north. The traditional founding is identified with the dedication of the first church, that of San Jacopo at the islet of Rialto and given the date of 25th March 421.
Venice is a city known both for tourism and for industry, and is the capital of the region Veneto. The name is derived from the ancient tribe of Veneti that inhabited the region in Roman times. The city historically was the capital of a powerful and successful sea-born independent city-state. Venice has been known as the “La Dominante”, “Serenissima”, “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Water”, “City of Masks”, “City of Bridges”, “The Floating City”, and “City of Canals”. It stretches across one hundred and seventeen small islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea and the saltwater lagoon stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the Po (south) and the Piave (north) Rivers.
I first visited Venice in April 2002 and stayed at the Albergo San Marco near Saint Marks Square. There was perfect spring weather and I was captivated by the sights and sounds of the city which seemed to belong more correctly to a theme park than a thriving industrial sea port city. We did the sights of course, the Cathedral, Doge’s Palace, Rialto Bridge and the labyrinth of canals lined with palaces and museums. Wrapped up in the atmosphere of the place we paid £30 for a drink and a sandwich in St Mark’s Square and £80 for a ride in a gondola. Cheaper amusement was found on the City’s water buses, the Vaporetto, including a reasonably priced ticket to visit the nearby island of Burano.
I liked the place so much that I returned twelve months later and stayed at a fabulous boutique hotel, the Locanda Orseola which was right in the middle of the San Marco area and had a room directly overlooking the Orseola canal. I am not sure how I managed to get the bargain price, probably because it was a family room for all four of us but this was one of the nicest hotels that I have stayed in. We did all of the same things again including the Vaporetto trip to Burano where all of the houses are painted in gay colours so that fishermen could spot them from the open sea when returning home (or so the story goes). The weather was glorious again and we ate lunch by the Rialto Bridge and watched the hectic traffic on the Grand Canal and dinner at the Ritorante da Raffaele next to the quieter dell’alero canal where gondolas glided gracefully by and the water lapped gently against the bricks of the walls.
Two visits to Venice was still not enough however and I returned again in 2005 and this time stayed at the hotel Anastasia which although only three star was situated in a quiet square, the Corte Barozzi and although not overlooking a the water directly from the room we could hear the gentle rhythm of the canal di San Moise just around the corner from the square. We did exactly the same things of course but there was no mad rush to cram things in this time around so the experience was altogether more leisurely.
I haven’t been back to Venice again since but after six years I think it might be nearly time to go and visit one more time.
Posted in Age of Innocence, Childhood in the 1950s, Childhood in the 1960s, Growing up, Growing up in the 1950s, Growing up in the 1960s, History, Holidays
Tagged Albergo San Marco, Burano, Grand Canal, Hotel Anastasia, Italy, Locanda Orseola, Ristorane da Raffaele, San Marco, St Mark's Square, Vaporreto, Venice