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How to steer a Venetian gondola

If you are a woman planning a trip to Venice, Italy, put three names in your Venetian vocabulary that are bound to impress tourists and locals alike:

1. Giorgia Boscolo: The first female gondolier who earned her license in August, 2010, ending more than 900 years of male dominance in this profession.

2. Shandra Anderson: My daughter, native Californian, who took Jane’s class last September with ArtViva, and somehow or other impressed her instructor enough to let her venture forth, oar in hand, down the Grand Canal.

3. ___________ (Your name): Who knows? You might have the knack too. There are a couple of ways to see if you should quit your day job, move to Venice, and start maneuvering a 1,100 pounds, 35 foot long boat. Yes, you might become a gondolier!

Presently, only about 400 gondoliers have licenses to navigate the waterways of Venice. This ancient profession used to be passed from father to son before a “school” for gondoliers was established. Often, the widow inherited the license upon her husband’s death and she passed it to a family member of her choice. No wonder Italian sons are devoted to their moms; gondoliers are among the highest paid people in Venice, averaging over $150,000 a year.

But if you are not Venetian and not male, don’t give up the ship. You can have a fantastic two hour lesson, booked through ArtViva, for 80 euros ( Jane, who moved to Venice from Australia over twenty years ago, will meet you and up to three other perspective gondoliers, to see if you have what it takes. At the harbor, you will have your introduction, history, and cultural lesson. Then Jane will lead you out to the lagoon for what might be a relaxing day for some and a harrowing hour for others.

To put it mildly, I was a flop. The oar is not too heavy and the water not too deep, but I looked like a drunk wobbling all over the boat. On the other hand, my daughter balanced herself and the boat like a pro.

So, I relinquished my desire to pick up a new profession and sat back to enjoy the view. After about an hour in the lagoon, Jane asked my daughter if she’d like to steer the vessel down The Grand Canal. Shandra said, “Sure.” Crowds draped themselves over the bridges, cheering us onward. Ever so often someone would “High Five” us and belt out, “Bella!” None of the licensed gondoliers offered to sell my daughter his license, but we did stop after at a kiosk to buy black and white striped pants and shirts. Who knows when they’ll come in handy.

Since returning home and persuading my daughter not to give up her day job, I have heard of other ways to become a gondolier. You can head on down to Bacino Orseolo, the gondola parking lot in Venice. It lies just north of the northwest corner of Piazza San Marco. A number of boats linger here, and perhaps you will be lucky to find a gondolier who will mentor you. You can phone Venice’s Academy of Gondolering (011 39 041529871 from the United States) and see if your schedule and theirs are a good fit. These options, though, are more expensive than the introductory ArtViva tour. Definitely, you will need to practice, practice, and practice. It is a physically demanding job to not jolt your passengers into narrow canal walls. Then you have to pass the exam by the Gondolier Association. This will test your navigating skills and knowledge of Venice’s culture and history. They do require that you know English too. In case you’re worried, you do not have to sing, but it never hurts to know the tune to “Arrivederci Roma.”

I have sat in gondolas a number of times, complete with accordion players and semi-opera singers. I have learned each time of the history of the boat and the background of the gondolier. It has always been great. How could it not be – you’re in Venice. But actually submerging ourselves into this elite trade guild gave the gondola experience a whole new realm. It made Venice seem like it could become home.

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