Venice: Where the Tough Get Rowing
If you should get to Venice at some point, try to remember this post. Not because I'm going to share the names of some amazing and affordable restaurants (though I can if you ask me). Not because I'm going to write about a delicious little hotel with the most charming sun-dappled breakfast patio (you can ask for specifics on that, too.) But because I want to turn you on to a seriously kick-ass way to see this captivating city.
First and foremost, forget about shelling out $100 for a half-hour gondola ride, no matter how tempting it may seem. Instead, I'm urging you to toss a pair of shorts into your luggage, get your game on, and make an appointment for a Venetian rowing lesson. That's right. A rowing lesson. For about $50 per person, you'll not only get some awesome exercise and learn a new skill (or at least try your hand at one). You'll spend two amazing hours paddling your way through Venice's legendary canals and magnificent lagoon and experience a side of the city that the crowds around the Rialto can't even begin to imagine.
I did exactly this, thanks to a recommendation from my girlfriend Bianca, who had read an article about rowing in Venice in the Wall Street Journal. And I can tell you it was a big-time highlight of a 10-day trip I took to Italy this summer in honor of my mother-in-law's birthday.
I'll admit: My first reaction when I received Bianca's rowing suggestion via email was to roll my eyes and mutter "as if." I was right smack in the middle of the trip with a family group that spanned in age from 13 to, ahem, beyond retirement age. Simply getting everyone on the same page for dinner and actually maneuvering our way to the restaurant without a fist fight or a fall was a major affair. How on earth would I find the place, much less find the time, to take a rowing lesson?
Wouldn't ya know it, our long Italian afternoons turned out to hold plentiful pockets of free time, during which the boys often played Spit in the room and Grammy Florence rested. Seizing the opportunity, I shot an email to "Row Venice," asking if, but fully doubting that, they might have a late afternoon spot available the very next day.
"Sure! No problem! How many will you be?" came a nearly instant response. I quickly scrambled and to my utter surprise, discovered that my brother-in-law Ken, his 14-year-old son Alex and my own 13-year-old Noah all wanted in on the adventure. The plan: We'd take a trip to the island of Burano the next morning and deposit landlubbers back at the hotel where they could rest. Then we aspiring gondoliers would meander our way through the throngs, across the Rialto bridge, to some random little canal, where we'd supposedly meet our guides with their boat and embark on a two-hour rowing lesson.
In a highly un-Rosen-like turn of events, everything went according to plan. Right up to the point where we reached our supposed meeting spot. But then: No boat! Were we on the wrong side of the little canal? Did we read the directions incorrectly? I called out to an older fellow across the way, "Do you know Row Venice?" As he looked at me like I was crazy, we heard a gentle, strangely twangy accent wafting up the canal: "Don't wuhry. We're raaht heah...." and there appeared an ancient gondola-like boat with two seriously fit blondes at the oars. Nan--who turned out to hail from Kentucky. And Ana, a born and bred Venetian who, despite speaking Italian, Venetian, French and assorted other tongues, had little English under her belt. No matter. The duo promptly produced cold drinks, got us up on our feet and proceeded to give us a 10 minute crash course in Venetian rowing. (Have to say I was psyched when I saw that Ana was wearing almost exactly the same thing as I was. I had fretted just a little about how the heck a rookie was to dress for rowing, guessing accurately that a striped boat-necked shirt wasn't it.)
Both women were members of one of the city's many rowing clubs, which are apparently a cornerstone of social life for fit and fab Venetians of all ages. The various clubs have stewardship of (and in turn the privilege of using) the city's fleet of ancient sandolos and the like, which have been handed down through ages. They serve as a social hub for members and preserve tradition for the community, regularly staging races in the Venice Lagoon and holiday processions through the canals.
Back on the boat, we assumed our positions and were soon rowing--though clumsily-- through the canals, alongside other rowers as well as deeply tanned, sunglassed Venetian teens zipping along in their small motor boats. The kids in our own boat picked up on correct technique far quicker than my brother -in-law and I did--especially the rear position which required standing up on the stern and actually steering the boat. Unlike the rowing I and you may know, you row a sandolo by pushing the oars with your full body weight and move the boat in the direction you are facing. It's an outstanding upper body workout and one which is catching on here in the U.S., especially in California, where I've found evidence of at least Venetian-style rowing club.
Eventually we arrived at the mouth of a canal and before us yawned the Venice Lagoon. My mouth literally fell open as my eyes soaked in the scene that embraced us--sail boats, sandolos, and skiffs darting across the water, the late day sun dappling the waves with amber, and the domed churches, Doges Palace, and all manner of time-burnished Venetian landmarks serving as a backdrop. In that moment, I understood why gondoliers sing. And sing we did. All of us, as we paddled, splashed, and laughed our way into the early evening. We ended up spending about three hours afloat with Ana and Nan, who seemed to care as little about the clock as we did. And who would, when magic is being made? Truly, truly. This was one of those memories of a lifetime. And I urge you to make a memory like this of your own if you should ever find yourself in this wonderful place.
Wanna Go? Need to Know
Whom To Call: There are apparently larger operators who offer Venetian rowing lessons, primarily as an excursion option for cruise ship passengers. For a more intimate and authentic experience, however, you're probably better off going through one of the small businesses that are affiliated with the Venetian rowing clubs. We reached out to Row Venice--who directed our inquiry to Ana and Nan, since they had a boat that would accommodate our group of four. Bottom line: You can contact Row Venice at via www.rowvenice.com. The woman who runs it is named Jane. If you want to venture out with Ana and Nan, you can contact Nan McElroy directly via her web site, www.livingveniceblog.com. She and Ana are an awesome duo.
What it will cost: We paid 40 Euros (about $50) per person. Our group of four added a tip of about 30 Euros and Ana and Nan seemed overwhelmed. They deserved every penny.
What to Bring/What to Wear: Nan and Ana row barefoot, so there's no need to pack sneakers just for this occasion, although you can wear them or Tevas if you want. Comfortable shorts and tee shirt are fine. Maybe a cap if it's sunny, but I guess it could blow off if it's breezy. Sunblock, camera, water, yes. Venice is hot in the summer but does get chilly other times of the year so it's best to ask Nan what you'll need before you take off for Italy.
How to Get There: Our hotel was in Santa Croce and it took us about 25 minutes to meander through the streets, get over the Rialto Bridge, and find our way to our meeting point. With a simple tourist map of the city and some sense of direction, you should have no problem getting to where you need to be. And if you should get confused, just give Nan a buzz on her cell phone. She's pretty accessible.