Very few cities in the world are as romantic as Venice. Small bridges, narrow “calle” (streets), picture-perfect palaces, dreamy canals. Add a romantic gondola ride and you will have a perfect Italy honeymoon
It is hard to imagine Venice without gondolas. Experts haven’t agreed on the exact time when these sleek boats appeared on the canals: some of them say gondolas date back to the 7th century, others argue it was the 12th century. In any case, the boats have been around long enough and played an important role in the city’s life. Over the centuries, they have gone through several transformations: early gondolas had twelve oars, later they became smaller and acquired a little cabin (“felze”). For a while, they were heavy with ornamentation and it was getting so bad that the local authorities had to ban all unnecessary frivolities and, from the 16th century to the modern days, gondolas are only allowed to have a curly tail and a pair of seahorses. However, the upholstery inside the boat can be as bright and outrageous as the owner decides.
Gondolas are built of almost 300 separate pieces with fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime wood, just like in the old days. There are only three boatyards remain open in Venice today, although they are mostly used for repairs rather than constructing new vessels.
At the peak of their popularity as a means of transport, at the 17th and 18th centuries, there were almost ten thousand gondolas gliding on the Venetian canals. Today there are just over 400 of them, used mostly by tourists.
The gondolier’s licence used to be passed from father to son, or to another male family member. Thus driving a Venetian gondola has always been very much a ‘closed shop’. However, a few years ago a local woman, Giorgia Boscolo, became the first ever female gondola driver, breaking centuries-long traditions.
So what to expect from a gondola ride? A uniformed gondolier in a stripy top, black trousers and a straw boater with a ribbon will take you down the Grand Canal. You can arrange a different, quieter route, on smaller canals. The gondolier will give you some brief information about the landmarks you pass, and, if you are lucky, will even sing you “O Sole Mio”.
Photos by: Tony Hammond, Kenneth Garcia