The city of Venice grew up on a series of mud flats and small islands in the middle of a sprawling, shallow lagoon. Originally inhabited by small groups of fishermen and traders, the islands were easy to defend because they could only be reached by boat. For centuries visitors to Venice made their way to the edge of the lagoon and then engaged a boatman to row or sail across the watery expanse to Rialto. For many the shimmering horizon of bell towers and domes was a mirage of beauty and fantasy, floating gently on the waves of the Adriatic. To approach the city with the lap of water around the hull of a small boat transported the weary traveller into another dimension, far away from the carriages and chaos of the mainland.
There is a boat for every occasion in Venice and for every purpose. Boats for transporting goods can be found loading and unloading at Tronchetto market every morning of the week from the early hours. Food and drink, wine and water all have to be delivered by boat to shops, hotels, guest houses and restaurants. Businesses too need supplies. Offices need computers, paper, printers, furniture and telephones, all of which arrive by boat. In addition the infrastructure of the city has to be maintained, pavements replaced, buildings repaired and palazzos restored. Building materials come in to town by boat too; bricks, stone, plaster board, roofing tiles all arrive by boat.
In the small canal next door to Venice’s impossibly beautiful ‘Ospedale’ the bright yellow water ambulances line up, ready for their next speedy voyage across the lagoon. Even though there’s a helipad on the roof for very urgent arrivals, most people arrive at ‘Ospedale’ by vaporetto or by water ambulance. In fact a ride on Vaporetto 5.2 usually involves a lengthy stop at ‘Ospedale’ as freshly bandaged people get on the boat. Opposite the hospital is the cemetery island of San Michele, so you’ve got every stage of life catered for in this small corner of Venice From the cradle to the grave
Assuming you make it out of the hospital, the next priority is likely to be lunch or dinner or aperitivo time. After all it is pretty well always ‘apero’ time in Venice – although first you might have to supervise the arrival of a double bed at your apartment, as we did! The new bed arrived by boat, of course, and then had to be hoisted up the outside of our building, to bring it in to a second floor window. We even had to remove the metal railing so that the frame could be manoeuvred into the apartment. It was totally worth the effort though – the bed is by far the most comfortable we’ve ever owned. It was purchased at a Venetian bed shop called ‘Gambarotto’ a common name in Venice, which literally means ‘broken leg’…..
Boats are part of Venice’s maritime heritage – about ten years ago a group of Venetians got together to create ‘Amici del Nuovo Trionfo’ a charitable organisation with a goal of preserving the last remaining ‘trabaccolo’ or cargo ship that is still floating in the Venetian Lagoon. The vessel dates from the 1920s and is moored at Punta Dogana opposite St Mark’s Square. For a small annual donation you can be part of the ‘Friends of Il Nuovo Trionfo’.
Rowing boats, gondolas, sailing boats, boats with engines, all ply the waters of Venice. My all time favourite has got to be this photograph of the frati cappuccini – the Capuchin Monks making their way across the Giudecca Canal from The Redentore Church to participate (or perhaps just to watch) one of Venice’s many rowing regattas, that take place every summer. The Capuchin monks are fantastic, they are a young and dynamic bunch. They wear the brown robes of St Francis of Assisi, and with modesty and humility they dedicate their lives to charitable works and helping those in need. They also run the churches on Giudecca, including Redentore, Zitelle and a personal favourite of mine Sant’ Eufemia. On a Sunday morning as the bells ring out announcing the morning service I often make my way over to Giudecca to listen to the monks waxing lyrical from the pulpit. They generally adopt a modern, semi-philosophical style in the morning sermon which can be interpreted in many ways and suits someone like me with spiritual inclinations but an aversion to religious dogma.
Boats are essential to everyday life in Venice. The transport network linking all the islands enables the children to get to school and the adults to get to work. In the old days the wealthy families all had their own private gondola or two, complete with a gondolier to row the gondola. The last person to actually maintain a private gondola was Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress and art collector. Peggy was a very wealthy woman and a huge character. She bought a palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1940s and lived in Venice for the rest of her life. A discerning and intelligent collector of art, she discovered Jackson Pollock and supported many artists, creating a private collection of 20th century pieces that are now regarded as a world-class selection of modern art. I love imagining her in her gondola, with a handsome gondolier at the stern of course, surrounded by her little Lhasa Apso dogs (small, white furry things), who were her constant companions.
VENICE BY BOAT – To really appreciate and enjoy Venice and the lagoon, it is essential to get on the water. The vaporetto (public boat) operates all over the city and to the islands. You can buy a € 20– pass for 24 hours that entitles you to unlimited travel. For a more authentic and luxurious experience you can hire a private water taxi (approximately € 130 per hour) which takes 6-8 people and will be at your disposal until your wallet is empty! Alternatively why not treat yourself to something really authentic and reviving, a sunset cruise on a traditional Venetian ‘bragosso’, this is a wooden boat, with a shallow hull, that can comfortably access many of the channels of the Venetian Lagoon. A ‘bragosso’ experience at sunset is peaceful and romantic, perfect for a honeymooning couple or a small family group. The luxury of cruising the lagoon at a gentle speed whilst observing this glorious wetland as a natural habitat for ducks, geese, swans and numerous smaller birds is a pleasure for the soul. To be on the Venetian lagoon at sunset, enjoying an ‘aperitivo’ as the sun goes down is truly one of life’s golden moments. For special occasions there’s a magnificent larger wooden vessel available called ‘Epido Re’ which can be taken for a full day exploring the lagoon and even venturing out to sea for a refreshing dip in the waters of the Adriatic.
THE splendour of Venice can only be fully appreciated from the water. The Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Basilica and the imposing bell tower were built to impress. Imagine entering the lagoon having sailed from Greece or even Constantinople, enduring days at sea and countless storms, to finally arrive in the vast, natural harbour with the elegance and beauty of Venice on the bow.
As we emerge into a new era of ‘slow travel’ it’s time to respect and enjoy the lagoon of Venice and the magical wetland that protects the city from the Adriatic Sea. Two years ago at the Venice Boat Show a hybrid ‘vaporetto’ boat running on a mixture of electricity and diesel was on display. In Sweden a new design for a water taxi is in the prototype phase, running on electricity and with small, fin-like legs lifting the hull out of the water to reduce wake damage to historic, stone ‘fondamente’ or quaysides. Venice and the sea are married for ever in our minds, the challenge for us now is to enjoy and respect Venice, on the water and on dry land. Once you’ve spent time on the lagoon in a boat, especially one of the traditional vessels, you’ll be forced to agree……
- To book a private boat tour of the Venetian Lagoon contact email@example.com
- To read more about the islands of the lagoon: Venice and the lagoon, a vast natural harbour…
- To discover Torcello – Island of legends – Cipriani, Hemingway, Venice
- For more on Peggy Guggenheim – Venice – Peggy Guggenheim, Modern Art on the Grand Canal…
- To discover Venice and the lagoon in a leisurely way visit: www.grand-tourist.com
- In Venice contact my partner Giordana www.topvenice.com for immediate, expert assistance.
Enjoy Venice and experience the lagoon by boat – it’s truly one of life’s great pleasures!
24th June 2021
URGENT – December, 2021: The team from ‘Il Nuovo Trionfo’ are currently #crowdfunding for urgent repairs to the hull of the boat. If you are able to contribute it would be gratefully received.
10th Dec, 2021