WORDS: Scott Rawstorne. PICTURES: Scott Rawstorne, Janelle Rae & René Seindal.
Somewhere in the outer limits of your subconscious, there is a list of amazing adventures that you imagine would be wonderful to experience but they have been filed away because they seem too outrageous to ever eventuate. It is a list that is lengthened in the deepest of sleeps when your wildest dreams make anything possible. Every now and then, the stars align to turn a long held fantasy into a reality. That’s exactly what happened to me when I spent three superb days kayaking in the World Heritage listed city of Venice in Italy.
To the far away romantic, the waterways of Venice are the domain of the gondolas; long shiny black boats that glide peacefully through the canals under the control of lone Italian gondoliers distinctively clad in horizontally striped black and white shirts. Anyone who has been to this bustling city knows that the gondoliers share their watery streets with many speedboats, water taxis and ferries. It is less well known that kayakers have also taken to the canals. They are out there right now, seeing incredible things that non-paddlers cannot even imagine.
The first time it came to my attention that paddling through the Venice canals is even allowed was when I stumbled across the Vogalonga Facebook page when planning a European kayaking odyssey. Vogalonga is an annual rowing regatta which was first run in 1974 as a protest against the growing number of powerboats in the city and the damage that their wake is doing to historic buildings. Unfortunately my schedule did not allow me to take part in Vogalonga but the existence of the event encouraged me to do some further investigation. I quickly discovered that Venice Kayak conduct tours of Venice on a regular basis and it wasn’t long before my partner Janelle and I were booked in for a daytime paddle through the canals, a daytime paddle across Laguna Veneta (the Venetian lagoon) and an evening paddle through the city.
The accommodation costs for an adventure like this could undoubtedly be exorbitant but we managed to find Camping San Nicolò on the island of Lido which has basic facilities but very reasonable rates. We booked a tent space there for the first three nights of our visit and rewarded ourselves for our frugality with a room in a 14th Century palace for the last night. The fact that our chosen palatial accommodation had a Jacuzzi definitely helped to seal that deal.
Day 1 – Exploring the canals
We had checked into Camping San Nicolò the previous day so we would be ready to meet our Venice Kayak tour guide René Seindal as soon as he arrived. The squat toilets were a bit of a culture shock but the Birra Moretti beer was nice and cold so there were no complaints. Breakfast was a little different than our usual fare and arguably not as healthy as we might have hoped but a couple of pieces of brioche, a cup of tea and an orange juice was a delicious way to get the engine running.
Venice Kayak headquarters was on the island of Certosa. This is only 500 metres across the water from the island of Lido where we were staying but to get there by public transport would have required an involved and lengthy process so René kindly towed a double kayak over to us so we could paddle back with him instead. Upon arrival, we were greeted by André, an ex-Russian now living in the USA who was to be our paddling buddy for the duration of our time in Venice.
Venice Kayak had a range of kayaks for us to choose from. The rudders had been removed from all of them because it is important for paddlers to be able to manoeuvre their boats quickly around corners in the canals and deployed rudders tend to get in the way of that. Janelle and I both chose to paddle a single seat Rainbow Freccia because of its cockpit space and stability.
Before we set off, René explained the unique rules of the waterways in Venice as they apply to kayakers. In small canals where there is often barely enough room for two boats, it is important to keep to the left because gondolas lean in that direction and the gondoliers cannot see you on the other side. Some canals are so narrow that you need to lift your paddle onto the boat and hang on to the wall with your fingertips to avoid collisions. On larger waterways such as the Grand Canal, it is allowable to travel on either side but it is still essential to pass gondolas on their right hand side so you can be seen.
When you come to the corners of buildings it is necessary to call out a warning to anyone who might not know you are there. The most commonly used calls are: “Vada stagando” which means I’m going right; “Vada a premando” which means I’m going left; and “Pope oeh” which means I’m coming. It can get very exciting on the water when calls are bouncing back and forth between gondoliers and paddlers. To my Australian ears “Oeh” sounded a lot like “oi” and therefore a totally logical way to alert someone of your approach, except it should probably be followed with “mate”. Oi mate!
René took us to see spectacular architecture decorated with sculptures of lions and mythical monsters. I am pretty sure that he told us the fascinating origins of a lot of the buildings but when my mouth is open in wonder; my ears are often closed so I’ll let Wikipedia do the talking… “Venice has a rich and diverse architectural style, the most famous of which is the Gothic style. Venetian Gothic architecture is a term given to a Venetian building style combining use of the Gothic lancet arch with Byzantine and Ottoman influences. The style originated in 14th-century Venice, where the confluence of Byzantine style from Constantinople met Arab influence from Moorish Spain. Chief examples of the style are the Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro in the city. The city also has several Renaissance and Baroque buildings, including the Ca’ Pesaro and the Ca’ Rezzonico.”
It was easy to forget that we were paddling past people’s homes until we saw the occasional washing line was strung up overhead. Far from detracting from the historic scenery, these simply added touches of vibrancy and colour.
To the bemusement of passers-by, we landed on the steps of a city square called Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo and wandered to a nearby café for lunch. After a typically Italian meal of gnocchi and pasta, I caused quite a stir in the kitchen by ordering a white tea instead of coffee. It turns out that drinking tea is downright un-Venetian and had it not been for some fast talking by René, I would have been expelled from the city immediately.
In the afternoon we paddled through some more back canals and even made it onto the bustling Grand Canal for photo opportunities with the instantly recognisable Rialto Bridge. We were probably the subject of more photos than we took as the tourists crammed on the bridge craned their necks to get a better look at the crazy kayakers below.
Ducking back into the quieter waterways, we floated under the Santo Stefano church which was founded in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 14th century and modified again in the 15th century. Janelle reliably informed us that not singing as you passed underneath churches was considered almost as un-Venetian as not drinking coffee, so the four of us cut loose with a rousing chorus of “Figaro Figaro Fiiigarooo”.
When we came out the other side, we looked up to see that the church tower was leaning quite dramatically. The 66 metre high Campanile of San Stefano has a declination of more than two metres and that distance is increasing all the time. It is now thought to be in serious danger of collapsing. Thankfully it did not land on us today.
A little further on, we were serenaded by a gorgeous female operatic voice and the strains of violins as we cruised past the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia (Conservatorium of Music). It was like our day suddenly had the perfect soundtrack. René told us with a twinkle in his eye that he had set this up for us. Nothing but the best for people who paddle with Venice Kayak.
Before heading back to Certosa, we paddled out the eastern end of the Grand Canal and across St Mark’s Basin to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore which has had a church consecrated to St George on it since as early as the year 829. The current church is an impressive historical monument in its own right, having been built in 1566.
We had a lot to enthuse about over our Birra Moretti, pizza and pasta that evening and there were still two more days of paddling to go. I was more excited than a kitten at a knitting convention.
Day 2 – Laguna Veneta
We shared our Camping San Nicolò breakfast table with Karl the cycling Swede who was midway through a two wheeled adventure from Munich to Split, and Yann and Marek the paddling Czechs who were planning on kayaking around Venice themselves. The Czech lads had not enlisted the help of a guide so I made sure to explain all the rules that René had told us the day before.
Janelle decided that she wasn’t really up to going kayaking again today. This was undoubtedly fair enough given that she isn’t as obsessed as me and immediately prior to arriving here we had paddled across Scotland, walked across England and spent seven days sea kayaking in Greece. It also has to be said that the myriad of fashion, handbag and jewellery shops that line the walkways of Venice were casting a hypnotic spell to which she was not immune.
René had left a kayak with me so I could paddle over to meet him at Certosa. That seemed like a perfect arrangement until I realised that the launching jetty was about 6 metres above the waterline and I had no rope to lower the kayak down. Luckily my inner MacGyver was on call and he solved the problem using the guy ropes from the tent.
The plan for today was to paddle across Laguna Veneta from Certosa to Burano and back. René, André and I were joined by two young American cousins called Lauren and Katie who I thought were very brave to take on an 18 kilometre trip given that they weren’t experienced kayakers. André immediately took the girls under his wing; offering them advice and insisting on sunscreen and hats.
The conditions were calm and sunny, and the atmosphere was naturally much more relaxed than it had been in the city yesterday. We paddled past huge expanses of saltmarsh where egrets, gulls and terns could be seen either looking for food or simply basking in the warmth of the day. This area is home to one of the largest areas saltmarsh in the world. Venice itself is built on a group of 118 islands which were bolstered Middle Ages when dredging was done to raise them above the level of the tides.
On the way to Burano we paddled in for a closer look at the Convent of San Francesco of the Desert which gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor. It was founded in 1220 when it is said that Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco d’Assisi) stayed here. It is instantly recognisable by the row of cypress trees on its perimeter. It is only reachable by private boat or water taxi. We didn’t land but the Franciscan brothers who live here are happy to take visitors on tours if an appointment is made in advance.
Burano has its very own leaning tower just like the one we had seen in Venice on the previous day. It is the Campanile of San Martino and it is visible from a long way across the lagoon. We simply made a beeline for that on the last stage of the outward leg of our journey.
Burano is a group of four islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. It was first settled in the 6th Century but became much better known in the 16th Century when it became famous for making premium quality lace. According to the official website of Burano:
One of the most famous legends about Burano narrates that an ancient betrothed fisherman, while he was fishing outside the lagoon, in the east sea, hold up to a siren who tried to entice him by her canto. So he received a gift from sirens’ queen, enchanted by his faithfulness: the siren thumped the side of the boat by her tail, creating a foam from which a wedding veil developed.
Came back home opportune in the day of marriage, he gave the gift to his fiancée. She was admired and envied from all the young ladies of the island, whereupon they begin to imitate the lace of the wedding veil employing needle-and-thread more and more thin, hoping to create an even more beautiful lace for their wedding dresses.
From a visual perspective, Burano is also well known for its brightly coloured houses. The colours look quite random but there is a system and anyone who wants to paint must send a request to the government who then lets them know which colours they are allowed to use. René also told us that property owners are also required to paint their houses on a regular basis to ensure that they always look stunning.
Pasta was on the menu again for lunch. No need to pay attention to carbo-loading here. It’s a way of life. To my delight, Janelle had somehow managed to plan her day to meet up with us on Burano for an ice cream and a wander around town at the end of the meal.
René took us on a different path on the way back to Certosa. This time we went via the Madonna del Monte. This is a small island which was home to one monastery in the Middle Ages and another in the 18th Century before being used for gun powder storage in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, neglect and erosion are now causing it to fall into ruin. You can read more about this in an online article titled The death of an island which was written by René himself.
Lauren managed to paddle the entire distance with a smile on her face which I thought was an excellent effort. Katie started to grumble towards the end but the eager and chivalrous Andre was more than willing to tow her the rest of the distance. She shot me a cheeky grin which told me she didn’t really need help but who am I to interfere? Unfortunately, lack of experience in this area led to them getting tangled around a marker buoy but luckily they escaped without incident. The group dropped me off at the same jetty where my day had started and René towed my kayak back to Venice Kayak headquarters at Certosa where I would be needing it again the next day.
Day 3 – Some enchanted evening
We had another brioche breakfast with our Czech friends and swapped stories about the previous day on the water. We were also surprised and delighted to learn that Yann and Marek were big fans of Australian rock music and the Wallabies rugby union team.
The camping part of our stay in Venice was now over and it was time to move into the Hotel Foscari Palace which was constructed on the Grand Canal in the 14th Century. It was the official residence of the Duke Gonzaga in 1521 and it was to be our residence tonight.
We checked in early with the hope of taking advantage of our room’s Jacuzzi before our evening paddle but unfortunately our room wasn’t ready so Janelle was “forced” to go shopping again. I have to admit that I was pretty stoked to be able to supplement my on water escapades with a tour of the city on foot. We didn’t get back to the hotel until just before we had to leave to meet René and André at Certosa. Venice is a very special place and we wanted to make the most of what might be our only chance to see it.
It was still light when we paddled into Venice from Certosa and René took us via a floating statue of Marco Polo which has its arm raised to point the way to China. Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) was an Italian merchant who learned his trade from his father and uncle who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. Marco was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to China and he wrote a book about his experiences called The Travels of Marco Polo. His writings inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travellers.
We went for a long paddle along the Grand Canal which seemed surprisingly quiet for what we imagined should have been peak hour. We cruised past our hotel and did battle with a huge crab (pictured below) before heading into the back canals as night fell to find a good place for dinner. Before you get too alarmed about giant crustaceans, I should tell you that the crab wasn’t real. It was part of the popular Venice Biennale art exhibition that was taking place at the same time as our visit.
It was dark by the time we finished dinner so we donned head torches and glow sticks before we got back on the water. People on bridges and ferries that saw us paddling past couldn’t believe their eyes. Several gondoliers loudly questioned the wisdom of kayaks being on the Grand Canal at night and there were a couple of hairy moments with speed boats going too fast. We did start to wonder whether we were crazy for being out there. Then a smiling girl adorned with more lights than a Christmas tree floated past in a dinky inflatable boat and our cares seemed to drift away with her.
A full moon brought king tides which drowned the footpaths beside the Grand Canal. Janelle took the opportunity to paddle her kayak up onto the steps of the Rialto Bridge to surprise tourists and pose for photographs with them. There is no doubt she has featured prominently in a few slide shows around the world since then.
The full moon also seemed to bring out the romance in everyone. There were lovers sitting on bridges and lovers walking hand in hand along every footpath that wasn’t under water. We even saw a group of loved up couples doing the tango on the steps of the Santa Maria della Salute which is a white octagonal church with two domes and a pair of bell towers that was built in the 17th Century. It was easy to get swept up in the vibe and Janelle’s kayak may have been rafted up with mine on one or two occasions but I’m not one to kiss and tell.
The evening flew by and we didn’t slide our bows onto the beach at Certosa until 11:30pm. A speedboat whisked us back to the city but it dropped us a long way from the hotel and we didn’t end up dragging our weary bodies into bed until just before 2am. We still hadn’t managed to use the Jacuzzi but I can tell you that an early rise the next morning remedied that situation.
There is no way that anyone could accuse us of not making the most of our three days in Venice. I can highly recommend that you do the same.