What’s Venice most famous for? Elaborate Venetian masks? The impeccable art scene? Correct, but also, even more famously, Venice is known for its long history of gondoliering! Historians believe that gondoliering, and gondolas, have been around in Venice since 1094 and were ‘gifted’ by the city’s ruler as a way of easing everyone’s commutes around the lagoon.
Today, gondoliering is still very much an integral part of Venice, and a major tourist attraction as well. What was historically a male-dominated industry is now becoming more open to women, thanks to organisations like Row Venice. Row Venice empowers women to take up gondoliering and offers classes to tourists who’d like to give the iconic activity a go. And when you visit Venice with Contiki, you can try this MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experience for yourself.
Want to know more? We spoke to Nancy and Gabriella, two of Row Venice’s gondoliers, to get the story.
What is Row Venice?
Row Venice is a non-profit organisation run by passionate women who are dedicated to preserving the Venetian tradition and spread the joy of it. Run and led entirely by women, they offer a variety of services including lessons and simple pleasure rides.
While enjoying rides down the city’s canals and even learning how to row, you’ll also be supporting a local organisation and their goals of supporting women who race and row and kids who want to learn. Row Venice is an organisation working to keep an integral bit of sustainable transport and culture alive and make sure it remains an important part of Venice’s legacy.
How did Row Venice start?
Well, it’s kind of a funny story. Nancy tells us that it started with Jane Cafaro, the head administrator of the non-profit. “It was just meant to be an activity of her own. She had a boat, she had a telephone, she had a website, and she’d make appointments with people to teach and take them places.”
“But eventually, someone put up a TripAdvisor page, and the demand became so high that she couldn’t do it alone! So, that’s how Row Venice started. I joined her and we formed the organisation in 2012, and since then we’ve built a team of around 25 instructors and our clientele keeps growing. One year we hosted over 3000 lessons – which was an amazing year for us!”
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Why choose Row Venice?
Of all the things to do in Venice, this is both iconic and a hidden gem. While enjoying a gondola ride down the city’s canals is a common activity, Row Venice and their team of female gondolieri will take you off the beaten path and allow you to really experience the rich heritage of this activity by placing you directly behind the oar!
You can take an 80 minute private lesson in traditional hand-crafted wooden boats, called ‘batellina’, and learn the ways of the water with an expert teacher right behind you (so you don’t crash, and all that). You can also book an evening class along the Grand Canal which just makes the experience so magical, especially on cooler summer nights!
Or, if you’d prefer to quietly coast, you can book a tranquil ride around Venice, and sample some of the local delicacies, wines, and cheese, aboard. No matter which you choose it sounds like total bliss, and doing it with all your Contiki friends will ensure plenty of laughs and memories made.
When did you start rowing and why?
Gabriella, born and raised in Venice, started rowing when she was 30 years old. “I started rowing as a sport, because it is a sport here, and I won a couple of races. It became my sport and just something I liked to do.” She took up rowing soon after becoming a mother and it became a good form of physical and mental exercise. “I would row with my family or friends, and I’d just go for hours. It’s a really nice way to just relax your mind.”
Nancy is from Kentucky in the US but moved to Venice a little over 20 years ago. “I started rowing not long after I moved here. I just wanted to try it, but after I did I was just immediately hooked. I’ve been rowing ever since, and it’s become so integrated in my life. You can do it alone, you can do it socially, it’s really fun and great exercise.”
Why do you enjoy this activity?
“To be a woman working with Row Venice just means being free,” says Gabriella. “We feel free, and that’s empowering, because we don’t need anyone but ourselves and we can give other people that power to, to learn how to row.”
“I feel free when I row,” she continues. “I think as women we have lots of responsibilities like children and our husbands and work and the house, etc. When I row it’s like saying ‘I’m going to take one or two hours just for me, and I’m going to have fun for me.”
Nancy adds that the job is good fun: “It’s really nice for us to see how everybody imitates the gondolier in that signature pose. But it changes when they actually try and see that it’s not as easy as it seems. They learn to understand how gondolieri row, they get to try it themselves and do it well. And then the next time they take a gondola tour in Venice they’ll know the technique that their gondolier is using!”
So, do you want to turn this iconic Venetian tradition into an activity that teaches you something new? Do you want to boast to everyone back home that you know how to row on a gondola? We’ll see you in Venice for our first class!