Of course we were excited as we stepped into the gondola, who wouldn’t be? It is the ultimate Venice experience, gliding along romantic waterways, past Venetian palaces and under kissing bridges, while being serenaded by a handsome gondolier. Ok, so maybe I’ve watched too many movies.
Venetian gondoliers are a tight knit group as evidenced in the way they chat and joke with each other as they propel by. But this camaraderie stems from more than just a working familiarity, it is formed by a shared heritage that is unique to the profession…you literally have to be “born to do it.”
As we glided through the canals Alberto didn’t sing to us, what he did do was speak with passion about the history of his home town and his family lineage. “I am very lucky to live in the heart of Venice thanks to my Grandfather who left me his apartment, otherwise I could not afford the price.” It costs about $10,000 US per sq mt to buy a home on the island of Venice and double that on the Grand Canal.
“You cannot just decide to be a gondolier in Venice. It is a privilege that is handed down through generations. ”
But that is not the only gift his family gave him. “You cannot just decide to be a gondolier in Venice.” He said in between “ciaos” to his colleagues. “It is a privilege that is handed down through generations. I have been a gondolier for 17 years but I had to wait for my father to retire first.”
By this time we had entered the Grand canal and Alberto switched topics to point out the sights like Rialto Bridge, the Ca’ d’Oro and the famous fish market. It was March and there were not as many gondolas on the water as there would be in a couple of months, but the weather was clear and mild. “You have come at a perfect time.” He said.
In between the standard tourist spiel he continued with his story. “There are a maximum of 433 licensed gondoliers in Venice and that number cannot be increased.” The only way to obtain a license is through a family member and it is usually passed from father to the first born son. If there is no son to pass to then it can be handed to another family member, including daughters. Though I have yet to see a female gondolier myself. In fact Alberto joked that if a gondolier’s wife does not give him a son they simply kill her and remarry. If that doesn’t work, as a last resort the license can be passed on to the son of another gondolier.
“To them it is just a business, they don’t understand our traditions and so we are losing them.”
“It is the last real tradition of Venice and we hope it will not die out like so many other things have .” He is referring to the fact that many Venetians have left the city in search of more affordable living and the family run businesses have been replaced with foreign investment. “It is a sad thing. Businesses that have been in families for generations are sold to strangers who don’t have the same love for our home. To them it is just a business, they don’t understand our traditions and so we are losing them.” We hear this story time and again as we travel, sadly it is the downside of a changing and shrinking world.
We float along in silence for a while, taking in the unique beauty that is Venice. As we do, I ponder what it must be like to belong to such a rich history and to have to watch it sink into oblivion, as the city itself is said to be doing. After a few minutes I prompt him to tell us more. “If we want to take over our family license we have to become a member of the Gondolier’s Guild.” This governing group has been around for over 1000 years. “We also have to go to school for one year where we will learn the history of Venice and also French, English and Spanish. They will probably want to add Russian and Chinese soon.” he laughed as he expertly maneuvered us back into the slip we had started from.
“I am already famous on many websites.”
I was not ready for the ride or the conversation to be over but at 80 Euro we weren’t about to extend the journey. I asked Alberto if we could take his photo and use it on our site. “Of course, no problem. I am already famous on many websites.” He smiled for the camera and his fellow gondolier chuckled as he held out his hand to help us off the boat and onto the dock.
As we walked away, quite likely to get lost for the hundredth time, I thought about the legacy of the Venetian gondolier. It made me look at Venice a little differently. As a visitor to a place with such a rich history and huge focus on tourism you can often forget that it is also home for some. There are families there, like Alberto’s, that have called Venice home for generations and are trying to hold on to pieces of their dying culture.
So if you are in Venice and debating the rather steep price of a gondola, keep in mind that it is more than just a boat ride. It is a chance to experience one of the few remaining Venetian traditions with a member of an elite group that has been around for over 1,000 years. I’d say it’s worth the price.
- When selecting a gondolier you shouldn’t have to worry about looking for the best price as it is set by the city and cannot be raised or lowered by the gondoliers themselves (although I’m sure it is done at times so be aware). In Feb, 2015 it was 80 Euro for 30 minutes for 1-4 people. I believe that the price does increase to 100 Euro in the evening.
- If you don’t mind sharing your ride, look for another couple to share with and cut the cost.
- Since you don’t have to shop around for price you can base your choice on other things. You might want to choose a certain area of canals or maybe chat with the gondolier first to find one that’s cheerful and friendly. Of course this will be harder to do in the busy season when you can’t pick and choose.
- In the warmer months the evening is the nicer time to go, especially if you’re looking for romance. However in the cooler months I would go for a day ride. Not only because of the weather but because many of the restaurants along the canals will not be open in the off season and therefore the view won’t be lit with candles and twinkle lights.
- Don’t expect your gondolier to sing to you like in the movies as most of them don’t…although it doesn’t hurt to ask.