Rowing in Venice, venetian style

To console myself for not making it to Hazewinkel in 2015, I decided to fulfil a long-held dream and visit Venice.

And, of course, with all that water, I simply had to find a way to get an oar in my hand.

I googled rowing clubs to see if it was at all possible to pre-arrange a row but, with everything in Italian, I struggled.

Then I discovered Row Venice. This non-profit organisation, run mostly by women, aims to keep alive the venetian cultura acquea—the water culture—and part of that is offering rowing lessons in the traditional venetian style, or voga alla veneta.

What a hoot, I thought—learn to row like a gondolier!

I booked their 2.5-hour sunset lesson which includes stopovers at a couple of bàcari (bars) to sample traditional cichetti (like tapas) and wines. In truth, this was a strategy to lure my landlubber sister along for the ride (she fell for it).

All that day, I watched gondoliers row lazily up and down the city’s hectic main thoroughfare—the Grand Canal. They stand up and face forward, leaning in to the oar. And like all good rowers they make it look easy.

But, hey, it’s just backing, right?

At 5 pm, on a quiet, serene canal in the Cannaregio district, Felix, our patient instructor, welcomed us aboard our vessel and showed us the basics.

The traditional wooden boat was a batela coda di gambero (shrimptail), more stable than a gondola.

As we set off, I found it hard to get the stance right—facing the bow, you place your right foot forward and push off your back foot. The stroke is like backing, but a bit trickier because, with no gate, the oar can easily pop out of the fórcola (rowlock).

And my left hand kept sliding down the loom; ‘You need to keep it in front of your hip’, Felix said, many many times.

With Felix steering from high on the stern, I began to relax, listening to the plop of the oar reverberate against the high walls, ducking down here and there to float under a small bridge.

But things were about to get exciting.

‘Is that the Grand Canal?’, I asked, as we approached a turbulent body of water. Yes.

‘Are we going out there?’, I asked, incredulous. Yes.

Whoa! What a ride. As we traversed the canal, the traffic was coming from all angles. I felt like a learner driver emerging on to an 8-lane highway. And I didn’t know the road rules!

I was now sweating—not only was it an adrenalin rush, it was hard work, and I had already been rowing for about an hour. But I felt elated.

The return crossing was just as exhilarating.

Then, safely back in a narrow tranquil canal, Felix was brave enough to let me try steering. ‘This is where you could go for a swim’, he said.

Standing that bit higher in the boat did feel precarious, like being on a camel. And, true to form, my steering was lousy.


This is how to steer a gondola around corners:

Some people say that Venice is dirty, it’s smelly, it’s expensive, the food is lousy. This was not my experience. Yes, it’s full of tourists (duh), but I think you just have to accept that and give yourself up to it—you’re a tourist too.

To me, the city defies belief. It is magical. A fairytale, but real.

Everyone should visit Venice once in their life.

[Grazie mille to my big sis for being a great sport and for taking the video].

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