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Romance is in the Air

It isn’t easy to be a gondolier in Venice. You must be able to steer a sleek, 36-foot, 14th century boat with an ostentatious hood ornament through a maze of narrow canals. You also must have a blue-and-white striped shirt (which you can buy at Emilio Ceccato, the couture gondolier shop). In addition, it’s highly recommended, though not strictly required, that you have on hand a jaunty straw hat with a red or blue ribbon, in case a tourist points a camera at you. That would be once every .008 seconds, because you also must be Drop-Dead Gorgeous. I’m not sure exactly where this is written in the rulebook of the Institution for the Protection and Conservation of Gondolas and Gondoliers, but I have the pictures to prove it.

If you have less than two full days to spend in one of the most romantic cities in the world (honeymoons and romantic rendezvous excepted), you have two choices. Option No. 1: You can drive yourself crazy trying to absorb all the art, architecture, history and culture of roughly 11 centuries in 16 daylight hours. Or Option No. 2: You can pick one thing and make that your focus.

It’s my first-ever visit to Venice, and in less than an hour, Option No. 2 was kind of chosen for me. Since horses were outlawed in this watery city around 1392, and the precious few skinny sidewalks tend to end abruptly at crumbling brick walls and half-submerged stone steps, there’s a lot of opportunity to focus on gondolieri (gondoliers).  

117 Islands, 400 Bridges, 450 Gondoliers
Venice is an archipelago of 117 islands connected by a spiderweb of canals and 400 bridges, three miles off mainland Italy. It has been home to Marco Polo and those scandalous playboys, Casanova and Lord Byron, as well as a progression of artists, composers, architects, philosophers and powerful doges (dukes) since the collapse of the Roman Empire.  

Everywhere I turn is a visual feast: Palladian arches, Byzantine domes, stone columns and bas relief sculptures, curlicued wrought-iron balconies and massive, rusting iron doors. There’s the magnificent 14th century Ca d’Oro, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection and three dozen other museums. There’s the Piazza San Marco with its famous ten thousand pigeons and ten thousand and one tourists. Presiding over the piazza are St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Fringing the piazza are the legendary 18th century caffés—Quadri, Florian and Lavenna—frequented by Casanova, Byron, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens and other luminaries in their day. There are hundreds of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance-era palazzi that are slowly sinking into the Lagoon of Venice. And there are 450 gondolieri.

It’s a soft summer morning, and the street vendors are setting up their feathery, glittery displays of Venetian carnival masks. Not the authentic works of art crafted by the famous mascherari (mask-makers) of Venezia, of course—those are displayed behind glass cases in several fine mask shops along the shopping streets between the canals. But in my less judgmental eyes, this touch of faux-glamour earns a measure of forgiveness for the tacky souvenir T-shirts and key chains.

After about 30 minutes of gawking at pigeons and showy masks, I’m off to study the elaborate balconies, windows and stone footbridges over the canals of Venice. My first bona fide Venetian footbridge is like the winning lottery ticket. The graceful, arched structure is barely wide enough for two gondolas, side by side, to glide beneath. While each gondolier stands with his oar at the stern, his passengers are lounging in posh, throne-like leather chairs against pillows of velvet, silk and brocade. The thrones—and in fact, the entire vessels—are embellished with varying degrees of fringe, gold-leafed crests and ornate ironwork. One Drop-Dead Gorgeous gondolier is standing on a colorful Persian carpet as he rows; the other on a narrow red runner, poised as if ready for a magic carpet ride.

After enjoying the view from above, I descend to the canal wall to get an eye-level view of the gondolas. I can now see the queue of gondolas lined up to pass under the bridge. The third gondolier in line is seated, languidly waiting his turn. His passengers, a beautifully dressed young couple who may have just come from their wedding ceremony, are cuddling and holding hands. Those covered cabins used in centuries past for romantic trysts, which dominated movie scenes about Venice, don’t exist anymore. So the handsome gondolier appears to be discreetly looking elsewhere.

But wait. It’s not entirely discretion on his mind. A dark-haired young woman sits half in shadow, knees tucked under her, at a windowsill in a faded brick wall, barely more than a foot above the lapping water. She’s wearing a gauzy floral off-the-shoulder sundress and sipping a glass of wine. A glint from the sun picks up the crimson hue. She sips and watches as the next gondola slips by, and the next—each rowed by a Drop-Dead Gorgeous gondolier. And then comes the sixth gondolier, with muscular arms and a tangle of dark curls. She leans forward and speaks to him. He grins and breaks into a song that ripples across the canal, bouncing off the sun-dappled walls. The other gondoliers laugh and banter.

To my surprise, this spontaneous outburst is the only singing I’ll hear from a gondolier all day. As it turns out, the $80-$120 for a 45-minute ride (for up to six people) does not include a serenata. That would cost at least $20 more. I suspect there’s greater demand for serenading under moonlight than a bright sunny sky.  

Another surprise is the smell—or lack thereof—around the Venetian canals. I definitely don’t want to know what flows beneath that green water—or what makes it so very green—but even on this hot summer day, the only fragrance wafting around me is that pizza pie just emerging from the oven of Mega One Pizzeria near the Rialto Bridge. But back to the gondole and gondolieri.

On my next canal, a riderless gondola gently rocks against the side of an imposing stone palazzo. A George Clooney-esque gondolier in dark sunglasses props one foot against the gray wall, to strike a perfect Drop-Dead Gorgeous Venetian Gondolier pose. He holds the pose, changing only the angle of the chin, for three or four minutes, until a customer hails him from one of the city’s picturesque candy-striped mooring poles across the canal. Almost instantly, another gondolier glides into the vacated spot and strikes his own pose.

I’d really like to stick around another few hours—or weeks—to study this cultural phenomenon in greater depth, but the next vaporetto (water taxi) leaves in about 20 minutes for the island of Murano, home of the legendary glass artisans. I’m paying more attention to my watch than to my feet as I hurry over another charming footbridge and nearly bump smack into the Brad Pitt of gondoliers. Thirty-ish. Tasteful diamond stud in one ear. Elegantly understated armband tattoo. Stage setting: iron railing, orange tree and potted flowers on a balcony above; the canals of Venice below. Gondolier “Brad” is speaking sotto voce into his cell phone, no doubt to a mysterious lady in a window somewhere.  

I really must get a grip. I am not Lord Byron penning a poem of Venezia, and this is not a Gothic romance. But in my own defense, I’m experiencing a living lesson in history and culture. Gondoliering dates back a thousand years. Each handcrafted vessel is made from eight different kinds of wood in precisely 280 pieces. It is lacquered in black and fitted exactly to its gondolier. It costs as much as a well-equipped BMW. Training and certification take at least a year, and the honored profession has been passed down from father to son for centuries.  

900-Year-Old Glass Ceiling
Gondoliering purists seem to have no trouble accepting this new generation of gondoliers, with their diamond studs and sleek cell phones. Still, they almost mutinied last summer when Giorgia Boscolo, 23-year-old daughter of a revered gondolier, shattered the 900-year-old glass ceiling to become the city’s first woman to join this closed, male-only society. I say, “Good for Giorgia!” She has the skills, she has the gondola, she has the wardrobe and she earned the certification. And—trust me, this is critical—she’s Drop-Dead Gorgeous.

Murano—The Glass Island

    Like Venice, Murano is ever-so-slowly sinking into the Venetian Lagoon of the Adriatic Sea. The island is defined by its cavernous brick fournos (glass furnaces), where artisans have been turning white-hot molten silica glass into ornate mirrors and chandeliers, jewelry and vases since the 13th century. I had seen exquisite pieces of Murano glass in the shops of Venice, but insiders advised me to go straight to the island for the best prices.

This island, consisting almost entirely of functional red brick with an occasional mustard-yellow or blood-red building, could never be mistaken for its neighboring island, Burano, where many glass artists and mask-makers live. That rainbow-colored former fisherman’s enclave, with several adorable cafés and little B and Bs, is also noted for its handmade lace. All the tourists on the pier are headed there, while only a few locals and I buy tickets for Murano.

The island looks oh-so authentic as we near the dock: a pretty lighthouse, end-to-end fournos and the usual mix of sinking, 500-year-old architectural masterpieces. A dozen small motorboats are tied to traditional mooring poles, but there’s not a single gondola in sight. I seem to have the town pretty much to myself. With so few customers this day, the artists in the tiny shops are very happy to welcome me.

There appears to be an equal balance of tacky tourist shops and fine galleries. In the better shops, the vases, platters and wine glasses are very enticing, and yes, they can be shipped. Hand-blown glass beads called millefiori (a million flowers)—no two exactly alike—range from elegant to gaudy. Any combination can be made into necklaces or earrings. It’s fun handling the smooth beads, comparing the colors and textures. Two hours later, I’m back on the vaporetto, without that gorgeous vase that captured my heart, but I did score some sweet little necklaces—each made by a local artisan and each bearing the authentic Murano Glass seal.

Travel Editor Karen T. Bartlett travels the world to bring back fresh views on the most-loved places on earth, and to explore rich new destinations for the readers of Gulfshore Life. Last summer she explored the exotic cities and isles of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean seas aboard the Crystal Serenity. This is Part Three of her 2010 Byzantine Odyssey series.

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