What do you do when gondola rides start at $175 for 30 minutes? Take lessons!
Al and I have both been to Venice before (I have actually been twice in the same month – but that’s another story). Neither one of us had ever been in a gondola, and now we understand why!
We researched rides online and looked at prices in person, and couldn’t believe how expensive they were. We watched gondoliers scrape past each other on crowded waterways and saw looks on people’s faces that said it all. I can’t believe I spent all my wine money on getting stuck in a watery tourist jam.
We decided on another option – learning to row ourselves.
Our guide, Caroline, came to Venice from France 18 years ago. Although a champion rower, she could not get a job as a gondolier with two strikes against her: being female and not from a long line of gondoliers born in Venice.
Instead Caroline works for Row Venice, a group of female rowers who have banded together to teach the sport to others. Many are award winning rowers who participate in regattas worldwide, including Caroline. She is also a painter and sculptor.
Our lesson took place on a traditional, hand-crafted Venetian batellina. These were the typical boats used to ferry people and supplies throughout Venice until motor boats came along.
Batellinas are flat and stable, and make great boats to learn on. They are also far less gaudy than the gondolas most people find themselves on, which are fashioned after boats used by nobles and other important people.
Our 90-minute lesson took place on the functional canals that Venetians use to run supplies to their doors or get to work. As we puttered along, we saw a lumber yard, a school and a dry dock.
The boat itself has two positions for rowing. Solo rowers stand at the back like in a canoe. Two people can also row at the same time with one person standing towards the front.
We rowed out into the lagoon, and were surprised to find how shallow it is. In some places the lagoon is no deeper than 50 cm. We plunged our oar into the water and were able to touch the bottom.
Rowing itself was pretty easy when in the forward position. But the back required a bit more balance, and we all needed a couple more hours to really get the hang of it!
Learning to row was not cheap, but it was certainly a lot better value than a 20 minute gondola ride. We got to understand a bit more about everyday life in Venice, and hang out on the water!