Ah, the romantic visions of Venetian gondoliers in black and white stripes rowing couples snuggled up together beneath the bridges of Venice. That vision is probably the most iconic image of the city built on water. But have you ever wondered what it is like to actually stand up on the back of gondola and row one? I did! I wondered if there was such a thing as gondola lessons in Venice.
Enter Jane Caporal, owner of Venice’s only rowing school for tourists, Row Venice. She and her team of expert rowers, some of whom even compete in the various rowing competitions and regatas, aim to teach non-Venetians about the wonderful art of rowing. I must admit as the day of my lesson approached, I was nervous about involuntarily taking a swim in the canal. Tim was even betting on it.
Jane, an Brit who grew up in Australia and has lived in Venice for 20+ years, met me on a cloudy fall morning at the Ponte de a Sacca on Venice’s north side. Here her boatis moored along the canal and she tells me she lives just a few canals over. The boat is a Batella, a style of wooden boat originally designed to carry cargo, slightly different than the traditional gondolas designed to carry passengers. Jane tells me, “A gondola is a very technical boat and it’s something to aspire to, not to learn on.”
My two hour lesson begins with me climbing aboard, the gondola rocking like crazy (and not because of the water). I lunge with one foot parallel to the oarlock and the other set back for stability. Jane demonstrates how to properly hold the heavy 15-meter long wooden oar and has me practice pushing the shaft of the oar forward, gliding the narrow blade back through the water. When my arms are as outstretched as they go, I rotate the shaft, lift the oar out of the water, and swing it forward for another stroke. She smiles at me and says, “Ready?” Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess! I take my position at the front of the boat and we start out rowing down the canal in tandem.
Jane’s paddle barely ripples the water while I, on the other hand, make splashes and fight against the current. She corrects my technique and things become a bit easier. “You’re getting the hang of it!”, she encouragingly says. I multitask, finding a rhythm in rowing while also shuffling the oar to shorten or lengthen it as we pass by other moored boats and bridges. Those gondoliers sure do make this look a whole lot easier than it really is!
The plan was to row out into the lagoon where we would have the space to make navigational errors as I took my place at the back of the gondola and learned how to steer. As the tiny canal emerged out to the lagoon, however, we were met with a surprise! Things really got rocky for a few minutes when we were met with what looked like a giant bulldozer aboard a barge as it dredged the lagoon. Jane quickly steered us over to and into another canal as I regained my footing.
It was here in this canal where I really got a challenge. Jane felt I was doing well enough at the front that she allowed me to switch places with her and attempt to steer us down the canal. Yes, attempt. To help me out, she ties a rope around the oar as it rests in the forcola (the oarlock) so that the oar doesn’t jump out of place. And off we go, with me balancing ever so precariously at the aft and trying not to hit other moored boats as I row down the canal.
I nearly had a stroke as a motor boat came flying around a corner, clearly doing well over the speed limit of 5 kilometers per hour, and almost hit us head on. You see, there are rules of the canal just as there are rules of the road. Boats are supposed to call out as they approach “corners” (didn’t happen). Gondolas always pass other boats on the left since passing to the right is impossible since the oar extends out of the forcola on the right side. It’s a bit like the British way of driving on the left!
We switched back, Jane taking her rightful place at the aft, and I finally relaxed into a natural rhythm of rowing while actually looking straight ahead and enjoying the views as we passed by a squero (where gondolas are made) and palazzos. I was finally making it look easy; locals voiced their approval as we passed by their boats and tourists on bridges snapped our photos as two women gondoliers glided beneath them.
Gondola lessons in Venice were truly the most unique and off-the-beaten path Venice experience I have ever had. I highly recommend you book your own gondola lessons with Jane’s team at Row Venice!
Know Before You Go
- Row Venice offers lessons for singles for €60, doubles for €40 per person, and even has a family rate of €100 for two adults and two children.
- Children should be about 10 years of age in order to handle the oar; however, children of all ages are welcome to ride along during your lesson.
- Lessons are offered in English or Italian.
- Each lesson lasts 2 hours and you should wear gym shoes and comfortable clothing for rowing.
- Contact Jane at [email protected] for available dates and times.
My gondola lesson was hosted by Row Venice in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.