During our recent visit to Venice, we booked ourselves into a 90-minute €85 rowing training session with Row Venice. They are ranking #1 out of 75 local boat tour operators and watersport activity providers on Tripadvisor, and, for good measure, also had a Certificate of Excellence thrown in on top.
For the €85 it was open to us, if we both wanted to have a go at it, or just one of us; in the end Ms B decided it wasn’t her thing, so I became the only student. If you are a larger group, the cost per boat (whether rowing or riding) is as follows: €120 for 3 people, €140 for 4, or €200 for the 5-passenger boat.
About Row Venice
Row Venice has been founded in the mid-Noughties by Jane Caporal, now 56, from Bristol, UK. She grew up in Australia, married an Italian, and moved to Venice 25 years ago, immediately becoming fascinated by the voga tradition, the art of rowing a boat Venetian style… She became a vogatrice soon after, and now runs Row Venice’s office, scheduling, and customer service.
Joining her in 2012 was Nan McElroy, now 63, from Atlanta, GA, in the U.S., who, by then, had already been addicted to voga for half a dozen years, had rowed Venetian style in France and even on the Thames. She is also a sommelier and runs the popular Cichetto Row rowing tours that combine tapas-style snacks and wine with the rowing experience. She’s now responsible for digital, when she’s not covering as rowing instructor.
Over the years the team gradually grew, with now roughly a dozen ladies (and one gentleman) helping out at Row Venice, some just for a session here and there, others on a more regular basis. All of them are very experienced and either already certified or enrolled in certification courses.
Jane and Nan also founded Viva Voga Veneta, a non-profit organisation that promotes traditional rowing in the city.
A Bit of History
Rowing in Venice has been on a very long, very steep decline since the mid-20th Century, when motorboats gradually started to replace the traditional rowing boats one by one. Rowing boats used to be the #1 means of transport in the city. Today there are about 400 licenced gondoliers, who chauffeur tourists around for €85 per 40-minute session. Each of them paid north of €35,000 for their gondola with annual upkeeping costs roughly adding another €5,000. Besides of that, rowing has nearly died out in the canals. No one owns a rowing boat anymore and no one would know how to row one.
The year is 2019. Venice is entirely occupied by non-rowers. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls … hold on, I meant one group of rowing enthusiasts has picked up the stokes and entered the battle, not willing to take prisoners or settle on land. You can only admire the sense of mission and the energy these ladies have. Tip to the hat. We could use more people like this to defend small shops against shopping malls, country pubs against corporate mega-pub chains, or whatever it is.
Getting There on Time
The starting point is roughly half an hour’s walk from Saint Mark’s Square (if you don’t get lost and if the paths are not blocked by tourists). We arrived early. The marina was still empty except for one gentleman, who turned out to be from Germany, just like myself, so we got to talk. Turns out he’s a return customer, also waiting for his instructor and boat to arrive for his session. We were impressed and made a compliment about how by now he must have mastered the skill and how that is pretty cool.
He then responded with a German idiom: “When the donkey gets too happy it walks out onto the ice to dance.” Quite a funny picture drawn there, which we couldn’t get out of our heads for a while.
The Rowing Lesson Begins
A few minutes later, two boats with our instructors and the prior customers arrived. Our German friend didn’t need much of an introduction, exchanged a few crass but funny jokes with his instructor, then off they went at high speed in a beautiful straight line.
Our Instructors Valeria & Luigina
Our instructors Valeria and Luigina were very relaxed and took it easy on us. Valeria, 30, relocated to Venice from Reims in France a long time ago. In her day job she now runs Venezia Autentica together with her German-Italian boyfriend Sebastian (whose mom comes from Bavaria, like I do). The organisation is all about protecting the town from harmful mass tourism and supporting sustainable tourism. Their project has gone a long way from its humble start and has now been widely reported on in newspapers and on TV channels as far abroad as Australia.
Luigina must be the smiliest person Ms B & I have ever met, she just makes you smile too. A true veteran of Venetian rowing, she is the current national champion of the stand up rowing circuit together with Jane, who is her rowing partner.
Rowing a Shrimp-Tailed Boat
For the first five minutes or so, the boat is still moored and the instructors introduce you to the traditional batela or ‘batelina’, a wooden, “shrimp-tailed” (that’s what their full name “batela coda di gambero” refers to) boat. It is not a gondola, slightly more stable and comfortable, but requires the same kind of upright, forward-facing rowing style as a gondola. Once one of the main boat types in the city, used not just to chauffeur people around, but mostly to transport goods and material from A to B, today, less than a dozen of these boats are in existence. Several of them were custom-built for Row Venice. They are being rowed by two rowers, one at the prow, in the middle of the ship, responsible for propulsion, the other at the stern, steering the boat.
You are being shown the basic moves, rowing techniques, the right body position, etc. Then you start out standing at the prow, making the boat move forward. During most of the 90-minute session there was very little traffic around us. Whenever there is a bit of traffic, it is very important to follow the instructors’ orders thoroughly and immediately, because the other boats won’t give you any special treatment.
We felt very safe in the hands of our instructors and quickly made our way out into the open lagoon, where I moved from the prow to the stern. In some ways it is much easier, because there is so much open space, on the other hand the vehicles you encounter are potentially much bigger. We learned that 200-passenger capacity ferries can stir up significant waves. It takes concentration and care to stay on the wooden boards. Luigina assured us that in all those years they never had an instance of someone falling into the water, which was great to hear. This time of year (February) the water temperature averages 8.5 °C, so it is not a good idea to go for a swim.
We made our way back into the canals. Ms B & I were having an absolutely fabulous time. But boy oh boy, this was hard work. Despite the chilly air temperatures of perhaps 8 °C I was sweating like a farmhand, even after I had taken off my jacket. I’m a tall feller and the boats had not been designed with someone tall in mind, so my back was starting to send me messages. Well.. I’ll be frank, we let our two lovely tour guides do all the work for the second half of our session and just listened to them talking about the history of voga, their participation in some of the prestigious boat races, and how the city has changed over the past few years.
Ms B & I had a great 90 minutes, so much fun! 5 out of 5 in our book. We’ll definitely do this again during our next visit to town.
If you’re looking for adventure and travel inspiration, try our posts about our rides on a jetlev, a powerboat, and a helicopter, as well as our articles on Grozny (before they started killing gay people, horrible what’s happening there at the moment), Dubai, Lisbon, Colesdalen, and the one on self-punting in Cambridge.
For restaurant reviews, feel welcome to have a look at our articles about Beso, New Street Grill, Delizie d’Italia in London, Il-Horza in Malta, La Scuderia, Frankfurt, Les Papilles, Paris, and Solar 31 da Calcada, Lisbon, if you like.