Bitter serenade of the fairy-tale oarsmen

Venice is gondolas; it is arias that echo along ancient canals. But that romantic idyll is under threat as gondoliers fight for their precarious hold on the city's congested waterways. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

T o go for a ride in a gondola in Venice is no great challenge: find a canal with a great knot of tourists clustered around the steps and dive in. At the little basin behind St Mark's Square there was an extraordinary scrum of gondolas, crammed together and pointing in every direction. Gondoliers between jobs traded jokes at the expense of the tourists, chattered on their cellphones, practised their English, joined in the chorus of an aria as a gondola-born tenor squeezed through their midst.

T o go for a ride in a gondola in Venice is no great challenge: find a canal with a great knot of tourists clustered around the steps and dive in. At the little basin behind St Mark's Square there was an extraordinary scrum of gondolas, crammed together and pointing in every direction. Gondoliers between jobs traded jokes at the expense of the tourists, chattered on their cellphones, practised their English, joined in the chorus of an aria as a gondola-born tenor squeezed through their midst.

On the quay an equally large and chaotic scrum of tourists waited their turn on the ride. It was like Disneyland but without the discipline. But as at Disneyland, the goal was clear enough. At Disneyland you wait your turn for Space Mountain. In Venice you pile into the scrum and grab yourself a gondola.

We reached the front of the chaotic queue. Here was an off-duty gondolier with a clipboard and a list. I was going to be difficult: I wanted a gondola with a musician and a singer. I wanted to go to St Mark's Square. I also wanted to row the gondola, if that would be acceptable. And I wanted a long, frank interview with the gondolier about his life, his problems, his hopes and fears.

The off-duty gondolier was not remotely amenable to any of these ideas. For musicians and singers you have to book in advance: go to an agency he advised, and expect to pay €120 (£80) for one of each. The route the gondola takes is fixed; a gondolier might take you to St Mark's but as he would then need to get back to base, you would only get about 15 minutes in the vessel for your €80, standard charge for a 40-minute ride. Do-it-yourself-rowing - out of the question: these guys are professionals, there is a wind blowing, it's more than their jobs are worth. As for the interview, I didn't even ask. Gondoliers hate the press, I'd been told.

So in the end I compromised. An American couple from a cruise ship, Jim and Marcia from Indiana, came by, Jim crying out, "Anyone want to share a boat?" It seemed a sensible arrangement, and one of the few things to which the clipboard man did not object. So we piled in.

Our gondolier was a giant of a man called Antonio, big and burly. A man of few words as luck would have it. There was no question of going to St Mark's - no question of going anywhere except Antonio's preordained route, which was the same as everybody else's. Asking for something special would be like climbing onto a rocket ride at the fair and asking to be taken to the moon.

We set off down the narrow canal in the dun-coloured water under the first grey skies Venice has seen for three months. Gondolas packed to the gunwales preceded us, more tagged along behind. Antonio rowed, and kept his council.

Marcia told me they had arrived that morning on the cruise ship Beauty of the Seas on a European tour. Two days, two nights in Venice. "We promised ourselves we'd do this. We really wanted to go in a gondola," she says. And the extraordinary expression of the gondola passenger wreathed both their faces, and probably mine too. Because it's pleasant and relaxing, there is nothing you have to do as a gondola passenger except smile and possibly take a photograph. And at the same time you have no doubt that you are doing something that will be the envy of your friends - "you went in a gondola!! Oh you didn't!!" - something that is like participating in a legend, even though all it requires is the payment of €80 and a little chaotic queuing. And the confirmation of this legendary quality is all the people lining the bridges under which you glide, gazing down at you with wishful expressions, as if you were royalty or celebrity or something. So no wonder people sit back and smile complacently.

Antonio broke his silence to point out a small notice on the wall of a palazzo: high water mark, 1966. That was the year of Venice's disastrous flood, when practically the whole city went under water. Last year the construction of movable flood gates has finally started, and it is officially reported that Venice is no longer sinking. But there is still a vaguely apocalyptic mood in the city, as if anything could go wrong at any time, and something drastic is bound to go wrong sooner or later.

It's a mood that the gondoliers have learnt to use. Gondoliers are in the news this month because, the way they tell it, they are under siege on every side. When we broke out onto the Grand Canal we saw the banners hung up at the gondola quay there, saying in Italian: "No To Savage Traffic", "Stop Motor Boats That Make Waves." There are more banners with the same message down at the big gondola station offshore from St Mark's.

Count the ways the gondoliers are hard done by and you see their point. They are the smallest, slowest, frailest craft in a city where every task from rubbish collection to burying the dead must be done by water; where the gondola's standard passenger is a little old lady from Pasadena, California, who has never been in a boat before in her life and who must be borne, safe and smiling, to her destination, while giant ships reeking of diesel prance and roar on every side.

Very occasionally - amazingly rarely, given the density and variety of water traffic, and the complete absence of traffic cops - an accident happens, and then the bitter rage of the gondoliers bursts forth. On 24 August a vaporetto (water bus) smashed into a gondola, catapulting the tourist family on board into the turbid water. Their 15-month-old baby was narrowly saved from drowning - and the gondoliers have been on the warpath ever since.

They are demanding that speed limits be enforced. They are asking the big delivery barges and the sleek water taxis to stay out of the small canals altogether, and the boats that deliver groceries and washing machines and goods of every description to Venice's shops to be restricted to fixed hours early in the morning. Basically they want the endless winding, shady canals which are the city's intestines to themselves most of the time, so the passengers can pop their flashes and the accordions can wheeze and the tenors standing up in the bow can sing without being distracted or drowned out by vulgar commerce.

To the outsider it seems fair. The gondolas are the symbol of Venice: it's all the motor boats that are the outsiders, the newcomers. The gondolas are ecologically pure, the gondoliers practise an ancient trade; inevitably the noisy, smelly modern world is trying to squeeze them into a corner, if not do away with them altogether.

So it's a shock to arrive in Venice and discover that Venetians see the matter in different terms altogether.

I discovered this before I took my gondola ride. A Venetian friend who is the grandson of one of the city's gondolier, sat me down and spelt out some Venetian home truths.

"The gondoliers are the toughest, most vicious lobby in Venice," he told me. "They earn 20 million lire [about £7,000] per month, all of it in the black: they are the only group in Italy who don't have to declare their earnings at all, along with the pony and trap drivers of Rome.

"They are wealthy men: they are buying houses in Venice, they go on spectacular holidays to places like the Seychelles and Brazil. There are 400 of them, and they are holding the whole city to ransom.

"When something goes badly for them, they don't hesitate to bring the city to a standstill. One year ago, they blocked the Grand Canal for two days, to stop the city giving licences to additional gondoliers. If there is a gondola ahead of a vaporetto, the gondolier won't get out of the way, he will dawdle in the hope that the vaporetto will hit it so he can sue." "Nobody wants to speak out against them," said my friend. "If you did they'd beat you up, or smear shit on your front door. Venice is a small place, you know."

These ugly thoughts, which are so remote from the trance-like state of the average gondolier passenger, were rotating in my head when I had my first close encounter with gondola music. It was from a boat coming in the opposite direction, bearing a party of Japanese, who probably account for about 60 per cent of the gondola clientele. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the gondolier himself who sings but a specialist standing up in the bows, accompanied usually by an accordionist, occasionally a guitarist, stationed amidships. In this case the singer was a balding, paunchy chap in a green cardigan, belting out a version of "Santa Lucia".

Gondola serenades are suddenly in the news, too, because they have provided the city's mayor, Paolo Costa, with his first ammunition in the fightback against the gondoliers' offensive. He has suggested that serenades in the gondola be banned.

That, at least, was how the mayor's action plan was conveyed in Italian newspaper headlines. What he really wants to stop is what happens when the serenaders hit the Grand Canal, the city's main artery, and when tour groups that wish to minimise the cost of the musicians (at least €120 each per 40-minute outing) arrange to have 10 or 20 gondolas roped together so they can proceed up the middle of the Grand Canal at a stately pace, with accordion or guitarist plus singer performing to the aqueous equivalent of a full house. That is the activity the mayor would like to ban. Because when this happens in the mornings, he says, with commercial activity is at its most feverish, the result is chaos.

In Mr Costa's austere vision, the gondolas are superfluous to the real life of Venice. "Of course they have a quality of folklore," he told me when I spoke to him later on the phone. "But the role of the gondoliers has evolved. They have moved from being something functional, to putting on a show for the tourists. And for this they don't need to go on the Grand Canal. If you've come from Tokyo or somewhere, you don't care which canal you go on."

I asked Antonio what he thought of Mr Costa's idea of clamping down on gondola music. "We're complaining about motor boats making waves," he growled, "and he wants to stop people singing. Where's the connection?"

To Jim, Marcia, myself and thousands of others placidly afloat in Venice this weekend, the point of Antonio and his boat is that they are living symbols of La Serenissima (as Venice likes to be called). Venice is a fairy tale, and the gondoliers are the custodians of the dream.

In fact, however, their role today is utterly changed. Two generations ago, every noble Venetian family worth mentioning had its own private gondola and gondolier: my friend's grandfather was in the employ of Peggy Guggenheim, the late, legendary American art collector whose former home on the Grand Canal is now a superb art museum.

In those days gondoliers went places and really worked: in winter they used to go to Murano, the island miles to the north of the centre of Venice, famous for glass-blowing, with four gondoliers propelling the boat. Very little had changed since the days when gondoliers rowed Lord Byron over to the Lido, far away across open water to the east, and were overtaken by a heavy squall, and lost an oar.

Ask Antonio to take you to the Lido and you'd get a piece of his mind. Today you get your 40 minutes on the merry-go-round and that's it. And as you clamber ashore, someone has thoughtfully taken your picture, in case you feel like parting with another few euros for the memory.

THE BOAT WITH A BIAS

The gondola is one of the few boats in the world - others include the Polynesian proa and aircraft carriers - that is asymmetrical. Nearly 36 feet (11 metres) in length, it is much fatter and about nine inches longer on the port side (left) than the starboard. The effect of this is to give the boat a permanent bias to the right, which is why the gondolier, who spends two years learning his trade, is able to propel it with a single oar: constantly correcting its right-inclining tendency while driving it forward at the same time. If he were to stop rowing altogether, the gondola would eventually come round in a large circle.

This is only one of many respects in which the gondola is a unique product of its unique environment, where water and land are closely intermeshed and the transition from one to the other smooth and incessant. Gondolas, for example, have flat bottoms so they can be easily dragged ashore; gondoliers row as naturally as they walk, "in a standing position", as an expert on the city puts it, "looking forwards ... the position of a walking man, who looks straight ahead and is not under orders from anybody."

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