My date with the Gondolier

Last century…. (and it truly was last century!), when Graeme and I were in Venice, neither of us could afford to take a gondola ride.  But this century, the budget will stand the exorbitant rate for a spin around the waterways of Venice.  What a “regalo di compleanno di divertimento presenti!”

We’d sought some information from our oracle tour guide, Aida yesterday about organising a gondolier trip.  She informed us that the minimum price is fixed!   €80 for about 30 minutes.  But the trick is to not only get your full 30 minutes, but to make sure that your gondolier informs you about the sites you pass, history and life on the canals in Venice.  A song or two is also supposed to be included in the deal.   She warned us that with so many groups from Asia now, who don’t really interact with the gondolier, they have become quite lazy and basically just punt around the canals without talking to their clients.  Any talking that they do now is to yell greetings or insults to other gondoliers as they pass by each other.

Aida, also told us the story of a german woman, Alex Hai who was the first woman to try and become a gondoliera in this male dominated profession.  She was failed in her entrance exams 8 times between 1999 and 2010 and still to this day has not been allowed to become a member of the Gondolier’s Association.  Fortunately she enjoys the patronage of Count Marcella, from a wealthy Venetian family and she can still operate as a free-lancer with pre-booked clients.  The second woman to become a Gondolier, was an Italian girl from a 7 generation gondolier family.  She passed the exams first time and was admitted to the association in 2010, but doesn’t work any longer as a gondoliera.

So armed with all this information and checking the weather forecast today, we arrived early at a gondolier station near our hotel.  We were early.  At 9am most of the gondolier’s were still busy mopping out their boats from the heavy overnight rain.  But our guy, Lorenzo was super organised and keen to take our money.    He figured out pretty quickly that we wanted the full monty, explanations and a bit of singing and he did his best. There was also a little bit of excitement initially as we reversed into the Grand Canal right into the path of an approaching Vaporetta.   These ferries don’t stop for anyone or anything, so Lorenzo really had to put his back into paddling to get us to the safety of a nearby inner canal.    Here’s a clip of our ride.   As you will hear, I’d probably recommend that Lorenzo keep his gondolier job and not audition for any singing roles!!

The rain was due to start again mid-morning but it held off long enough to allow us to wander to the Rialto Bridge and markets and then delve further into the San Polo and Dosodura neighbourhoods finally ending up at a quirky tapas bar in the student area of Campo Santa Margherita.

It was really chucking down now, so we headed to Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti where there was an art exhibition inspired by the images of the Hubble Space Telescope.   As well as viewing some really interesting art, it was an also an opportunity to go inside one of the many palaces that line the Grand Canal.  It was vast. The exhibition was only held in a few rooms on the first floor, but alongside these rooms was a huge ballroom and then another two floors of rooms which the public cannot access.   Extraordinarily elaborate decoration adorned every room that we saw.  The wealth of Venice back in the 17th & 18th centuries must have been something to behold.

It was late afternoon now and still pouring with rain.  But the tourists were still trudging around the city dressed in rain-soaked puffa jackets and saturated trainers!  Gra also pointed out that there’d also be a few locals amongst the crowds.  “Well they don’t have a choice, do they?  If they want to go somewhere they have to walk!”   Unlike the hardened locals and other crazy tourists, we felt a bit lazy and returned to our hotel room for a spa bath and a nanna-nap.   How decadent is that?

Somehow we managed to arise in time to arrive at a restaurant before the kitchen closed that evening.   Over dinner, Graeme and I talked about our impressions of Venice.   We agreed it’s a totally fascinating place.   But it must a nightmare to try and actually live here with all the tourists constantly invading your already cramped space.  Without knowing for sure, I expect that any native Venetians are extremely private which may account for the less than super-friendly responses from shop keepers, waiting and hotel staff.  They are not unfriendly.  Just a bit disinterested and detached.

I was also shocked at the lack of care for the environment in Venice, aside from the medieval sewerage system, there were so many little things like providing us only with polystyrene cups in our room and servicing our linen and towels everyday.     Having said all that, Venice is an incredible place, full of history, art, music, religion and culture.  Yes it’s a totally over-crowded tourist experience – but you can still find yourself lost down a back alley of the Jewish Ghetto or Dosodura and totally alone.   We packed a lot into our three days here, but we both thought we could fill another week easily.   I think that says a lot for such a small place.

Tomorrow morning we were due to pick up Rick, our friend from France from the airport. Unfortunately, both Liz & Rick’s work commitments and a bit of winter weather chaos in Les Carroz has conspired to make their visit just too hard.  They’ve had to cancel. Such a shame, we had been looking forward to skiing with them and showing them our amazing little corner of the Dolomites.   Oh well there’s always another trip to Europe…and if they sell their chalet, maybe we’ll see them in NZ again!  Fingers crossed.


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