We have all been warned when we mention we will be visiting Venice – ‘The gondolas are too expensive, they will fleece you for all your worth’. Okay, maybe not to that extreme but there are a lot of people who think the gondoliers are just trying to rip you off. But is this true?
Gondolas are an iconic part of Italy and there are many people desperate to do one. During my recent trip to Venice, my friend and I paid £80 for a 30-minute gondola trip up the Grand Canal and around the main waterways, did we think it was expensive? Yes. Did we think it was worth it? Yes.
It wasn’t until our final night in the city when we decided at sunset to do one last ride, that we learnt exactly what goes into these trips. As the sun was setting over one of the most beautiful cities in the world, our gondolier Alex was telling us all about his job and why he does it. This opened our eyes into why the prices are what they are and we came away so happy we decided to do the extra trip and realising they are not that expensive after all.
There is a lot of mystery around the gondolier world, even though this is one of the oldest trades in the city. Gondoliers have been present in Venice for over 1,000 years, the first official reference came about in 1094 when it was mainly rich families who had access to the experience. This means gondoliers discovered all the secrets of the aristocracy, they were treated with respect so there was no risk of their private lives being spilt.
These days, it’s largely tourists who want to see the city via gondola and there are only 433 gondoliers with an official license to operate, this is a big decline from the 10,000 that were around in the 16th century.
The gondoliers you see today are very likely to be descended from past gondoliers, they are passionate people who want to show the world the beauty of their city. The job takes a lot of skill, and many children of gondoliers will learn to row from a young age. Gondoliers take part in regattas, to show of their skills and improve them, the Festa di San Marco which is held in April is the most renowned of these regattas.
A gondolier must participate in many hours of training before being fully qualified to row a gondola solo. They must pass a swimming test and rowing test before being accepted into the Arte del Gondoliere School. These courses run over 12-18 months and include language lessons, history, local geography and rowing, they must then have final rowing exams.
Once the exams are passed, the gondolier must register with the local Chamber of Commerce, open a small business tax ID and pay a large amount of fees, only then can they be considered a substitute gondolier. He/she must then work for unto a year in one of 5 gondola stations in which people are transported from one side of the Grand Canal to the other.
What you may have noticed is that your gondolier always seems to be male… women are allowed to be gondoliers but there is only one in the whole of Venice, Georgia Boscolo, the daughter of a retired gondolier. This is because it is a tradition for a father or grandfather to pass the trade down to his son, rather than his daughter, a practice I hope can change in the near future so we can see some more ladies navigating us around the pretty canals!
The price of a gondola these days ranges between €20,000-€50,000 euros and many gondoliers aim to own their own one day. Gondoliers must wear a uniform – a blue or red striped t-shirt with a straw hat, teamed with dark blue or black trousers. You can infect buy your own gondolier t-shirt, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge you will find the Emilio Ceccato shop where all proceeds of these striped shirts are put into projects to safeguard the gondolier trade.
So how much does a gondolier earn? Well, it is unlikely they are about to expose their tax returns to us, but it is thought they could earn up to $150,000 per year which is (as of 2020) £112,000 (€126,000). When you think of the back-breaking work that goes into their trade each day, I think it is understandable that each ride costs around €80 (expect today a premium at sunset). These gondoliers work morning till night, I can’t imagine the number of rides they steer each day during the summer season, and when it rains it can take hours to empty their boats of water!
Are they worth the expenditure? Definitely. A gondola will take you to otherwise inaccessible parts of the canals, they offer a feeling of peace and contentment as you listen to the water lapping on the sides of the boat, and I do think the extra money for a sunset or twilight journey is 100% worthy.