Whenever I’m in Venice, I always wonder how different it must be to live in a city with so many waterways and canals. All the things which I’m used to do by car, have to be done by foot or by boat. One of the advantages of boats versus cars is that they do not make as much noise, so when I return home after spending a couple of days in the quiet surroundings of Venice, I always have to adjust to this.
When most people think about boats in Venice, they imagine gondolas, or maybe a vaporetto or watertaxi. There are however plenty of other vessels which are used in the daily life of Venice: small motorboats for personal use, boats for the transportation of merchandise to the shops (often refrigerated), boats to collect the garbage, ambulances, police and fire brigade boats, heavy work ships for construction works, fishing boats, funeral vessels to bring the dead to the cemetery on San Miguele, rowing boats, sailing ships, ….
I love to watch and be amazed by all these boats, ideally while enjoying a good glass of prosecco or spritz on a terrace 😉 This probably seems strange to Venetian residents, because when you think about it, would you ever consider sitting next to a highway with cars and enjoy it? I guess that’s the magic of Venice. It’s not only the beauty of a perfectly built gondola or the grandeur of the Bucintoro that fascinates me. It’s also because it’s out of the ordinary for me and you can see strange things, such as a boat with a crane or bulldozer on top of it. The best thing is that, contrary to the regattas or other events on the water, you don’t have to plan your attendance or find a place in the crowds. Whenever you take the time to look at the water, you will see these beautiful boat parades.
Sailing a boat in Venice is very complex. On the map of the ‘Direzione Mobilità e Trasporti’ of the city of Venice, you see 9 different categories of canals. Depending on the type and size of your boat, you are allowed to enter them or not. There are also 5 different speed zones, ranging from 5 to 20 km per hour. On Canal Grande for instance, the speed limit is 7 km per hour, but the vaporetto is allowed to go up to 11 km per hour. These speed limits are quite slow, compared to 30-50 km per hour in ‘car’ based cities, so if you don’t have to carry things, you might often be faster to walk. For the smaller boats (with limited horsepower), there is no license required if you stay within 6 miles from the coast. The regulations on the access and speed limits per canal also change when there’s extreme high or low tide. Many rules, such as the ones related to alcohol and to the use of mobile phones but also the implementation of timing slots for different activities (for instance to deliver goods), have been made more strict after a tourist died in a gondola which was hit by a vaporetto in 2013.
Rowing boats can already be steered into the canals of the historical center by teenagers from the age of 14, as long as they can row and swim. If you would like to go onto the Venice canals yourself, you can learn to row in the traditional Venetian way, in the same way the gondoliers do. This style of rowing, standing up and facing forward, is called ‘voga alla veneta’. The team of Row Venice will teach you how to row in a batellina coda di gambero, a spacious and stable ‘shrimp-tailed’ boat. It is certainly worth it and a completely different way of visiting the city. For more information on what it entails to be a gondolier, you can read my post ‘An insider’s story from the world of gondoliers‘.
As long as you stay in the small canals, sailing a boat can be very relaxing and romantic as you can see on this beautiful video of Stefano Barzizza. I would however be terrified if I had to row on the Canal Grande next to these huge vaporetti and other large boats.
Outside the main island of Venice, you will see many sailing ships floating around the lagoon and the 117 islands, which are spread over an area of 200 square miles. Boats can enter the lagoon through the ports of Chioggia, Malamocco or Lido and then berth in Chioggia, on the mainland of Mestre, in the Cavallino-Treporti area or at the inland river marina of Portegrandi. There are also several pleasure ports closer to the center, such the ones at Sant’Elena, San Giorgio Maggiore or on the island La Certosa. If you would like to sail yourself, many chartering companies offer all different types of boats and services.
Venice has a long history in boats and has conquered the world with its vessels, which were built at the shipyard of the Arsenale (more on their expertise in ship building in my post on the transformation of the Arsenale). Hence, sailing runs in the blood of all Venetians and I guess most of them own a boat for their personal trips, just as people in other cities own a car. A good opportunity to see many of these, is at the Festa del Redentore in July. The Bacino di San Marco fills up with boats of all kinds, festively decorated with balloons and garlands, and thousands of Venetians await the fireworks while dining on the boats and along the Riva. If you are more interested in traditional and historical boats, you should visit Venice during the Regata Storica at the beginning of September.
If you want to see more pictures from boats on the Venice canals, take a look at my Steller story on this topic.
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