Conversations with a Gondolier

The sleek, black gondola is Venice‘s most well-known symbol. Hand-crafted down to the smallest detail, this ancient method of transportation is often viewed as a try-before-you-die experience for tourists. But what about the man behind the oar?

Today, there are 425 gondoliers who ply the waters of the Venetian lagoon, and, contrary to appearances, they are not just pretty faces with great bodies. Competition for the medieval occupation is fierce, and licenses are limited. If selected, gondoliers go through intensive training for about a year, studying the history, architecture, landmarks and lagoon system of Venice, in addition to English, French and Venetian languages — not to mention the practical method of learning how to master the difficult boats that are sometimes compared to “fillies.”

The gondolier stands facing the bow, holding a long, single oar. He rows one stroke forward, then a backward stroke, performing a graceful ballet. The gondola is asymmetrical, the left side longer than the right, so that it doesn’t veer to the left on the forward stroke. To qualify for this extraordinary job, gondoliers must also spend a period of time as an apprentice, and pass a comprehensive exam.

Simon, tanned, blond and handsome, Venetian-born and -bred, has been rowing a gondola for about ten years. “It was hard and difficult at first, until I understood the work. Now, I love it. It is a beautiful job that allows me to be free. The gondola you see is just a tiny piece of Venice’s history, a story that starts back in the year 421. It is a story that is 1500 years old. People escaped here from the mainland, fleeing from invaders. They settled first on the island of Torcello. The gondola evolved over the centuries as a way to travel around the waters of the lagoon and the canals. It is a boat designed specifically to fit its environment.”

All gondolas are black by law, but every gondola is unique – different colored tapestries, various embellishments – reflecting the personality of the gondolier.

Simon must have done well on his comprehensive exam. He explained that the gondoliers belong to different cooperatives. When asked if there was competition between the co-ops, he grinned and said, “Competition is inherent in all men.” Gondoliers stand up because if they sat down and rowed backwards, they wouldn’t be able to see anything. Like the gondola itself, the singular method of rowing is a skill that has developed over time. And yes, gondoliers have a daily routine. “We arrive in the morning and clean the boats, just like a shop. Wash the wood, mop the floor. Then we wait for people to walk by. The work comes to us.” Some gondoliers christen their boats with names like “Sofia” and “Dogaressa; others travel incognito. All gondolas are black by law, but every gondola is unique — different colored tapestries, various embellishments — reflecting the personality of the gondolier.

When asked what section of Venice he lived in, Simon frowned. “I don’t live in Venice anymore. Now I live in Mestre, on the mainland. They pushed all the Venetians out to Mestre. Mestre is not Venice. It is impossible for the average Venetian to buy a house in Venice. People who have rented for years are being forced out of their homes. Everything is so expensive, and is being bought by foreigners. It is a serious problem. There were about 120,000 people living here back in the ’80s, now we are down to a little more than 59,000 residents. Venetians are like American Indians, and Venice is our Indian reservation. To live here, you must love this city because so many sacrifices must be made.”

A gondolier forced to live in Mestre, on solid ground? What about their historic reputation: that all gondoliers are wealthy, and spend their free time smoking, playing cards and seducing female tourists? Other gondoliers joined the conversation and confirmed what Simon said. “Business is down. Tourists arrive here and expect to have a Las Vegas gondola ride,” said the tall, dark and elegant Stefano. “The only reason I have a house in Venice is because I bought it back in the 1980s when I worked in a hardware store. It took me ten years to earn the money. Today it would be impossible.” Massimo confirmed, “We are the last spoke on the wheel. Tourists arrive in Venice. They must have a room at a hotel. They must eat. For some, a gondola ride is mandatory, but for many, when times are tough, it is something they can do without.” Another gondolier chimed in: “There is a deliberate attempt to drive Venetians out of Venice. It’s a real war.”

So much for the economic recovery. You know times are tough when the gondoliers are having trouble getting their oars wet.

Cat Bauer has lived in Venice, Italy since 1998. A former contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s Italian supplement, Italy Daily, she is the author of Harley, Like a Person and Harley’s Ninth. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | JonRawlinson; RamblingTraveler]

Flying above Madrid in a cable car

Madrid’s museums and bars are a great place to spend a trip, but if you need a quick vacation from your vacation, check out the cable cars between two of Madrid’s best parks. Known as the Teleférico, they go from Parque del Oeste to Casa De Campo, Madrid’s largest park.

Built by a Swiss company and inaugerated in 1969, the system has two sets of cables, one set for going up and the other for going down. Eighty cabins hold five people each and the route goes for 2.5 km (1.6 miles) and gets up to 40 meters (131 feet) up in the air.

I rode this for the first time yesterday with my four year-old son and needless to say he loved it. We were attending a communal birthday party for a few of his friends so the little squeaky voices kept me from having a serene ride over the treetops, but I did get splendid views of the park, the river, the Royal Palace, and the cathedral.

On the Casa del Campo side is a kids’ indoor playground, a mediocre but not too overpriced restaurant, and an outside terrace for the adults to drink a beer and look out over the trees and skyline. So if you’re looking for a fun thing to do with your kids when you’re in Madrid, give the Teleférico a try. It makes for a good getaway from the big city. If you want something more substantial, try hiking in the community of Madrid.

Photo courtesy J.L. de Diego.

Venice hosts its own funeral

Venice is dying. At least, according to Newsweek it is. The population has been shrinking so rapidly (it dropped below 60,000 this year) that the mag predicts there won’t be a single full-time resident in the city by 2030. A city that sees millions of visitors per year, an average of 55,000 per day, won’t be home to a single person. Yeah, I’d call that a dead city.

To draw attention to the issue, residents of Venice have organized a mock funeral in which three gondolas will pull a red coffin through the city’s canals on Saturday, November 14th.

In addition to the flood of tourists who make the city nearly unlivable during summer months, other factors such as increasing home prices and a shrinking tax base, have combined to result in the mass exodus of long-time Venetians.

One of the organizers of the “funeral” says this doesn’t have to be the end though. He hopes that by drawing attention to the issue, some of the problems can be addressed and new citizens will be lured to Venice. “It might be the beginning; it could even spur a rebirth. Now we just have to create a Venice [people] will want to stay in. We have to give them a reason not to leave.”

[via Budget Travel]

Kayaking Venice

Venice, Italy is one of the most popular and romantic cities in all of Europe. Famously built on a series of small islands along the Venetian Lagoon, just off the Adriatic Sea, travelers flock to the city to stroll its floating walkways and take gondola rides through the watery streets.

This is the typical way that tourists explore the city, which has a rich and varied history dating back 1500 years. But a recent article from the British newspaper The Guardian suggests a different way to see the sights in Venice, namely from the cockpit of a kayak. This alternative approach to exploring the Italian city’s waterways offers more freedom and flexibility for paddling where ever you want to go, and allows you to visit parts of the city that you might not normally see.

Adventurous travelers may take to the water on their own, and kayak throughout the city, but The Guardian recommends that you go with a guide service which can help you navigate the maze of water ways and lead you to the top destinations in Venice. You’ll find tours lasting a few hours or a few days, depending on what you’re looking for, and you’ll be able to do it at a fraction of the cost of a gondola ride. Piloting your own kayak also allows you to linger in the top spots for photo opportunities and to take in more of the flavor of the city, something you can’t do as easily in the traditional approaches to exploring the place.

Obviously kayaking through Venice isn’t for everyone, but for those looking for a different perspective on the historical city, it is a fun, active, and adventurous alternative.

Venice gets its first female gondolier

Women’s Rights: 1

Tradition: 0

Venice has broken a nine hundred year-old tradition by certifying its first female gondolier. The trade, normally handed down from father to son, recently opened up to everyone when the city of Venice introduced an official gondoliering course in 2007. That course has just had its first female graduate, the Guardian reported.

Giorgia Boscolo, a 23 year-old mother of two, said that she’s always been enchanted with gondolas and that childbirth is much more difficult than maneuvering the large boats through narrow canals. Boscolo had to take 400 hours of coursework and prove a detailed knowledge of Venice’s labyrinth of waterways.

It will be interesting to see how accepted she will be by the other gondoliers, but one thing’s for certain, she’ll certainly be getting a lot of customers until more female gondoliers start plying the waters of Venice and the novelty wears off.

Any bets on what year will be the last year to have a female “first”? There are a lot more barriers left to break. Running a gondola isn’t exactly walking on the moon, but it cuts the number by one, and that’s something to be proud of.

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