Secret Venice – the Gondola Ride

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On our last trip to Venice seven years ago, we chose not to go on a gondola ride – it seemed too much of a cliché. Instead we took the little traghetto ferry across the Grand Canal.

The tragetto (ferry) across the Grand Canal

The tragetto (ferry) across the Grand Canal

This time, however, I am fascinated with water traffic in general and our home exchange host tells us that the building we are staying in was once a workshop for making gondola oars and oarlocks (forcula) so I start taking a greater interest in Venice’s iconic boat.

Oars and forcula in a workshop in the Castelo quarter

Oars and forcula in one of the last workshops in the Castelo quarter

First, we learn there is a difference between the 11-metre long gondola with its typical figurehead and slightly asymetrical shape designed to row on one side only and turn in a very small space, and the sandolo, which is shorter, symmetrical and originally from Burano.

The sandolo, originally from Burano Island, is shorter than the gondola and symmetrical

The sandolo, originally from Burano Island, is shorter than the gondola and symmetrical

The gondoliers have to wear black trousers, black shoes and a striped top. They also have a straw hat but don’t have to wear it while rowing. Considering the height of some of the bridges, it’s not surprising though some manage. We observe various collars and tops but the older gondoliers wear a white pea jacket with a sailor collar and elasticised waist over their stripes.

Gondolier ducking under a low bridge

Gondolier ducking under a low bridge

The basic price for a gondola ride is fixed by the gondoliers’ federation at 80 euro for 35 minutes. If you want to change the itinerary, extend the time or be serenaded, it’s more expensive. Our French guidebook, Le Routard, recommends a gondolier who speaks French and takes you through the back canals rather than the Grand Canal so we go looking for him, but to no avail.

Gondoliers waiting for custom

Gondoliers waiting for custom

I check out a few websites but the price instantly climbs to 100 euro or more for an on-line booking, and since you have to book ahead, you need to be sure of the weather. A gondola ride in the rain does not look much fun!

Gondoliers in their traditional garb

Gondoliers in their traditional garb

It’s a bright sunny morning so we decide to try one of the piazzas rather than the Grand Canal and head for Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo where the Ospedale is.

Alessio, our gondolier, coming to meet us

Alessio, our gondolier, coming to meet us

On the way, as we cross a bridge, I see an empty gondola with a whistling gondolier. We do not want a half-hearted young man talking on his cell phone all the time. “E libero?” I ask. “Si, yes, oui, English, Français?” “Français,” I reply, as Jean Michel would like to be able to communicate as well. “I’ll meet you at Santi Giovanni e  Paolo,” he says.

Sitting in Alessio''s gondola with his credentials displayed

Sitting in Alessio”s gondola with his credentials displayed

He pulls up and before we get in, he takes the protection off the seat, makes sure everything is spick and span and asks if we know the price: 80 euro for 35 minutes with part of the ride through the smaller canals and the other part on the Grand Canal. Otherwise, we can have a longer ride with trimmings for 120 euro an hour. We settle for the regular 35 minutes.

The current gondola price is 80 euro for 35 to 40 minutes with a maximum of 6 people (you can always share to make it cheaper)

The current gondola price is 80 euro for 35 to 40 minutes with a maximum of 6 people (you can always share to make it cheaper)

Je m’appelle Alessio“, he says, and hands me down. Jean Michel follows. Ensconced in our seats and very pleased with ourselves at having found a genial French-speaking gondolier, we set off. “Walking around Venice is wonderful,” says Alessio, “but seeing it in a gondola is magnificent.” We have to agree.

The gondola repair yard in Dorsoduro

The 17th century gondola repair yard in Dorsoduro on Fondamenta Nani

He fills us in on life as a gondolier. Both his father and grandfather were gondoliers (we know that our home exchange host’s son unsuccessfully tried to break into the profession). A gondola costs 30 000 euro and lasts about 20 years, after which time it starts to lose its curve. We’ve already been to the gondola repair yard in Dorsoduro.

Three gondolas at once and the gondoliers are all calling out to each other

Three gondolas at once and the gondoliers are all calling out to each other

He comments on life in Venice and the various buildings we pass. Then, to our delight, he starts singing. Whenever we pass another gondola, he launches into a conversation in Venetian. He’s obviously well known and a lot of bantering seems to be going on.

Approaching the San Samuele traghetto stop near the fish market

Approaching the San Sofia traghetto stop near the fish market

We turn into the Grand Canal and after a fairly short time, we pull over next to the traghetto stop near the fish market. Jean Michel and I look at each other – time’s up already? But Alessio alights and greets a young man who places a punnet of strawberries in his hand. He offers us some. I apologise as I don’t eat strawberries but Jean Michel takes one and says they’re delicious.

Approaching the Rialto Bridge

Approaching the Rialto Bridge

At one stage, we point to the sandolo and ask if it’s a real gondola. Alessio laughs and says that most tourists don’t know the difference but it’s like comparing a Fiat 500 and a saloon car.

An ancient gondola on the quayside near Ospedale vaporetto stop

An ancient gondola on the quayside near Ospedale vaporetto stop showing the typical figureheadwith a bar for each quarter (sestiere) of Venice

We continue on our way,  down towards the Rialto Bridge, then back into the smaller canals, with Alessio cheerfully alternating comments, singing and whistling. When we arrive back at Ospedale,  he takes our photo, telling us to say spaghetti, which is very successful with Jean Michel, who’s not usually very photogenic.

Saying "spaghetti" at the end of our wonderful gondola ride

Saying “spaghetti” at the end of our wonderful gondola ride

We give a tip and he is very surprised – Jean Michel gets the rest of the strawberries! Definitely worth the cliché … And a little piece of advice – forget about taking photos or videos while you’re in the gondola. You can get exactly the same ones on the vaporetto or walking along the canals. Just sit back and enjoy a one-off experience.

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12 Responses to Secret Venice – the Gondola Ride

  1. What a lovely story, Rosemary. So glad you had a great experience on your gondola ride. It sounds like heading away from St Mark’s square is definitely the spot to find a gondolier. Alessio sounds like he’s one of the best.

  2. Carol in Australia says:

    That was a lovely post Rosemary. I wasn’t sure about lashing out on a gondola ride but now you have convinced me. How wonderful! And I have loved all your posts so thank you for sharing Venice with us.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! I added a sentence at the end of the post suggesting you forget about photos and just sit back and enjoy the ride! I tried to tape a video of Alessio singing and it was not successful. I would have been better off just enjoying myself.

  3. I am quite struck by how low some of the bridges are. Beautiful shots of a magnificent city.

  4. Susan Walter says:

    What a lovely experience!

  5. Lovely story. Even though I’ve taken several gondola rides in my lifetime, I learned a few new things from you today!

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Hi Paige. Thank you. How lucky to have taken several gondola rides already – and I’m delighted to know that you learned a few new things from my post.

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