Venice makeover looms after gondola death

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A German tourist was killed on August 17th while on a gondola ride. Photo: HarshLight/Flickr
12:10 CEST+02:00
Venice has teemed with boats for centuries but a tragic gondola death has stirred anger on the canals and could change the face of the floating city's most famous waterway.

As the tourist's funeral was held on Friday in Germany with a delegation of gondoliers, tensions have risen between the boater-hatted sailors and pilots of "vaporetto" ferries that ply the island city.

Five people - two gondoliers and three vaporetti pilots - have been placed under investigation over the August 17th crash that killed Joachim Vogel, a professor enjoying a gondola ride with his family.

With gondola and vaporetto pilots blaming each other for the accident, Venice regional governor Luca Zaia said motorized transport means the water traffic in 18th century paintings should be a thing of the past.

The city has proposed an overhaul of shipping rules to limit Grand Canal traffic, which would bar morning gondola rides on the channel, heavily restrict docking and reduce goods barges and private motorboats.

"What happened was probably fate but there is also the problem of regulating ever more intense traffic on the Grand Canal," Venice mayor Giorgio Orsoni said as he outlined his 26-point plan earlier this month.

Orsoni also wants new drug and alcohol rules for the gondoliers and regular checks after police found that the pilot of the gondola carrying the German family had cocaine and hashish in his system.

The gondoliers are a tight-knit community who have been a feature of the city since the Renaissance and are a popular if sometimes pricey draw for tourists, with their singing tradition and striped sailor shirts.

In the accident, which is still being investigated, the vaporetto apparently swerved to avoid one gondola only to crush another with its stern against the dock near the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal.

Traffic along the canal averages at around 3,000 boats a day, reaching a peak of around 4,000 on some days.

Lined with palazzi built between the 13th and 18th centuries, the Grand Canal is an iconic image that has inspired poets and artists since time immemorial.

Traffic has been a problem since long before the accident and earlier this year the canal was shut for a day to highlight the damage done to its banks by the wake of boats and to cut air and water pollution.

The gondoliers who row along it are now fighting to defend their reputation and have even staged a demonstration with their sleek black boats to protest against the increase in motorized traffic.

One gondolier even lashed out on Facebook wishing a "slow and painful death" for all ferry pilots, leading to a lawsuit from the pilots' association.

Nicola Falconi, the main representative of the gondoliers, said traditional rivalry between the two groups had turned "ugly" since the accident.

"We want to try and calm the situation down and create the basis for a cohabitation with Actv", he said, referring to the company that ferries residents and tourists around a city made up of 118 islands.

Actv director Luca Scalabrin said: "An equilibrium has been broken and we all have to take a step back to regain it.

"When I say all I am talking about pilots, crew members, passengers, gondoliers, everyone who lives in this city," he said.

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Luca Fabris, who like many other Venetians owns a motorized boat and a rowing boat, told The Local that gondolas were safe but the environment on the water had become dangerous due to deregulation.

"The conditions on the water have worsened over the past 30 years. The traffic police have been disinterested in this problem, until now," he said.

Tourists polled in the city spoke of their shock at the accident and some said it had put them off taking a gondola ride - once a must for any visitor.

"We didn't book a gondola because of this accident," said Reinolf, 45, a German tourist on holiday with his wife and two children.

Jed from Jordan said: "Riding on one of the gondolas or these boats is very nice but I think there has to be more security".  

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