There is nothing more iconic in Venice than the sleek black gondola, steered by the standing gondoliere decked out in his (or, since 2010, her) black and white striped shirt and straw boater. Though in may seem at first glance that these highly trained oarsmen and oarswomen are guiding their historic boats through the narrow canals and under the low bridges of La Serenissima with a pole like a punt, Venice's canals are far too deep for this. Instead, gondolieri use a single, long oar to both propel and steer their craft in a traditional sculling style known as voga.
If you fell in love with this elegant occupation on your last visit to Venice and have decided to quit that office job to become a gondoliere, you may be out of luck. Entering into the ranks of the gondolieri is difficult and can take years, as all the city's traditional rowers must belong to Venice's strict professional guild. The guild, which was established almost 1,000 years ago, grants only a limited number of licenses and requires a long period of training followed by an apprenticeship with an experienced gondoliere and an exam.
Does that sound like a bit too much? There's an easier way to try your hand at voga rowing in Venice that takes only a few hours and leaves you with the same satisfaction of having mastered a new skill: a lesson on the canals with Row Venice. Row Venice was founded in 2012 by Jane Caporal and Nan McElroy, English and American expats who fell in love with historic Venetian voga and wanted to share their passion for this unique local tradition. Over the past five years, the Row Venice team has grown to include more than 15 vogatrici, a mix of international and native Venetian women who are united in their love of voga.
Your Venetian rowing lesson begins at the Sacca Misericordia boat marina on the north side of Venice, where you'll meet up with your instructor and learn about the traditional batela coda di gambero. These stable and comfortable “shrimp-tailed” wooden boats were once one of the most common in Venice, and crowd the canals in paintings by Venetian masters like Carpaccio, Guardi, or Canaletto. Today, only seven hand-crafted batele still exist, four of which are used by Row Venice to introduce new rowers to the art of voga.
You'll start off by learning the basic rowing stroke a prua (at the prow) with the boat still safely moored in the marina until you get the hang of it. Afterwards, you'll set off along the wide, quiet canal leading from the marina to the open lagoon, where you won't have to worry about other vessels or the wakes of speedboats while you master your technique. Once you've hit your stride, it's time to glide into Venice's famous shallow lagoon where you can try your hand at rowing a poppa, steering the boat from the stern like an official gondolier. On the return trip, you can row through the picturesque side canals like a pro!
Voga lessons can be reserved during the day, or you can choose the romantic vogata di sera, a sunset row that begins at the marina, continues along the Grand Canal as the lights of Venice begin to glow over the water, and can even end with a drop off in the Cannaregio area if dinner plans take you to that corner of the city.
If the thought of all the physical exercise makes you peckish, opt for the cicchetti row. Here you have all the fun of a voga rowing lesson paired with a gourmet food and wine tour. Cicchetti are traditional Venetian appetizers served tapas-style before the lunch and dinner hours from bars known as bàcaro and washed down with a sparkling Prosecco or white wine from the surrounding region of Veneto. Nan McElroy is a certified sommalier as well as a dedicated vogatrice, so wine aficionados will especially enjoy her cicchetti tours.
Cicchetti al bottegon. Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Michela Simoncini
“If you can stand, you can vogare,” assures Nan, “And it's almost impossible to fall overboard from our deep batele boats.” It may take a few minutes to pick up the technique, but once you have, voga rowing is an unforgettable way for kids and adults to experience Venice's authentic history and culture.
Looking for another suggestion for lessons on rowing in Venice? Check out this option in our experiences section.