Holidays on water: Grand tour by gondola

As the Carnival season gets under way in Venice and revellers take to the water, Clive Tully finds out how the city's ancient tradition of boat-making is being kept alive

Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

It's hard to avoid clichés when it comes to describing Venice. You would have to be thick-skinned indeed not to be captivated by the serene beauty and romantic charm of a city that has dazzling architecture and water, and no cars. Hard, too, to avoid the crowds if you visit during the summer. But even at the height of the tourist season you don't need to wander far from the main haunts to find yourself in a quieter Venice. If you get up early in the morning, as the sun rises through a watery pink mist, you'll see the city as it comes to life - the Venetians getting ready for work, and hardly a tourist in sight.

Getting lost in little alleyways beside the canals will give you one delightful perspective, but Venice was built to be appreciated from the water. The magnificent buildings along the Grand Canal present their best faces towards the water, while their land-locked doorways are very much tradesmen's entrances. So you should take the opportunity to see them in all their glory.

You can do it for small change - less than a euro - if you hop on to a gondola traghetto, used to ferry up to 15 passengers at a time across the Grand Canal. It's a short trip, but it gives you a flavour. Alternatively, €12 (£8.50) buys you an all-day ticket for the vaporetto (water bus), which gives you the opportunity to travel the length of the Grand Canal, the Giudecca Canal and St Mark's Basin. Don't just take one trip. Different times of day and night will reveal a city of many moods.

But there is, of course, only one true way to see Venice: from a gondola. It's not cheap, but it is the authentic means of getting about, with nearly 1,000 years of history behind it. The gondola is the very icon of Venice, a deep glistening black, with carved ornamentations and plush upholstery.

To see gondolas in the making, hand-built using traditional techniques, you can visit the boatyard of an enterprising American. Thom Price comes from a family of woodworkers, and was raised in the southern Appalachian region of the US. When he was 20 years old he moved to Maine to learn how to build traditional wooden boats, and then, in 1996, he received a fellowship to go to Venice to learn how to build gondolas.

"Most gondolas on the water are built using modern materials such as plywood and epoxy resin," says Price. "I was interested in the traditional techniques, but it's a dying art. Of the six gondola builders in Venice, three of them are over 70."

He found a semi-retired master builder willing to teach him the secrets, and so he built his first gondola. Once he'd finished, he decided to stay in Venice. After a couple of years spent working for other boat builders, he realised his dream of owning his own boat yard, or squero, when he bought a former cabinet-makers. Ironically, as Squero Canaletto was born, it became not just the newest gondola building yard in Venice, but the oldest.

"In 1724, Canaletto painted a view of the canal from the bridge," explains Price. "Looking down you can see the church on one side, and on the other, the squero. So we know the building was used as a squero then."

The first known mention of the gondola in any writings was in a document from 1094, while its first appearance in a painting was in one by Carpaccio at the beginning of the 15th century. "Carpaccio showed the rowing style was pretty much the same as it is today," says Price, "although the boat itself was substantially different. Today's gondola is very much the product of evolution."

That has been influenced by the unique nature of the boat's working environment. Venice's inner canals are extremely narrow, and boats with oars on each side wouldn't be able to pass each other. Gondolas are rowed with a single oar to starboard, and to compensate for the boat's natural inclination to pull to the left, the hull is asymmetric, with a larger curve along the port side. It is flat-bottomed to cope with shallow water, and fore and aft stand out of the water, giving it a short waterline to improve manoeuvrability. The ferro, the metal ornamentation on the bow, serves a useful purpose in allowing the gondolier to gauge how much height he has when approaching low bridges, but Price laughs at elaborate explanations of its shape.

"Most gondoliers will tell you that the top represents the Doge's crown, and the six teeth sticking out the front represent the six sestieri of Venice, while the horn at the back represents the island of Giudecca.

"The truth is, the bow decoration started as a simple strip of metal, and its shape gradually evolved. This story came about when gondolas started to be used for tourism, but it has been told for so long every gondolier believes it to be the truth."

You don't have to be a boat buff to find a visit to Squero Canaletto fascinating. Price has an infectious enthusiasm for gondolas, which comes across as he explains their history and his own technique for mimicking the ancient way trees were bent as they grew in order to provide wood with grain that followed the curve of the required pieces.

"We don't have time to go off to the forest and bend trees," he says, "but we achieve the same aim by gluing up lots of thin strips of wood veneer into a laminated curve. It makes for lighter, stronger frames, which is the key to the boat's longevity."

Most of his production ends up in the US, but if you're tempted to buy one of Thom Price's gondolas, you might be surprised to learn that the base price is a very reasonable €20,000 (about £14,285). Failing that, for around €65 (£45) you can take a 50-minute ride in a Venice gondola, and experience for yourself the special character of a unique boat.

Squero Canaletto (00 39 041 241 6963; is on Rio dei Mendicanti, off Fondamente Nuove. It can be tricky to find, but if you have any problems, just ask a local for 'l'Americano della gondola'. One-hour tours take place on Tuesdays and Fridays at 10.30am. The entrance fee is €25 (£17.85) for adults, €5 (£3.50) for children under 12

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