Gondolas are among the most enduring and recognisable things that spring to mind when thinking of Venice. Although the sleek black painted boats have changed so little over the course of centuries that they look the pretty much same in a 18th-century painting by Canaletto and a contemporary holiday snap, they now perform a radically different role. The almost unique mode of transport is no longer an everyday means of getting around, and is instead primarily reserved for tourists, and due to that some think that riding in one is a bit tacky. However, it proves to be an unforgettable activity for most people that manage to keep such cynical feelings at bay, including me.
The one factor that may put many potential customers off is the large amount that is charged. There is an official rate, but the initial asking price can often be much more, so haggling is usually a good idea. Meanwhile, anyone who wants a really kitsch time can also hire a serenading singer at extra cost.
Using the similar but larger traghetti that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal is a very cheap substitute, but the trip is short and much more basic. Overall, despite being handy when the nearest bridge is some distance away, standing on board with numerous other passengers for just a few minutes is really nowhere near as enjoyable as the more lavish and expensive alternative.
Having decided on a romantic Venetian break with my wife, the choice of whether to spend the extra money on what would probably be a once in a lifetime experience was not difficult. However, the standard excursion along the city's main waterway did not appeal, as it is often busy and is easy to see when on a vaporetto. Fortunately, whilst in our beloved Dorsoduro district we encountered a local gondolier who was getting ready to go to one of the main stands to find work. He appeared both surprised and happy to discover that our preference was to travel through his home area, and offered us a very reasonable fee. The following hour did not disappoint at all, in fact it was truly magical. Despite a lack of major sights, the almost deserted and predominantly residential canals were more beautiful when viewed from the different vantage point. For much of the time, there was an incredibly peaceful atmosphere, which was infrequently interrupted in a charming manner by a few greetings from acquaintances of our oarsman, as well as the celebratory shouts that seemingly came from all directions when Italy scored during their opening World Cup football match, which was being played at the time. One particular highlight was passing the traditional boat yard where the building of our graceful vessel took place, and watching the craftsmen down tools briefly to engage in some good humoured conversation with their friend and former customer.
The second gondola ride was much less expected and really quite different. It occurred a year later when I was acting as a friend's best man and accompanied the couple to the ceremony in what is perhaps the most wonderfully appropriate vehicle for such an event. Although the route followed was by necessity much busier and perhaps also less evocative, the journey was still extremely memorable, primarily because of the occasion, and the numerous congratulations offered to the bride and groom by both visitors caught up in the sheer romance of the surroundings and the generally family focused Italians, who tend to love weddings.