I hadn’t planned on a gondola ride. I was excited to see the famous frescoes of the churches, the decadent palazzos, and the golden mosaics of San Marco. What my research had taught me about gondolas, however, made me think they were kind of… well, touristy. Gondolas have a long history in Venice, a history entwined with the performative culture that has characterized the city for centuries.
The ultimate pilgrim destination
Venice is one of the first European cities to intentionally court travelers. It stole the body of Saint Mark and set up Venice as a pilgrim destination all the way back in 828. (Venice commissioned famous artworks to brag about this event, some of which you can see at the Doge’s Palace and at Querini Stampalia.) When its empire of international trade was fatally wounded by the twin punches of the closing of the Ottoman ports and changes in ship-building technology, Venice turned its attention to enticing wealthy travellers from across Europe. They extended the masks of Carnivale throughout the year, turned palazzi into luxurious casinos, and made the gondola into an icon of romantic travel.
Something happened right before my trip, though. A couple friends visited me in Amsterdam and we rented a boat to tour the canals. Since moving here, I’ve dived so deep into my new city that I’m building tours based on its untold stories. I wasn’t expecting to see anything new by boat. The experience was revelatory. I felt like I was finally seeing the city as it was meant to be seen. It made me curious to see Venice by gondola.
Gondola rides on a budget
Fortunately for me and my beleaguered wallet, Tiqets has a way to experience a gondola ride without paying €150 for an hour. We hopped into a shared gondola near San Marco and the gondolier guided us out into the Grand Canal. I was immediately struck by Santa Maria della Salute, the iconic church on the Lagoon’s entrance. We had seen it backdropped by a pink and purple sunset from across the canal. We had stood beneath the basilica dome and watched the light dance across its interior. It was the subject of innumerable paintings we’d stared at during the past week. Nothing compared to this view.
From the canal, the white rock stairs seemed to emerge directly from the water. The marble curves in the church walls seemed to parallel the wake of crossing boats. The arch of the dome, so much taller when viewed from the water, seemed to arc straight into the clouds.
Gliding through Venice
The gondolier turned into one of the side canals. I had meandered along the canals and craned my neck crossing bridges, but this was a new view. Along a narrow canal with no streets lining it, we passed open kitchen windows where women spoke in a rapid dialect. We passed the loading dock of the grand old theater, which actors would use to sneak away. We saw one woman hanging her laundry on a line while her upstairs neighbor ashed a cigarette out of the window. We saw unrepaired marks of the yearly flood and the rusted doors of rooms that had been abandoned to the rising tide. In a city of museums and mask shops, we had a brief glimpse of the real Venice as it was, is now, and will become.
Soon, our gondola slid back into the Grand Canal, giving one more glorious view of Santa Maria della Salute as we headed back to the dock. Much like my overdue cruise through Amsterdam’s grachtengordel, my Venetian gondola ride gave me an entirely new perspective on a beautiful city.