Row Venice: Adventures in Snacking and Gondoliering
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Part of me expected not to like Venice. I had hazy memories of a busy one day drive by during my scruffy college backpacking years. My only intact memories were of an uber-expensive coke on St. Mark's Square and pigeons everywhere.
I think that's the problem with visiting Venice. So often, people do it as a one day trip and only see St. Marks. And St. Marks is often filled not with the agreeable smell of old church mustiness, but the smell of tourists. So they're underwhelmed and label Venice "overrated" or overly "crowded."
I almost feel the need to remind these goofballs that Venice is a city built entirely on the water. There is nowhere else in the world like it. And the maze of tiny streets and canals is not restricted to commercialized St. Marks. No, there's an actual city waiting to be discovered. And Venice gives up its secrets slowly.
This visit, we had five luscious days in Venice. We were greedy and aimed to discover it all. We wanted time to soak in the entire place, not just breeze through St. Marks.
Time to see every last canal and try every last gelato shop. Time to explore all the sestieres (neighborhoods) and admire every palazzo. Time to bask on the Lido. And to brunch at the famed Hotel Danieli with Venice's best view.
Aside from gelato, the one thing my daughter wanted was a gondola ride, romantic images of singing gondoliers conjured in her teenage brain.
That was truly the last thing I wanted to do. It's the most cliche I can imagine, worse than Eiffel Tower, Times Square, or Buckingham Palace. Plus, it's rather expensive for a short-lived bucket list experience.
A gondola is a flat-bottomed, wooden boat. It's hand built in special workshops called squeri of which there are still a few today. Gondoliers own and maintain their own boats. It's a craft and career passed down by generation.
Gondolas were once regularly used by Venetians, especially by the upper classes. Hundreds of years ago, 10,000 gondolas plied the canals and lagoon. Peggy Guggenheim, the eccentric art collector and socialite, owned the last private gondola in Venice.
Today, vaporetti have eclipsed gondolas and become the main water transportation system in Venice. Only 400 licensed gondolas remain, catering to tourists.
As a compromise to my daughter, I offered two things. First, I promised we would take a traghetto. A traghetto is a gondola used to ferry multiple passengers back and forth across the canal. While it's not as romantic as a gondola, it's practical, vastly cheaper (2 euros), and you get a great view of the Grand Canal.
Second, our friends suggested we explore the world of gondoliering with Row Venice. Instead of being touristy, we would be productive. We would row our own boat. We would earn out snacks. We would learn to row Venetian style and eat Venetian style. We were all terribly excited by the prospect.
So we signed up for Row Venice's Cicchetto Row and headed to Cannaregio for an adventure in snacking and gondoliering. Cannaregio is a mostly residential sestiere in the northwest of Venice that is largely bereft of crowds but stuffed with quaint cicchetti bars and gelaterias. Cicchetti is basically the equivalent of tapas, little bite size morsels of goodness that sustain you until the real meal at 9:00 or 10:00 pm.
We started off with some opening remarks about gondola history, which I've mentioned above. We moved on to oohing and aching over some of their antique gondolas. Actually, the boats we used were technically not "gondolas" but two person "batela coda di gambero." I'm just going to continue using the phrase gondola.
We were matched up to gondolas and learned the secrets of "voga alla Veneta," or classical Venetian rowing. The directions were: stand up straight, hold the oar, thrust it forward with one leg lunging, and pull back toward your chest. Repeat. It seemed counter-intuitive to me, but it seemed to work.
We were instructed to stand in the bow, which is apparently much easier because you don't have to steer. We glided through narrow canals, past grand palazzi, and into the big Lagoon. "Venice is best seen from the water," our instructors said.
Sounds easy, right? My college rower husband was the only one who seemed completely at ease. He thought rowing his own boat was "easy." Perhaps because of this obnoxious comment, I managed not to save a picture of. Instead, I will post one of our friend Chris smiling confidently as he rows his own boat.
My daughter, with her stick arms, couldn't make much progress. She also appeared fearful of capsizing on the wide open lagoon, were one might expect a wobble of confidence. It's an exciting but humbling experience, after all.
But we were assured that no clients had tipped over a gondola. And none of us fell into a canal, which is saying something because we are rather a klutzy family.
After some rowing, it was naturally time for a snack. In Cannaregio, there is a magical stretch of bars and restaurants along the Fondamenta Misericordia and Fondamenta Ormesini. We pulled up to Vino-Vero for our first snack of the evening. Far from St. Marks and surrounded by locals, we munched on various crostini concoctions.
Back in our gondolas, we rowed through the narrow back canals of Cannaregio. It seemed perilous. I was certain we would crash on the tight turns. But buoyed by our snacks and instructors, we managed.
Plus, we knew more snacks awaited. And gelato.