‘Put your body into it. You don’t need strong arms, it’s all in the wrists.’
I’m standing unsteadily on a flat-bottomed wooden Venetian boat, clutching an oar in both hands, trying to follow Nan McElroy’s instructions on how to steer this beautiful craft without falling into the canal. She’s behind and I’m in the middle, getting a crash course in ‘voga alla veneta’ – Venice’s traditional form of rowing, which has nothing to do with warbling gondoliers touting for tourists.
I’m on a ‘batela coda di gambero’ (shrimp-tailed boat), which for centuries were seen everywhere on Venetian waterways. But once outboard motors came along, these gorgeous wooden craft started to disappear. Only seven replicas exist, and four are used by the all-female team at Row Venice to teach people how to transport them down Venice’s quietest canals.
Row Venice’s founder, Jane Caporal – a Bristolian who came to the city more than 20 years ago and never left – wants to get Venetians in particular rowing again.
That’s why her business ploughs its profits back into sponsoring children’s and women’s racing – they’re keeping this old tradition alive.
Meanwhile, I’m trying not to lose my balance. Venetian canals are usually only a few feet deep but the water is freezing. Nan shows me the rowing position – one foot planted widely and firmly in front of the other – and how to twist the oar gently to get propulsion. To my surprise, I quickly get the hang of it.
And what a thrill. I’m seeing Venice like never before. We’re gliding along a nearly empty canal in Cannaregio as the late afternoon light fades, enjoying the peace that’s a world away from the madness of Piazza San Marco.
My rowing lesson includes a tour of cicchetti bars with Nan, who – rather handily – happens to be a sommelier. We head to Cantina Azienda Agricola in Rio Terà Farsetti for its a fabulous selection of tapas-like bites. Morsels of creamy salt cod, anchovies and Parma ham arrive on crostini and disappear in seconds, followed by little meatballs called polpette.
I stick to a small glass of prosecco because we have another bar to row to – and now is not the time to be a tipsy tourist.
Luckily, Vino Vero is only a short ride away and right on the canal, where my rowing lesson comes to an end – but not before another round of addictive cicchetti and some gorgeous Venetian and Tuscan wine.
As Venetian pub crawls go, this deserves to be more, well, in vogue.
Row Venice has 90-minute Venetian rowing lessons from £74 for up to two people; cichetto tour from £192 for up to four people. Rooms at La Villeggiatura from £110pn. Flights from London to Venice from £28.99 with easyJet