Scroll down to watch a video of Italian Editor Monica Larner navigating the canals of Venice.
“I’ll be quite honest with you,” sneered Roberto Tagliapietra. “I’m never letting anyone touch my gondola again.” This was the less-than-enthusiastic assessment I received following my first lesson as a Venetian gondolier. Having been granted special access by city officials, I had spent most of this chilly March morning immersed in the insular world of the gondola: learning the culture that surrounds the highly unique boat and picking up tips from a licensed professional on how to maneuver it. After an hour of waterway navigation in the inner labyrinth of the Lagoon City, my gondola instructor hesitantly conceded I was ready for the oar.
Roberto expertly glided his long, lacquered boat past the Doge’s Palace and off the Grand Canal, where the water was particularly choppy, and tucked into the small canal past the Ponte della Paglia. He selected a quiet spot directly under the Bridge of Sighs (an appropriate metaphorical choice, I suppose, as this is where political prisoners were granted their last view of the beautiful city before being dumped into damp prison cells). He motioned for me to come up to the oarsman’s perch at the stern of the gondola. I too wondered if this would be my last view of Venice before plunging into the depths below.
I raised myself up onto shaky legs only to realize that finding balance on this highly unstable boat would not be a realistic goal. I felt like I was on the floating equivalent of a bucking horse: the eventuality of falling off is never in question; the only variable is how long you last. Amid the clicking of tourist cameras attracted by the commotion under the Bridge of Sighs, I made it back to the safety of my chair before coming thisclose to falling into Venice’s murky water.
Venice consists mostly of water and its many boats—gondolas, polizia speedboats, garbage collection barges, water taxis, public “bus” ferries, Federal Express delivery boats, all rushing through the canals like blood cells in the city’s arteries. Once the grandest of Italian Maritime Republics, Venice grew in influence and prosperity thanks to the cunning skill and talents of its gondoliers. They could outrun any enemy in the difficult waters of the lagoon, despite tides and currents. They helped shape one of the Mediterranean’s most significant commercial and military powers with an extensive fleet of ships that controlled trade throughout much of the Middle Ages.
Venice is unlike any other city in the world: made up of 118 islands, with 180 canals and 400 bridges, all the best action here is never a meter or two away from the water’s surface. What follows is a guide to the best-kept secrets of three aspects of life here: dining, wining and gondoliering.
Exploring Venice’s neighborhoods
Venice is divided into six sestieri, or neighborhoods, and the three most traveled are Santa Croce, San Polo and San Marco. (If you follow the yellow sign posts from the train station or Piazzale Roma to Rialto and San Marco, you are walking through these three sestieri.) The path takes you past Venice’s commercial hub at the Rialto Bridge with its colorful storefronts and luxury shopping, to the city’s political heart at San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.
Rialto is also home to the city’s main fish and vegetable market located in Campo della Pescaria behind Campo S. Giacomo. Fresh octopus, squid, shellfish and flatfish are all on display for shoppers and admirers alike. Thanks to the bustle of the market, this area is home to a high concentration of bacari and cicchetterie. These two terms refer to traditional Venetian eateries that serve simple, cold dishes and a chilled glass of wine starting at 8 a.m. until the late afternoon. The bacaro is a venerated gastronomic institution in this all-pedestrian city and the idea is to fuel up on small snacks and wine throughout the day.
In fact, the word for a quick glass of Prosecco or white wine in Venice is ombra, which literally means “shade.” Venetians will say: “Andemo bèver un ombra” (let’s go drink a shade). This tradition is said to come from the gondoliers who once waited for clients under the cooling shade of the massive bell tower on Piazza San Marco. As the sun changed position and the shadow circled around the square, gondoliers would move their chairs accordingly and continue drinking.
The most traditional bacaro, first opened in 1462, is Cantina Do Mori at San Polo 429, Calle dei Do Mori. Copper pots hang from the ceiling and spirited barmen deliver excellent fried sardines and finger-sized snacks with sauces and cheese. The wine recommendation here is spento, a dry white wine made from the same grapes as Prosecco but without the bubbles. A second excellent bacaro choice is Antico Dolo at Ruga Rialto 778. This historic eatery serves both snacks and full meals at its restaurant and takes advantage of the market’s fresh fish and produce. The bacalà mantecato is excellent and the friendly tavern owner tells me this version of puréed codfish was invented in Venice to appease a hungry Doge who suffered from chronic tooth pain. A third option with a cheerful daytime crowd is All’Arco at San Polo 436 Rialto. There is a good wine selection here with Proseccos as well as reds and whites from the nearby Friuli region.
Just a few streets back at Santa Croce, Calle della Regina 2262, Osteria Vecio Fritolin is a sophisticated restaurant with a full kitchen specializing in Venetian foods: lightly fried scallops with cream of asparagus; multi-colored pasta with clams; and tempura-style fried fish with vegetables. This is no doubt one of Venice’s top five restaurants.
But perhaps the number one restaurant is Da Fiore at San Polo, Calle del Scaleter, 2202. Husband and wife team Mara and Maurizio Martin have transformed what used to be a retail point and storage cellar for Malvasia wine into one of the most elegant eateries in Venice. If you book in warm months, make sure to ask for the romantic table for two situated on a tiny canal-facing balcony. Maurzio stresses simplicity and a “kilometer-zero” food philosophy. In fact, his best dishes are made from local Venetian ingredients: Insalata di arance con rossetti scottati (salad with orange and newborn fish larvae); Castraure (or violet artichoke buds from the island of Sant’Erasmo); and Moeche di Burano fritte con polenta (soft shell baby crabs from Burano with cornmeal).
It’s not uncommon to see gondoliers with their straw hats and black and white striped shirts taking a quick wine break between rowing
jobs at any one of these bacari. Everything about the gondolier—from what he wears to where he can pick up clients—is dictated by the strict code of conduct that is applied to this professional guild. There are some 425 licensed gondoliers operating in Venice today and obtaining this permit requires rigorous schooling, exams and apprenticeships. The gondolier is tested in boating skills, foreign languages and Venetian history. (Prices for tourists usually range from 100–120 euros an hour of boating.)
For a truly “off the beaten track” feel of the city, head to the Dorsoduro Sestiere; it lies between the Canal Grande and the much larger shipping lane known as Canale della Giudecca. This is where you will see life as it is lived by Venetian families—shopping for fish and vegetables, taking the kids to school, walking their dogs.Thankfully, the world of cicchetti is always inviting and friendly.
Al Bottegon (also known as Cantine del Vino Schiavi) at Dorsoduro 992, San Trovaso, is run by the matronly Alessandra De Respinis and her sons. This creative chef puts a new spin on Venetian finger foods: gorgonzola with walnuts; ricotta with black currants; pumpkin cream with robiola and parmigiano cheese; and tuna tartare topped with bitter cacao powder. She published a pocket-sized cookbook of her best recipes and her sons are happy to recommend a wine for each.
Another highlight of Dorsoduro is the neighborhood surrounding Campo Santa Margherita. There is another morning fish market here and the rims of this large square are lined with outdoor cafés and family-run restaurants. It makes a great spot for savoring the real Venice that exists beyond the well-traveled tourism routes.
The secret world of Squero
Dorsoduro is also the neighborhood where you can visit shops and artisans dedicated to the art of the gondola. A good starting point is the Ponte dell’Accademia. Turn left at the Dorsoduro side of the wooden bridge and walk about five minutes to the back of the building that houses the memorable Peggy Guggenheim Collection. From here, continue onward until you hit the larger Fondamenta Soranzo delle Fornaci. The word fondamenta refers to the foundations of the buildings built on the city’s individual islands and the term is literally translated as “sidewalk” by Venetians. Halfway down the sidewalk on the right hand, you’ll see the woodshop of Saverio Pastor at Dorsoduro 341, San Gregorio.
Saverio is one of three remèri still active in Venice today. This is the guild of craftspeople specialized in making many of the wood accessories used in gondolas: oars, oarlocks and the hand-carved decorations that adorn these banana-shaped boats. Of these articles, none is as distinctive as the forcola, or oarpost. Carved from a quarter trunk of walnut, the forcola is what makes the gondola unlike any other boat in existence. This singular piece of boating engineering accomplishes two important tasks: First, it allows the gondolier to make all maneuvers with a single oar. Second, it allows the gondolier to look forward at all times. “The forcola represents an evolution of need,” explains Saverio in his workshop that is covered with sawdust and littered with chisels, sanders and saws. “It was born here in Venice because our canals are so thin, narrow and difficult to manage.”
The forcola is like a gearshift and engine starter in one. Depending on the soft grooves of the wood and where the gondolier places his oar, he can start or stop the boat, accelerate or decrease speed, turn left or right, and even shift into reverse. Saverio has been making forcole for 35 years and his clients today include gondoliers as well as enthusiasts of this beautifully carved piece of wood who choose to display it at restaurants or in their homes.
Head towards the Canale della Giudecca until you reach the waterfront and the wide boardwalk known as Fondamenta Zattere. This long stretch of sidewalk basks in direct sunlight and is home to a long succession of outdoor cafés and restaurants with tables that spill out over the stone pavement to the water’s front. Turn right a minute or two after the Chiesa dei Gesuati and the Zattere ferry stop and follow the next canal. About one block in, you will see the gondola shipyard of Antico Squero San Trovaso at Dorsoduro 1097. Squero is a Venetian term for the place where gondolas are constructed and repaired. It takes Lorenzo Della Toffola and his team about one year to build a single boat.
“We’re not the Fiat assembly line,” quips this ill-tempered gondola builder. Gondolas are carefully crafted from up to eight different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, larch, lime and mahogany) and include 280 individual pieces. It’s hard to notice with the naked eye, but one side of the iconic boat is actually longer than the other. This asymmetric architecture is meant to offset the natural pull of the oar. The rower uses a forward stroke on the left side of the boat but continues forward in a straight line. Gondolas are approximately 36 feet long and four feet wide and the ferro, or steel ornament at the front of the boat, helps to counterbalance the gondolier’s weight.
There is a good view of the squero and its activities from across the canal. You can try your luck to see if you are invited in, but don’t count on it. Because professions related to the gondola are generally passed down from father to son and because one can obtain a new license only if a previous gondolier dies or retires, the world of the gondola certainly is something of a closed society. Even obtaining permission to visit the squero for this article proved difficult and I was instructed to “be discrete” and limit my number of questions.
It’s a world that very few outsiders have been able to penetrate. For example, a 23-year-old named Giorgia Boscolo made news in 2009 when she became the first woman to enter this all-male category, thus ending nine centuries of discrimination. Another woman before her from Germany had tried and failed. When I asked about Giorgia’s Boscolo’s success, the response was invariably a skeptical shrug. That’s just Dorsoduro politics. Venice, like all of Italy, welcomes visitors with open arms and twin kisses. The exploration of Venice never ends.
For more information on sights and events in Venice, visit the English-language site of the tourism office. If you’d like to learn more about the artisans and crafts associated with the world of the gondola, visit elfelze.com.