Mark Nicholls visits Venice, where he goes beyond the usual tourist sites to take lessons in rowing like a real gondolier…
Photos by Sharon Nicholls unless otherwise stated
Nan McElroy is patiently attempting to teach me the technique. The words grip, twist, lunge, push and return are in the instructions, chanted like a coded mantra, but I’m not sure I have them all in the correct order. I am in Venice, with a long oar in hand, balancing on a narrow vessel, and the image that I have in my mind is that I am learning to row like a real gondolier.
The reality, perhaps, is somewhat different. For starters, my vessel – the one I board for the 90-minute lesson – is not actually a gondola. Nan explains that to me. I had suspected that already but she breaks the news gently that I was not being let loose on a real gondola. The vessel, however, is still very traditional and Venetian. It’s a batela coda di gambero – the shrimp-tailed batela – and it does look like a gondola. That’s good enough for me. What matters, what is important, I tell myself, is that the technique is the same – it’s just a case of getting the grips, twists, lunges, pushes and returns in the right order.
Rowing at the prow
My lesson starts with an introduction to the batela, a vessel which is ideal for us beginners as they are so stable and comfortable. Wisely, I start in the front of the vessel, with Nan initially getting me to concentrate on the basic stroke for rowing a prua (at the prow) while she keeps things on the straight and narrow, steering at the rear and perhaps also assisting with the forward motion as I make progress along the Madonna Dell’Orto canal.
This is where the lessons with Row Venice take place and, conveniently, I am collected from just outside the Hotel Heureka where I am staying in one of the ten lovely rooms in this quiet suburb of Venice, the sestiere of Cannaregio. I am well away from the M1-style marine traffic of the Grand Canal and on this back-lane artery traffic is light – the occasional gondola, a service boat, and even a few people exploring this part of the city on stand-up paddle boards. But somewhere along the line, I manage to get a little of the technique right and we gently move forward. Nan seems suitably impressed.
She is at least impressed enough to let me take the rear of the vessel and finally stand gondolier-style to try rowing a poppa – steering the boat myself at the stern, just like a gondolier, using the long oar as a counter balance and attempting to sustain the correct technique. It is fun – more fun than I imagined – and for an hour or so, we gondolier up and down the canals.
Of course, as with any skill, one that looks effortless for the professionals who along the Grand Canal and negotiate some of the narrower Venetian waterways, it is all about technique. And for a few fleeting moments, I feel as though I may have it right, and then find my oar flaps free of its runner and Nan takes the helm.
Madonna of the garden
We drift past the Heureka Hotel, where my lesson began. A few strokes later and we are beside the church of the Madonna Dell’Orto – the Madonna of the Garden – in the area of Venice where vegetables were grown before the demand for space became too great. From here, we pass under bridges and beside water-lapped homes with washing strung out from balconies. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Rioba restaurant, where we had a lovely meal one evening, the stand where we had gelato with scoops of choc mint chip and coconut ice cream, and the little café where we had a light lunch. I know they are there as I’d walked the fondamenta several times, but hardly see them now as I focus on my oaring.
Occasionally, river taxis pass and service boats go beneath bridges. We halt and hug the canal wall as they pass, and then sheepishly allow a gondola and two curious tourists to row elegantly ahead of us before we proceed. There is effort, but it is fun too. During the lessons, there can be up to four trainees in a boat at a time and the lesson tends to go along the quieter canals or, when weather – and skill and confidence permits – out into the lagoon. Row Venice has 20 instructors, and all of them are women.
“Our goals are the diffusion of this kind of rowing,” explains Nan. “We give out information and encourage women into rowing; we offer lessons and are supportive of anything that promotes this kind of rowing and keeps it part of the culture of Venice.”
As my lesson draws to a close, after a tour that took me across three canals and round to the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia – having not in the least mastered the art of rowing a batela, let alone a sleek gondola – we finally moor up again beside the Hotel Heureka.
Do I qualify for the straw boater, the flowing ribbon, the tailor-cut trousers and blue striped T-shirt? Hardly, although I was momentarily tempted to buy a T-shirt from a canalside souvenir stall. I opted for a fridge magnet instead.
Lessons with Row Venice
The rowing lesson/experience is organised by Row Venice, a non-profit organisation with goals of keeping the tradition alive, offering lessons to tourists, giving free lessons to local school children, supporting regattas and helping women get into the sport/profession. While my batela does not have the sleek glamour of a gondola, it does have a tradition and predates its better-known rival. These hand-crafted boats often appeared in paintings by Carpaccio, Guardi, and Canaletto and were once the most numerous vessels on the lagoon, but began to disappear in the
mid-20th century with the advent of outboard motor boats. “Today, there are only seven in existence,” explains Nan, “and they are all replicas. We operate four of them, having had two built. They are perfect for first time rowers and very stable.” And then she utters those magic words: “If you can row one of these boats, you can row a gondola.” That was good enough for me.
Mark Nicholls stayed at the Hotel Heureka in the Cannaregio area, overlooking the Madonna Dell’Orto canal. Junior Suites with canal view (from €460) and garden view (€370), a Grand Deluxe Room (from €270) and Deluxe Room (from €210), are available. The Heureka Suite (from €1,200, is available on request). Prices are per room and include buffet breakfast, service and VAT.
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