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Venice, 2008

Living on the water

Venice is a world of subtle equilibrium between land and water. If the water were three feet higher, the land would be flooded most of the time and would be uninhabitable. If, on the other hand, the water were three feet lower, most of the canals would be dry and Venice would be a town like any other.

This small difference between the level of the land and the water also created a fight between land transport and water transport. Either the bridges had to be flat to allow wheeled transport, and they would have been too low for the boat traffic, or they had to be high enough for the passage of boats and that meant the end of wheeled transport. Fortunately, the boats won and the bridges of Venice have their beautiful characteristic shape, with steps going up and down.

Interestingly, the streets, often narrow and sometimes very narrow, and the canals, also often narrow, rarely follow each other. Instead, they form two networks of communication that are almost orthogonal to each other, only briefly meeting at the bridges.

Water means boats. In Venice one often assumes it mainly means gondolas, but I became fascinated by the many kinds of boats one can encounter: it is just as varied as the road traffic in a standard city. The equivalent of the busses is the vaporetto system. They go up and down the grand canal, around the city and to the outer islands (the cemetery, Murano, Burano, etc.) The ferry to the Lido is somewhat larger and I am not sure where this beautiful one, named Michelangelo, goes. At the larger end of the scale, you have the huge Greek ferries that go back and forth along the whole length of the Adriatic.

I prefer the little boats, like the water taxis. They are all more or less of the same design, though some are fancier. If you stay at the Hilton, their limousine will carry you around. If you speed, watch out for the cops. Speed on the canals is strictly limited and the "no wake" rule is enforced, though I have seen this ambulance go pretty fast. Of course, the fanciest little boats are those used by the city officials. Only shiny mahogany will do for those guys.

Everyone in Venice travels by boat and everything is carried by barge. Some of them are quite pretty. Here is an old one of the style called bragozzo. The one behind it is called a comacina. Those are the most common ones, like these, bringing produce to the Rialto Market or this one owned by the Fenice Theater. There are also trash pick-up barges, crane barges - not quite as stable as the regular kind, and many others.

Traffic is heavy on the canals and around the island. Sometimes you have to double park, then you must be ready to use some muscle to unload. Everything is piled on hand-pushed carts, which means that going over bridges is best avoided.

Let us go back to gondolas. In the old days they were the only means of transportation and every wealthy family owned one or more. They used to have a small cabin called felze to protect the passengers from the weather and from inquisitive stares (this picture was taken in the museum of naval history). Now they are used strictly for tourists. I found it somewhat disappointing. It seems to me that the gondoliers are basically lazy: they mostly sit around all day waiting for some group of tourists that are willing to pay the exorbitant price (around $150) that they charge for a half-hour trip around the town. And the gondolas just wait there looking pretty but completely useless, clogging the canals. If you do not have your own garage, forget about parking your boat anywhere!

Except for the odd kayaks (by the way, you might find this New York Times article entertaining) or racing skull lost on the lagoon, rowing in Venice is always done standing up and facing forward. That is true not only for gondolas, but other kinds of boats as well, such as this two man sandolo or the traghetto that ferries passengers (also mostly standing up) across the Grand Canal. The sandolo is a more utilitarian boat than the gondola, with a pointed stern instead of the graceful curved neck of the gondola, but it can also be very pretty when it is used to carry tourists around. In all these boats the oar is held in a special removable oarlock called forcola whose odd sculptural shape allows the oarsman to set the oar in various positions to go forward, backwards, turn and brake. We visited a forcola factory. The owner was not very talkative, but he let me snoop around looking at the various shapes for different kinds of boats, and the patterns he uses to make them. Each oarsman needs his own individual forcola, adjusted to his own size.

There are two or three gondola makers left in Venice. We saw one that was a pretty rustic building near an old church. It is called a squero. We could not visit it and could only watch the squerarioli (gondola makers) hard at work from across the canal. Well, maybe it was siesta time.

Anybody interested in boats should definitely visit the museum of naval history, in the arsenal. It contains all kinds of naval memorabilia, many models of old ships (here is another one), including one of the Bucintoro, an XVIII century ceremonial galley for the doge, which was entirely gilded. There are also several well preserved old Venetian boats, like this beautiful galley. This is where I learned that gondolas are actually quite asymmetrical: The port side is nearly a foot wider than the starboard side, and the keel curves to the right. This is to allow the boat to go straight easily, even though it is rowed only on the right side. An empty gondola also leans to the right, but it straightens under the weight of the oarsman who always stands on the left.

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