Gliding into the Venetian Sunset
Story and photos by Tom Weber
daylight's descent wanes, heading ever closer and begrudgingly toward
the night, not wanting its place in the sky to end, my band of merry
media guest travel writers and photographers on an abbreviated
Insight Vacations Country Roads of Italy itinerary
resists the pull of the inevitable as well, as it waits along a three-step
landing to begin, sadly, the very last activity of our eight-day journey:
a gondola ride through the narrow side canals of Venice.
Too bad this bittersweet moment has to
center around the gondola, but the person, or persons, who crafted the
itinerary for this media-only familiarization trip, placed it at the
very end. Maybe the author of the travel doc is a romantic, or perhaps
a sadist. I won't ask, so we'll never know.
Gliding along in one of the most iconic
symbols of La Serenissima, the gondola, in the right company
and under a moonlit sky, is as romantic an excursion as you'll ever
experience, so I've been told.
The company I'm with is fine, more like
colleagues vice lovers, at least as far as I can tell. We're most interested
in photographing every inch of this centuries-old flat-bottom tradition
rather than holding hands, exchanging glances and stealing kisses, although,
a few of my "colleagues" are pucker-up worthy (names are being
withheld to protect the innocent and/or embarrassed).
If you're looking to find romance pulsating
from within the lines of this blog post about the gondola, Casanova's
preferred mode of transport, think again. The best I can offer is to
refer you over to another, more famous travel writer: Samuel Langhorne
Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, the "father
of American literature," a great humorist and, on several occasions,
a travel writer of sorts via a series of letters he wrote while in Europe.
On the subject of the gondola and its influence
on the romantic mood, Twain, in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad,
wrote: "...the fairy boat in which the princely cavaliers of the
olden time were wont to cleave the waters of the moonlit canals and
look the eloquence of love into the soft eyes of patrician beauties,
while the gay gondolier in silken doublet touched his guitar and sang
as only gondoliers can sing!"
Like I said, I'm here to document the craft,
the ride and the experience, not to provide narrative about on-board
romantic interludes by lovers in love. After all, what unfolds on a
gondola should remain on said gondola.
Broken down into groups of six, the maximum
amount of passengers permitted on a gondola, our band of merry media,
now aboard the little flotilla of shiny, ebony-black craft, sets sail
from the landing and glides down the first of several canals we'll traverse,
serenaded along the way by a Venetian accordion player.
Stefano, our gondoliere (gondolier)
one of only 425 in the profession licensed by the City of Venice
and a card-carrying member of the Gondoliers' Guild stands above
and near the boat's tail facing forward, balanced like a tightrope walker
under the big top, and rows, one gentle stroke at a time. With the aid
of his nearly four meters-long heavy demo (oar) that's attached
to the forcala (oar lock), which allows the oar to move in different
directions and angles, Stefano maneuvers the stretch limo-on-water around
traffic and through the narrowest rii and rielli (medium
and small size canals) leaving a shadows-into-sunlight rippled trail
behind in the quiet aqua blue water.
As you look around, you might ask yourself,
why are all the gondolas painted black? The answer is simple.
In the 16th century, the city fathers, in an effort to standardize the
look and size of the banana-shaped water taxi moving to and fro, chose
the color black because it was considered the color of elegance and
not that of death red was the color that symbolized mourning
around Venice and it covered over well the black pitch, or resin,
used to seal and waterproof the gondola.
In their heyday, between the 17th and 18th
centuries, gondolas navigating Venice's waterways numbered nearly 10,000.
Today, that number has dwindled to about 400; all devoted entirely to
tourists looking for a hired ride to carry them around picture-postcard
Gondolas, new ones handmade by expert craftsmen,
cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 USD, and are composed
of 280 pieces fabricated from eight different kinds of wood. Sans passengers
and gondolier, the boat weighs around 350 kg, is 10.85 m long by 1.40
m wide. And, the left side of the craft, surprisingly, is a bit longer
than the right side, to ensure that the gondola doesn't favor moving
to the left with every row stroke by the gondolier.
The ferro (iron), the distinctive
ornamentation at the prow, the most forward part of the boat, serves
as the gondola's front bumper protecting it from everyday nicks and
scratches and the occasional collision with other craft occupying the
cramped, shared space.
More than just a bumper, the ferro,
next to the winged lion of St. Mark, is the most recognized symbol of
the Most Serene Republic of Venice and describes in its design the City
The metal band running down the face of
the gondola has an "S" shape, representing the Grand Canal
cutting its serpentine route through Venice.
The group of six prongs, or teeth, jutting
out of the prow, represent the six sestiere (districts) of La
Serenissima: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo
and Santa Croce.
The lone prong, pointing in the opposite
direction of the other six, represents the island of Giudecca, just
south of Venice's main islands.
The elegant curve at the top of the design
represents the cap of the Doge, the leader of Venice and its most serene
republic for almost 1,100 years.
And, the semicircle, between the curve
at the top and the prongs below it, represents Ponte Rialto (Rialto
Close enough to touch the twilight-toned,
weathered brick walls of the adjacent buildings that encase the route,
we close our eyes as the accordion's melody fills the air and imagine
what it must have been like centuries ago to be in this very same spot,
in a gondola on a scenic little riello (small canal) in majestic
We wish this ride, and the watercolor-like
visual and mental impressions it painted, would last forever, but it,
as well as our eight-day, Insight journey, comes to a melancholic end
as we quietly round the bend and glide into the Venetian sunset.
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Rua: Vicenza's Wheel of Fortune; Piazza
dei Signori, Vicenza; The
Little Village Atop the Hill (Castelluccio di Norcia); Norcia,