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Gondolas are at once a key iconic symbol of Venice, their majestic, slender shapes filling just about every canal in the city. 

Gondoliers are happy to guide tourists through Ventian waterways, but aside from a song or two (if you’re really lucky, accompanied by an accordionist), spending time on a gondola is more a “must-do” activity than an educational experience. 

Luckily we did our research and discovered guided historical gondola tours with Art Viva, a Florence, Italy-based company that offers in-depth tours of Venice, Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Cinque Terre. 

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On a sunny weekend afternoon near the Venice train station, we met our guide, Jennifer, an Aussie expat who fell in love with and in Venice 30 years ago. Aboard our gondola was an American couple, ourselves, and Jennifer (each gondola can seat up to six people). 

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Our 40-minute journey started at the Grand Canal, then led us through the back waters for many scenic impressions of Venice (some areas only accessible by boat). The tour winds up in San Mark’s Square where more gondola history is revealed along with the chance to ask questions. 

Gondola History

Venice originally had no streets. The ground behind those gorgeous canal houses consisted mostly of muddy surfaces frequented by maids. Rudimentary wooden planks would get placed over the narrow canals to serve as a means for people to walk over. The land was finally leveled hundreds of years later to make room for bridges and walkways. 

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With Venice’s shallow lagoon and 118 islands, Venetians required shallow boats: flat-bottomed gondolas formed the perfect solution as they’re are long and narrow — and have the right of way as they’re oar powered.

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We enjoyed watching our gondolier Matteo push off the sides of building walls using his leg. 

The “pushing off the boat with the foot test” is done under different tidal conditions when gondoliers take their licence exam.

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Gondola specs

– 33 feet long, five feet wide, 290 pieces, using seven different pieces of timber sealed with pitch
– Surface is painted with six layers of a special varnish that’s then decorated
– Gondoliers own their gondolas, maintaining them in pristine condition for the tourism trade

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Gondolas were originally covered. Felze (the Italian word for the covers) were removed in the early 1900’s as gondolas gained popularity with tourists who wanted to see out of the boats when touring in them became all the rage.

The decorative part of the gondola is called the Ferro. It’s not only pretty but functional: weighing in at 16 kilos, the ferro helps to keep the nose down, making it easier to steer the gondola. Ferros symbolize the city.

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The six silver teeth in front represent the six districts of Venice, while the lone one in back represents the island of Guidecca. The curvy shaft that the teeth are on represents the Grand Canal. The round shape on top symbolizes the Doge’s cap.

In the 14th century, there were 10,000 gondolas; now only 500 remain. In 1501, a law was passed that no woman could be a gondolier. 15 years ago (with the European anti-discrimination law taking effect), a few women tried to pass the test to become a gondolier. The first woman (Georgia) passed shortly thereafter. 

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More recently, a German woman received a private license to work with the hotels, donning a white shirt — she’s not allowed to wear the official uniform as she’s not yet an official gondolier. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a private mooring at your canal home, expect its real estate value to climb considerably: the wait list for a licence can take a couple of years. 

Gondolas lean to one side as their hulls are asymmetrical, counteracting the push of the oar; gondoliers in turn face forward, standing up high at the rear to get a better overview of shifting sand bars. Where the gondolier rests his oar is also important.

The custom-made fórcola (rowlock) is made of walnut, its form dependent on the gondolier’s rowing style and height, produced locally by wood sculptors. 

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The Original Gondola Tour costs €65. Visit the website to book in advance, highly advisable during the busy season (April through October).

We were extended a 15% courtesy discount for this tour. Opinions, as always, are my own.

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