I had to look twice as the train went over the Venice lagoon as we approached the city as I thought I saw a dragon boat and then a kayaker. In a city long associated with the gondola I thought it odd but then I learned it was the weekend of the Vogalonga. Vogalonga is a non-competitive rowing event opened to those who wish to reclaim a bit of the tradition of the oar. In the early 70’s, long before the cruise ships would cause problems, but in reaction to the increasing number of motorized boats in the city, a group created the Vogalonga. It is an opportunity to row through the city of Venice to explore the 30km of waterways, which includes the Grand Canal and brings thousands to the city in late May. My view from the train? Rowers were quite literally testing the water as they prepared for the Sunday event.
After two days of rain, it was a bright sunny Sunday in Venice, perfect for the rowing event. This isn’t a race like a regatta, but rather a fantastic opportunity for men and women to row through Venice absent all of the boat traffic as most of the canals are closed for the event (be prepared to walk and drag your luggage up and over bridges). If nothing else, seeing the Grand Canal without the normal traffic was pretty incredible. Where do they move all the boats and gondolas? Is there a gondola parking lot somewhere?
People were lined up on the bridges, docks, at the bars and vaporetto stations to watch and cheer on the participants much like a marathon or a parade. What a sight to see – anyone who has a paddle can participate so you will see folks in kayaks, dragon boats, paddle boards, and an array of other boating options. It was really fun to watch all of the boats floating by (each way) and to cheer the rowers on as they passed under the Accademia Bridge. The boats were going in all different directions so it was chock full of boats, some decorated with a theme, many without and a handful of kayakers here and there.
I would see a few kayakers have a bit of a traffic jam in the smaller canals when it was larger boat or gondola vs smaller one person kayak but everyone worked out their space and got on.
While I’ve visited the city many times walking and with a boat tour, how amazing is it to row through the small Venetian canals steeped with so much history. To experience the city differently. I got a small taste of that when I learned to Row Venice (thankfully it wasn’t 30 km!). When I rowed into the lagoon, it was a bit of a scary thrill trying to row under bridges and co-exist with the motorized boats. Now imagine that the motorized boats are gone and you are one of approximately 2,000 other boats trying to funnel through different bridges that aren’t quite as big as the Rialto Bridge. It’s quite the feat.
The night before the event as I was enjoying a local pastry in the Guesthouse kitchen where I was staying, I met Teresa from Rome. During the day she is a private guide for Your Rome Tour and she was here with her team of women from the Tre Ponti rowing club to participate in her first Vogalonga. In the city, the gondola is still a sacred men’s club (save one woman, the daughter of a gondolier) so being able to row in Venice is a pretty big deal. She had trained with her team for a year and was scared and excited by it all.
For me, after so many visits to Venice over the years, it was a beautiful sight to see from the bridge and along the canal. It was uniquely Venice. So if you have an oar, you should look at paddling it in Venice next year!
Here is Teresa’s review of her first Vogalonga:
The experience of Venice and Vogalonga was fantastic! It was little more than a year that I started to row, already when I started to row seemed a miracle to me, I never imagined if someone had told me that I would have participated in the Vogalonga, I would never have believed, I was, like my rowing companions very happy and very excited, after crossing the lagoon and have got into the channel to get to the finishing line, see Venice with its beautiful buildings from the rowing boat, hear the cheers of the people gave me, and not only to me but also to my companions, strong emotion and tears of joy, one of the most beautiful experiences of my life!