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Get Behind the Scenes in Venice

In a city almost wholly devoted to the tourist trade, is it possible for the visitor to experience some of the life known to residents? It's not very easy, but we tell you how.

In a city almost wholly devoted to the tourist trade, is it possible for the visitor to experience some of the life known to residents? It's not very easy.

Local activities include cycling on the Lido, or getting involved with one of the boating regattas staged during the rowing season; the non-competitive Vogalonga Regatta is held in May and has been one of the highlights of the Venetian calendar for over 3 decades. Just imagine being on one of the 1,500 man-powered boats that race out of St. Mark's Basin to remind Venetians of the continuing problem generated by the increasing number of engine-powered boats. Boats of every conceivable variety, shape, and size (as long as they can be rowed by humans, rather than powered by motors) gather in the waters opposite the entrance to the Doge's Palace; they then set off on a course that's roughly 30km (19 miles) in length, winding between a number of the lagoon islands and back to the Punta della Dogana via the Rio di Cannaregio. Most of the competitors belong to the local rowing clubs, but the number of foreign participants has been increasing steadily over the years; the regatta allows participants a unique opportunity to explore the lagoon and the city in a whole new way, all the while enjoying the spirited excitement of racing (but not really competing) against rowers and fun-lovers who include gondoliers, hard-training sportsmen, and locals in love with the city. To register for the event, visit, where you'll also find links to rowing clubs that will help you find a vessel you can use for the event.

You can also let someone else do the rowing -- a female gondolier, to be specific. Alex Hai came to Venice and fell in love. Not only with the city but also with the gondola. For years, Alex studied and practiced the art of the gondolier, and finally qualified for the stringent exams that protect the ancient craft. Unfortunately, gondoliers are nearly always Venetian-born, and certainly always male. Alex is neither, being a foreigner and a woman. While the rule book does not officially discriminate against women, the traditionalist men who control the examining body simply changed the rules each time Alex sat for the examination, and so she was repeatedly made to fail, a brutish political move that was to ensure that no woman ever again dare to covet the life of a gondolier.

But Alex persisted, and in July 2005, I attended a party to celebrate the imminent launch of her own gondola. She had earlier told me that she would take her gondola to the canals even if it took her the rest of her life. The good news is that Alex has achieved her dream, and is now available to travelers seeking a very different gondola experience. Alex is determined to bring romance back to what has become a hard-driving business. If you're keen to do it, Alex will also allow you to try your hand at steering the gondola, so you can grasp the difficulty of handling something that seems so marvelously simple, and her rides will take you to unexpected corners of the city. You can contact Alex directly, through her association, Incantesimo Veneziano (tel. 348-3029067;

The ancient art of gondola-building is dying, and the demand for the black-lacquered craft so intimately associated with Venice now far outstrips the ability of the few remaining master builders to supply them. Thom Price came from North Carolina a few years back, hoping to learn the boat-building technique as part of his college training; instead he opened his own building yard, and now actually runs courses in the basics of gondola building.

The opportunity to spend time in a real squero (boatyard) is unique. Workshops last 1-week and include demonstration courses for a thorough understanding of how gondolas are made and how they operate; there are even lessons in Venetian rowing, so this is not just for those of you who are handy with a power tool. The group spends mornings in the squero, while afternoons are devoted to visits around the city that further enhance visitors' appreciation of what makes Venice tick. You get to see the city's attractions in a whole new light, and meet artisans working on gondola-related crafts. This is a surefire way to feel less like an observer of Venetian culture, and more like someone who's actively involved. The bad news is that courses at the Squero Canaletto are infrequent and limited to 12 participants; this means doing some serious planning for your Venice trip. Contact Thom through his website (, or call when you're in town (tel. 041-2413963).

Finally, if you'd prefer something a little less physical, you might want to consider learning one of Venice's popular crafts. At Ebrû, on Campo Santo Stefano (San Marco 3471; tel. 041-5238830;, you can attend a variety of classes in marble-paper production, presented by the shop's owner, Alberto Valese. Paper-marbling is a technique that came to Venice from Persia via Turkey over 400 years ago; it involves creating elaborate, colorful motifs that imitate the veins in marble or stone in order to create a decorative effect on paper. Valese has been practicing this craft for decades and has exhibited around the world; classes take place at his home in Castello, accompanied by snacks and wine. A 3-hour introductory course costs 100€. Weeklong intensive courses cost 350€.

This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Italy, 1st Edition, available in our Online Bookstore now.

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