Have you ever done something so incredibly touristy that you felt like you might as well be holding a neon sign that says “I Am A Tourist”? Perhaps posed your photo so that you were holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, sat down in the middle of the Four Corners grid, or kissed the Blarney Stone? I have shamelessly done many (though I have never held a neon sign!). Many of these are like rites of passage. They might not be “authentic” or “what the locals do”, but they have some significance, be it cultural, social, or just as something to cross off of the travel bucket list. Sometimes they are just so silly, cheeky, or fun that you just want to do it and say you did it, no matter how much of a tourist it makes you.
Venice is truly one of the most unique cities I have ever seen. The canals, the winding alleys, and the wide open squares all lend a little bit of personality to this network of islands. It is also home to one of the most touristy experiences in all of Europe- the gondola ride. Gondolas are an essential piece of this floating city’s history as they were once an actual means of transportation. Now it seems that they (and most other historical boats) have been taken over in a practical sense by larger and/or motorized watercraft and play a mostly aesthetic role. Gondoliers in striped shirts shuttle tourists through the canals for a price, and riders who want a private boat or a longer ride can expect to shell out even more. Up and down the waterways rides are advertised through signs and shouts in many languages, but we booked ours through a third party tour company before even leaving the states. It gave us a structured, scheduled time which made planning the rest of the day easier, and using a company that we trusted gave us the peace of mind that our money was going where it was supposed to go (we realize we paid a bit more by booking this way instead of waiting until we got to Venice, but for us the peace of mind and scheduled time were worth the extra fee).
When we arrived at our designated dock and loaded into our boat, two things quickly became apparent: 1. Gondolas are not very spacious, and 2. Gondolas are not very sturdy. We took the less expensive option of sharing a ride with two other couples. And there is only one real bench on the gondola that seats two, while the other four of us sat with our knees to our chests on what seemed like chairs from a child’s playset. As everyone was getting settled in, the boat was tipping precariously, which did not phase the gondolier at all but made the rest of us tense up a little. As we pulled away from the dock, the gondolier was having a humorous (based on the jovial tone and intermittent laughter) conversation in Italian with another gondolier on a neighboring boat, who we rode side by side with for much of the beginning of our journey. Looking up at him a few more times, I noticed him idly steering with one arm as he looked down at his cell phone. Texting and driving, Venice-style?
Once we left the Grand Canal and turned down a much smaller waterway, he began to sing. I’m not sure if it was his voice, the fact that it was in Italian, or echoing acoustics of the narrow alley that made it so lovely. I was admiring the old buildings, soaking in the sunshine, and dreamily nodding my head in time with his melody, so it startled me quite a bit when he suddenly switched to English and belted out, in the same tune as his original song, “I love spaghetti!” Talk about ruining the moment! All six of us couldn’t help but laugh and he even garnered a few giggles from a nearby gondola as well. I had been recording but unfortunately ended the clip just before this bit of improv.
We returned to the dock after our exactly forty minute ride. The couple who’d had the luck of sitting on the real bench for the journey happily traded seats with us so that we could get a photo, and the other couple who was in the boat with us also took a photo on the good seat as our singing gondolier happily posed behind us. We bid him a fond farewell before heading off to continue our sightseeing, which including following an audio walking tour that we had downloaded. During this tour we learned a bit more about gondoliers, mainly that the profession is very strictly controlled and was once a trade that was passed down from father to son. It also requires a very difficult exam and LOTS of practice.
Was it the most beautiful and romantic thing I have ever done? No, not by a long shot. Was it a very pleasant part of a lovely day in Venice? Definitely. Do I think everyone should do it at least once? Absolutely!