Gondolas in Venice
Not just a rowing boat
– how it’s built, traditions and "the gearbox"…
A Gondola can be up to 11 metres long and 600 kg in weight, but still only needs one man with his single oar to propel it along, albeit in a stately fashion. Not many people know that gondolas are built asymmetrically; the left side is larger than the right by 24 cm and so it always floats along leaning slightly to one side. As a result, the gondolier does not have to keep switching sides as with a canoe, for example.
Gondolas have flat bottoms and a very shallow draft to allow them to traverse the most silted-up waterways, and in each one’s construction they use 280 pieces of wood made from eight different varieties. The only things made of metal are the characteristic "ferro" (iron) of the prow and the "risso" of the stern.
The seven-toothed "ferro" on the prow, was, originally, an element of longitudinal stability, which had to balance the weight of the gondolier. In popular tradition (ie what the gondoliers like to tell the tourists, it’s not written anywhere) the front "pettini" represent the sestieri (six neighbourhoods) into which the city is divided and the back one is Giudecca island; the double "S" bend of the "forcola" (oar-post) represents the Grand Canal and the lunette, situated under a stylized dogal horn, the Rialto bridge.
According to famous gondola-builder, Thom Price (unfortunately now returned to the USA), "the forcola can be compared to the gear shift lever of an automobile, with basically five places on which the oar can pivot for various manoeuvres: one for setting the gondola in motion, one for the power stroke and turning to the left, one for turning to the right, one for slowing down, and one for rowing backwards."
Want to know more? Here’s the "official" website: http://www.gondolavenezia.it/homeng.asp
Romance and Practicalities
The famous Venetian gondola is indisputably the finest – and certainly the most expensive – way to move about the canals of Venice on romantic moonlit nights, and maybe during the day, but if you’re susceptible to seasickness I’d give the Grand Canal in rush hour a miss and stick to the quieter backwaters. The best time for a gondola ride is in the evening when the waterways are no longer crowded with other boats. Worth doing once if the evening is fine and the lady beautiful – and your wallet thick, because it’s really expensive: this is not an option to take when your judgment is impaired by one too many glasses of vino!
The rate for a thirty-minute trip is €100 (September 2012) for a maximum of 6 people. From 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm the cost is slightly higher. If you want to do anything special make sure you agree upon the new price and duration of the trip beforehand. And a serenade is extra, especially if by your traditionally-clad gondolier – often, especially where groups are concerned, the singing tends to be outsourced to a rather ordinarily-dressed vocalist!
You can easily find a gondola at one of the many landing-places and these days they are smartly signposted. For further information you can call the telephone numbers of one of them:
Bacino Orseolo landing place for gondola rides: 041 5289316.
Calle Vallaresso landing place for gondola rides: 041 5205275.
The ranks are called “stazi” and can be found in the most tourist-ridden areas. However, the gondoliers often offer their services in different places around the city. If this is the case, make sure that what you are being offered is really a gondola. The easiest way to do this is to look for the famous “ferro” with seven metal teeth. If your boat hasn’t got this, it is a rowing boat (“sandolo a remi”), which may not make much difference to you, but I reckon should be cheaper!
Finally, some advice. If you do finally decide to do this famous “gondola ride”, be careful that it isn’t low-tide: you wouldn’t see the city at its best. It’s probably best not to pre-book as you will be committed to do the ride if the weather is bad.