Have you ever seen a movie set in Venice, Italy? If so, you were probably amazed by the beautiful scenery. You might also have been curious about the fact that many “streets” in Venice are actually made of water.
Those “streets” are called canals, and they’re navigated by small boats. One type of popular boat that tourists like to ride in to see the sights is called a gondola.
The gondola is a Venetian (that means “from Venice”) flat-bottomed boat that has been a traditional part of navigating the city’s canals for hundreds of years. Gondola drivers — called gondoliers — power the boats by hand, using long oars to row the boats along the canals.
Although gondolas were once the primary means of transportation around Venice, they are mainly used to transport tourists today. They still play an important role as traghetti — ferries — over the Grand Canal.
The earliest gondolas featured a felze, which was a small cabin that would protect riders from the weather. The windows of the cabin could be closed with louvered shutters that gave rise to the “Venetian blinds” that cover the windows of many homes.
Today’s gondolas are open to the air, so that tourists can have an unrestricted view of the scenery. Pursuant to law, gondolas must also be painted black.
At the height of their popularity, there were about 10,000 gondolas in Venice. That number has plummeted to less than 500 gondolas in active service to tourists today.
Gondolas usually have an ornament on the front of the boat. Called the fèrro — meaning “iron” — it can be made of brass, stainless steel or aluminum. In addition to being decorative, it also serves to balance the boat, since the gondolier stands in the back of the boat.
Speaking of gondoliers, not just anyone can be one! A limited number of licenses are issued and only to those who have had extensive training and taken a tough exam on Venetian history. In addition to being able to row a gondola, gondoliers must possess foreign language skills and be able to share the history of Venice with tourists.
Gondolas aren’t just boats, though. If you’ve ever been to a ski resort, you may have ridden in a gondola to the top of a mountain. These aerial lifts — also called cable cars — bear no resemblance to Venetian gondola boats, but they have borrowed the name, possibly because of their use to ferry tourists to new heights.