I have been totally fascinated by gondolas since the first time I first saw one over 30 years ago. Amazingly, I have never been on a proper gondola ride! I must remedy that next time I go. Symbolic of Venice and its rich history of splendour and elegance, each gondola is a beautiful work of art and craftmanship.
Between 10.8 and 11 metres long and weighing 350 kgs, a gondola is hand-crafted from 280 separate parts. Traditionally made from 8 different types of wood (but more commonly made today from marine plywood) gondolas are handmade by skilled master shipwrights in special boatyards knows as ‘squeri’. Few of these remain but you can still see the gondolas being made and repaired at the San Trovaso Squero in the sestriere of Dorsoduro, just around the corner from the Zattere vaporetto stop (line #2)- see picture below left.
Gondolas are well-suited to the canals of Venice due to their narrow shape, shallow draft and excellent maneuverability. The skill lies with the gondolier whose knowledge of how to balance his own weight against the weight of the gondola and its load is crucial. Looking closely at a gondola, you will see that it is in fact ‘wonky’! It is specially designed to offset the weight of a single gondolier operating the craft with a single oar. Very clever design!
These days Venice’s 500 gondolas are for tourists with the exception of a very few that operate as canal crossings in between bridges. You will notice these by the fact that the passengers are standing up! Don’t try this yourself – it takes years of practice!! Years ago, gondolas also had a wooden cabin on top to protect the passengers but this practice has since died out as the view is better for tourists from an open gondola.
The gondolas are lovingly cleaned and tidied by the gondoliers each morning and are equipped with lavish seating, blankets and often – music (unless you are lucky enough to have your very own singing gondolier!) It is easy to find a gondola, should you wish to treat yourself to a ride. They are situated at special gondola stops around the most touristic parts of Venice, often wearing the stereotypical stripy top and straw hat.
Prices are government controlled and are usually displayed. I believe the cost is about €80 per half an hour with an extra €40 for every additional 20 minutes. Nightime rides are slightly more at €100/€50. I am reliably informed that it is beneficial to haggle a bit with your gondolier. Consider taking a longer tour than the bare minimum and establish the route you would like to take beforehand. Failure to do so can, apparently, result in a disappointing ‘once round the block’!
A fascinating piece of information which I have only just discovered is about the ‘ferro di gondola’ or gondola iron. This is also knows as the ‘ferro di prua’ or ‘dolfin’. It is the piece of metal at the prow of the gondola. Its purpose is to protect the gondola from collision with other water-borne craft and also to offset the weight of the gondolier at the opposite end of the gondola. The ‘fero da pròra’ as it’s known in Veneziano can weigh anything from 10 kgs upwards depending on the metal used.
Its unique shape is made up of several symbolic parts. The curved nature of the metallic structure represents the winding Grand Canal with the wider part at the top symbolising both the place where the Canal opens out into the wide basin at the San Marco end as well as the shape of the Doge’s hat. The 6 teeth represent the 6 sestrieri of Venice, with the single tooth facing the opposite direction representing the island of Giudecca. The arc above the teeth represents the Rialto Bridge. In the more ornate versions, the teeth are grouped by more ornate lesser teeth (see above left) apparently indicating the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. Isn’t that fascinating!
If you are interested in boat building or in reading more about how gondolas are made, check out this link which gives a fascinating explanation of the origins and symbolism of gondola building The site is in Italian and English (although the English is a bit unfortunate!)
For more information about the history of the gondola, have a look here http://www.venicethefuture.com/schede/uk/231?aliusid=231
A lovely book about the gondola entitled ‘Gondola’ has been written by author Donna Leon who has also written some brilliant Venice-based detective novels about the adventures of Venetian Commisario Guido Brunetti (I have read all 25 of them!). I also recommend Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. I dedicate this post to my lovely friend @alpal_1971.
Next Island: For now it’s time to say Arrivederci to Venice and Hola to the Islas Canarias!