Why hire a Venice gondola when you can learn to row a gondola and Venetian rowing techniques on Venice’s Grand Canal with Venice on Board.
Venice gondola experiences are one of those things you just have to do, no matter how touristy and trashy it may be. Well, that’s what we were thinking on our second day in Venice. But there’s a major difference between dreams and reality and once on the ground in the canal city of Italy’s northeast, we were disappointed to see how clogged the waterways were with gondolas filled with selfie-taking visitors missing the moment.
So that got us thinking. How can you experience a gondola ride without living the stereotype? What happens to Venice gondolas when they need repairs? Wait a moment. Can we take a lesson where we learn to row a gondola? Thankfully, you can! And what’s more, a gondola lesson is cheaper than a gondola ride.
Gondola Lessons from the locals
Venice on Board is a small not-for-profit business of passionate Venetians wanting to preserve the traditional construction methods of over 800 years of gondola making by offering gondola lessons. Hidden away in a back alleyway of Cannaregio, close to the Jewish Ghetto, a part of the city largely invisible to most travelers, is a workshop full of sawdust, ancient tools, and Venetian rowboats in various states of renovation. Old buoys and floatation devices litter the entrance and a lazy alley cat suns itself in the morning warmth.
We’re greeted at the Venice on Board workshop by Luca and Luigi, our gondolier instructors, and also passionate team members who work on the boats in their spare time. The Venice gondola lessons are a way to raise the funds to keep working on the various boats. Before even stepping foot in a gondola, we’re given a tour of the workshop where we could see restorations in progress. We’re taken on a journey through illustrations and a “show and tell” of sorts, as to the history and tradition of rowing in Venice and the importance of preserving these crafts.
Much of the artistry goes into the intricate wood turning of each fórcola, a twisted oar lock that can take months to hand carve and fine tune. Its design allows for the oar to be inserted in a number of angles that determine the rowing style that will propel the boat through the waters of the lagoon.
Learning to row a gondola
Like learning to drive on an automatic sedan, rather than in a Formula 1 vehicle, we learn to row a Venice gondola with training wheels. The Batella or Batellina is a small shallow heeled cargo boat used to transport goods around town. Full gondolas require years of practice to master, so this is the perfect place to start. The basics are the same. You row standing up, you use the same kind of long oar, called a rèmo and the rather complicated oarlock, the fórcola.
But first, you have to enter the batella. Luca, our gondolier steadies the boat as we less-than-gracefully step and stumble from the pontoon and into the flat bottom of the batella. He stays perched at the back to stabilize things as we get comfortable, before taking command at the fórcola, where he inserts the rather cumbersome 15-meter oar into place.
First attempts at Venetian rowing
These backwaters of Cannaregio lie between the Grand Canal and the lagoon, almost like an old industrial area, yet still with an air of romance. It’s the perfect place to find our sea legs with little other traffic on the water. Sliding the oar into the fórcola, first attempts are met with stumbles, swears, and embarrassed giggles. It doesn’t exactly lock the oar in place, so it’s easy to accidentally knock it out of place. Luca steers the batella from the stern, using another oar and his own instructor’s fórcola. This is the equivalent of the second set of pedals in a driving instructor’s car, so it’s hard to go too wrong.
Finding your groove as you row Venice’s canals
Push forward, the motion requires your body to bear most of the weight, with a swift twist of the wrist providing a little thrust that churns up the green waters and red strands of seaweed. Rhythm is important and finding your groove takes a while, but eventually once trusted enough by Luca, we’re encouraged to take control and guide the batella under tiny foot bridges, watching strands of laundry drying above our heads suspended between apartments on both sides of the narrow waterways.
It’s a surreal moment when you lose yourself to the rhythm of the movement and glide past monuments and bridges you stood in awe of earlier in the morning. We watch people walking past on the banks of the canals going about their daily lives, chatting with friends and eating by the canals. It’s such a peaceful and cathartic experience being on the water, but it is also a great feeling of accomplishment—we’re doing this!
A gondola ride on the Grand Canal, powered by you
Now comfortable and displaying some level of competence, Luca steers us out onto the Grand Canal. Woah. Too soon? Suddenly we’re mixing it with the cream of the black and white shirted gondoliers in their fancy gilt and black boats. Tourists are taking photos of us, busting a sweat and displaying none of the grace of their captains.
With time winding down we head back towards the workshop. As we propel our Venice gondola along the side canals, we get chatting to Luca about life in Venice, the daily challenges in a city that attracts so much tourism, the effects of global warming and tides on local homes and businesses, and even about the local music scene.
A gondola lesson is a lesson about Venetian life
He tells us how he has experienced change in the city and how the vast majority of Venetians feel their very way of life is becoming endangered by AirBnBs pricing out residents, or locals heading for bigger cities to pursue careers. That’s why Venice On Board is so important. Luca and his other gondola instructors and restorers want to preserve the craft and the skills that have been such an instrumental part of the fabric of this beautiful destination. It’s moments like these that reward stepping away from the tourist trail with memories you’ll hold dear forever. How often can you say you steered a Venice gondola down the Grand Canal?
We urge you—when in Venice, do as the Venetians do (and support a local business at the same time).
Bernie and Jess Watt are Australian travel bloggers living in New York City. For more Italian travel inspiration, try these adventures.
Venice on Board offer Venetian gondola lessons where you learn how to row a gondola in a historic boat.
Cannaregio 3009/G, Venezia, 30121, Italia
Tel +39 3429610166
The Voga Via experience is a 90-minute gondola lesson with an instructor for 45Euro per person. http://www.veniceonboard.it/en/activities/#vogaviaFollow & Connect with us
Unquestionably this has to be the best way to experience a gondola in Venice. Thanks for sharing this. When next in Venice, I will definitely seek this out. I can’t imagine doing it any other way now. I especially loved the idea of gaining all that local insight from your instructor
That’s what made it truly memorable – he was in a band and could chat about the scene, the people, and the cultural issues at play.
What a great experience! I had heard about this somewhere before. I love that this goes through a non profit and helps to preserve the tradition. Looked really fun!
How cool is this! I’d much rather take a lesson and have bragging rights that I also steered a Venice gondola down the Grand Canal. That’s an experience you’ll tell about forever.
That’s exactly what we thought too after seeing endless jams of tourist filled gondolas
This is one unique and unforgettable experience I am sure! If I ever get to Venice, this is one activity I’d love to do!
I wish I had known this earlier. I opted out of riding a gondola when I was in Venice but this sounds like an amazing experience!
Gondolas just seemed so cheesy. We shared the sentiment but felt this was the best alternative.
What a completely brilliant thing to do! We visited Venice a few years ago and loved it, but it was very crowded. If we return (and we do hope to go back) we are absolutely going to try this – a unique way of seeing a very special place.
We learned a lot about how great Venice can be the moment we walked far enough from the tourist hot spots – completely different city and experience.
That sounds more up.my Street snd sounds like you enjoyed.
It’s the perfect pace and quite cool and breezy on a hot day
That’s really interesting. I suspected we’d always pay the prices asked for and take a rather expensive gondola ride if we ever got to Venice since we tend to do typically tourist things a lot, but there’s a lot of appeal in doing something just a little out of the ordinary too. Can’t imagine I’d be able to persuade my wife to jump up and try this, but you never know.
It’s not that hard or you can just treat her like a queen and let her lounge while you and your instructor do the hard work.
How wonderful to get the opportunity to learn more about gondolas like this! I hadn’t heard of Venice on board, but then I haven’t done any research before going to Venice – plus I’ve always heard everything to do with gondola trips was so extremely expensive that I’ve never considered it.
Cannaregio is a lovely area, I visited in 2016 and it was the first Venice area that I really liked. It was so… normal, and not like set up for tourists, as I’ve experienced many other areas.
It’s such a great way to see the city and the stories you get to hear help explain the vibe and the day to day life. It’s easily the best thing we did in Venice (apart from finding the wine resort, Venissa – see our other Venice posts for that gem). Thanks!