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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.