Row your own gondola in Venice

We are not ideal customers to be serenaded on a gondola –we are three, two old friends and one weary kid. But the anticipation of learning to row a gondola has us energised after visiting crowded landmarks. We've booked a 90-minute session with Row Venice in Cannaregio, the most northern of the six historic districts or sestieri of Venice – and we can't wait. 

Leaving the gondolas to the loved-up and the dreamers, we take a vaporetto, a water bus, to the magnificent Ca' d'Oro Palace "bus stop". The meeting instructions are like a treasure map. Beyond the thinning crowds it is easy to get lost in the labyrinthine laneways and unfamiliar piazzas.

We get our bearings over pasta at a canal-side restaurant. This area, not far from the train station, is mostly residential and includes the Jewish Ghetto. 

We pass the 14th-century Madonna dell'Orto​ with its collection of paintings by Tintoretto, who is buried here. It was originally dedicated to St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. The instructions say if we get lost, we should come back here to get our bearings. 

Our meeting point is not far from here, outside the wooden gate of the Sacca Misericordia boat marina at the end of Fondamenta Gasparo Contarini. There is no sign, only a young woman dressed in black jeans and a black singlet, with brilliant iridescent purple hair that seems to shimmer against the blue sky.

She is on the phone and when she turns around, she has GIRLS written in big white letters across her T- shirt. She looks more naughty than nautical, and with her pale skin looks like she's just stepped out of a nightclub into the light. She asks after us and confirms she is our rowing teacher. 

Caterina points to a beautiful wooden boat that has just pulled up at the side of the canal. Our other teacher, Cristina, waits for us to get in. It is a rare handcrafted batela coda di gambero, shrimp-tailed boat. It is more spacious and stable than a gondola. It used to be a common design documented in the paintings of old masters, but this boat is one of only six in Venice.

Row Venice, a not-for-profit organisation of rowers or vogatori, is committed to preserving and promoting traditional Venetian cultura acquea – water culture. The focus is on voga alla veneta, the unique gondolier style of rowing. It requires standing up and facing forward.  While it is very rare that a gondolier is a woman, all but one of the vogatori at Row Venice, are women. 

We step in, and each of us is inducted and instructed. My friend, a seasoned sailor, has to unlearn his rowing technique.

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Standing up to row is a completely different experience. Straighten this leg, weight here, bend there, twist and turn.

In the interests of role-modelling, I go through the motions. Plus it is a rare opportunity to dredge up my past, rowing in the quaintly titled maiden fours at university. No one is impressed. Too long ago!  But I had already decided to be a passenger to be rowed around by my son.

Caterina's parents are champion rowers and she has grown up dipping an oar. Cristina is also a voga campionessa and loves to race. She's tall, athletic and handles an oar with an easy grace.

Regattas are a feature of Venetian life and it is well documented that women have participated in rowing races since the 15th century. We have no fears about safety, the water is only a metre deep in the canal at this time.      

After instruction about quickly pulling in the oars when other boats pass, we are off.  We pass the evocative Palazzo Mastelli, with its stone relief of a camel. The story goes the palace was built by three brothers, silk and spice traders, who came to Venice in 1112.    

It is so quiet and apart from the fact we are rowing slowly, we have calmed down. We notice details, the wrought iron, the patina on the buildings, the sludgy waterline and sunken doorways, and workers on barges, with another pushing a barrow up the bridge steps.

Washing is hung on lines across the facades. We row under numerous bridges and pass local motorboats.

Caterina closely monitors and adjusts my son's technique and there's a lot of friendly banter. My kid has a sense of purpose, he's concentrating, taking instruction and feeling a sense of achievement. In short, he's being active.

He sets the rhythm while Cristina elegantly steers the boat. They all change positions and he has a break.

Out in the lagoon it is windy and the wake from motorboats and water taxis gently slaps the boat. We rest and take in the view.

You get a sense of working Venice. The railway over the water to the station demarcates the space – beyond that are tankers and container ships. We change positions again as it gets tiring and the seasoned sailor steers the boat. We row back on the adjacent canal passing Tintoretto's house. 

There is a child-like joy being on a small boat. It touches on the simplicity of doing activities with others in the outdoors before life as an adult  became complicated. We would rather buy an experience than a mask or Murano glass, simply because it is fun to do together. Plus we have time out from the crush of the San Marco Square area and the Grand Canal. We've basically swapped pigeons for seagulls. The lesson is the highlight of our trip to Venice.

We walk back via Fondamenta Nuove to the Rialto in the late afternoon for a glass of wine and pizza and watch the flotilla of gondolas take off for sunset. We look at the gondoliers in their stripy T-shirts with a new-found respect.

Accompanied by a piano accordion player, a singer stands with legs firmly planted to keep balance, and serenades a loved-up couple with Volare. His beautiful voice makes me want to belt out the chorus with him like a drunken sailor. The young woman is clutching a red rose. It is a cheesy scene, but let's give love a chance. 

There are many ways to go messing about in boats in Venice. Row Venice also has the perfect sunset combo called Cicchetto Row. After your rowing lesson you can learn to eat and drink wine Venetian-style, stopping at various bacaros, sampling the cicchetti, the bar food, along the canal as the sun goes down. In great company, this cultura acquea experience really appeals.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

en.turismovenezia.it

europeforvisitors.com/venice/

GETTING THERE

FLIGHTS

Singapore Airlines Sydney-Rome: Travel ex-Sydney – from $1795 including taxes and surcharges. Travel ex-Melbourne – from $1782 including taxes and surcharges. Fares are non-seasonal. Singapore Airlines does not operate services to Venice, however it has Early Bird fares available (on sale until November 9, 2015), which allow travel to Venice using partner Lufthansa, flying via Frankfurt.

Early Bird fares for travel to Venice are : Travel ex-Sydney – from $1651 including taxes and surcharges. Travel ex-Melbourne – from $1638 including taxes and surcharges. Early Bird fares for travel to Rome are from $1575 from Sydney and from $1562 from Melbourne. Early Bird fares are valid for travel from March 1, 2016 to  September 30, 2016.

TRAIN

Walking out of the train station to the busy water bus stop is a memorable experience. Trains are efficient, good value, comfortable and fast. Why drive?

See trenitalia.com/tcom-en

Travel within Italy – see www.quicklytovenice.it/en/

STAYING THERE 

SAN MARCO

Starhotels Splendid Venice 

Elegant and modern in an 18th-century building on a canal in the Mercerie area of Venice Near the Rialto bridge, the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, the hotel has its own gondola mooring and is five  minutes' walk from San Marco.  Free Wi-Fi.

Prices start at $200, depending on the room, season and day of the week

San Marco Mercerie, 760, 30124 Venice

starhotels.com

CANNAREGIO

The Carnival Palace Hotel

A 4-star boutique hotel, in modern luxe Venetian style, with free Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast. On the canal in Cannaregio. Row past on your row Venice class. It is close to the water bus to Murano, 10 minutes from the station and 30 minutes from San Marco.

Fondamenta di Cannaregio, 929, 30121 Venezia​

See carnivalpalace.com

DORSODURO​

Hotel Messner

Three star, classically furnished, near the canal. Easy walk to Peggy Guggenheim and Gallerie dell'Accademia. Free Wi-Fi.  Great cafe area, less touristy. A few steps from the Salute vaporetto stop.

Calle S. Domenico Dorsoduro, Venezia,

See hotelmessner.com

From $156                

SEE AND DO

Row Venice. Well organised and well worth making time for. Great for families, friends, couples or grown-up boat and bar-hop. rowvenice.org/rv-venetian-rowing-lesson/

Venice Regatta. Usually in September. The main annual rowing event with historical water pageant. regatastoricavenezia.it/

Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Stunning collection of modern art, including Jackson Pollock, Calder, Picasso, sculpture garden and cafe in old canal villa that was once Peggy Guggenheim's home. Easily spend a minimum of two hours. Get off the vaporetto at Accademia.

guggenheim.org/venice

The Doge's Palace is a must if you have limited time. It is on the edge of San Marco square and a great way to get a sense of the dramatic history of Venice and how it was governed. Extraordinary rooms. Take a tour.

Opens 8.30 am to 7pm. Go early or late afternoon. 

See palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en

Visit the Rialto markets in the early morning. Fresh produce shopping is a daily activity for Venetians and it's a great place to mingle with the locals, surrounded by lots of little shops for coffee, pastries, cakes, regional specialties and gourmet food. There are ATMs in the area. Walk back to San Marco when it is quiet and the shops are just opening up. Vaporetto number 1 stops at the Rialto Mercato stop.

DINING THERE

In the Cannaregio-Fondamenta della Misericordia area, try the Paradiso Perduto for seafood and music at night, Ostaria da Rioba and .

Self catering in airbnb? Then go to the Rialto markets area for fresh produce, bread and pasta.

ROWING THERE

See  rowvenice.org/rv-venetian-rowing-lesson/

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