Becoming a gondolier: The long journey to riding Venice’s waterways

With their straw hats and their stripy shirts, the gondoliers lining the canals of Venice are proud members of one of Italy’s oldest and most impenetrable clubs. Each holds the coveted gondolier licence, the prize reward for lengthy training and exams, and many were born into gondolier families.

Becoming a gondolier: The long journey to riding Venice's waterways
Alex Hai at the Jarach Gallery in Venice. Photo: Rosie Scammell

Not so for Alex Hai. Born in 1960s Hamburg, he studied film in San Francisco before a research trip to Venice led to a dramatic career shift.

“It was not really my plan…it was like destiny,” Hai told The Local at Venice’s Jarach Gallery, during an exhibit of photographs showing Hai at work.

“A film production offered me some research work and sent me here, then everything turned in a different direction,” he says of his trip to Venice 18 years ago.

“I wanted to see the gondolier’s perspective of the city…while I was doing that, the gondolier offered for me to become one,” Hai remembers.

A strong rapport with a progressive gondolier will only go so far, however.

Hai took up his offer and began training at one of Venice’s gondolier stations, but failed the exam to gain a license.

“Those people who were positive [about me becoming a gondolier] all got kicked out just before I did my first exams,” he says.

“At first, I thought it was maybe my fault, but then I realized it had nothing to do with the skills.”

Hai repeated the exam unsuccessfully and the gondolier’s association contested his suggestion of prejudice. Despite not gaining a licence he began working privately for a hotel, touring guests around Venice, which was allowed legally but had not been tried before.

Hai’s new-found employment caused waves in the city’s waterways, leading to a court battle over his right to work privately. He won the case in 2007 and has been paddling tourists through the city ever since.

'It’s like playing the violin'

Despite describing the life of a gondolier as “magical” and “like poetry”, Hai admits to having “good days and bad days” on the water.

“One of the most difficult things to learn is your physical capability for the day…At the beginning you can get exhausted very quickly without understanding where it’s coming from,” he says.

It takes about an hour to bail out a rain-filled gondola and high winds can make for a stressful journey, according to Hai.

“It’s a very technical affair…you can compare it to playing the violin,” he says. “It’s something very precise which you need to do over and over again in order to get fluid.”

Even after years in the job, Hai says concentration is essential, especially in the crowded canals; in August, a German tourist died after the gondola he was on collided with a waterbus.

READ MORE: Venice makeover looms after gondola death

But despite such worries, Hai says he still loves his job. “The most enjoyable part is being constantly reminded by my clients how beautiful this city is; they always find something new to ask me or see something I haven’t seen before,” he says.

After early setbacks, he says he has now been accepted by many of the Venetians in the trade and predicts more women will soon be picking up gondola oars.

As immigration to Italy continues, Hai muses that the canals of Venice could soon be opening up not only to women but a wealth of other nationalities. “For sure, we’re going to have some Asian people doing it in the future, because they’re living here now,” he says.

According to Hai, to suceed they will need “a lot of training – and determination”.

Editorial note, June 2017: This article was first published after an interview with Alex Hai in March 2014 under the headline 'The foreign woman riding Venice's waterways'. On June 21st, 2017, Hai released a statement for the press, which can be read in full here, confirming that he was transgender. The article has been updated to reflect Hai's gender and correct pronouns.

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Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

With bans on everything from beachwear to snacking in the wrong places, there are a few things you should know before a trip to famously rule-heavy Venice.

Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

By now, most regular visitors to Italy know better than to do things like bathe in fountains, wander the streets and piazzas in revealing swimwear, or pocket pieces of the local monuments. All of the above could land you with a hefty fine.

READ ALSO: ‘Bikini ban’: Why Italy’s Sorrento has outlawed swimwear

But while the above rules might appear fairly obvious, over the years a number of Italian destinations have introduced more eyebrow-raising bans, mainly in the name of preserving ‘decorum’.

Venice, the crown jewel of northern Italy, in particular boasts a rather lengthy list of “forbidden behaviours”, aimed at “preserv[ing] urban cleanliness and landscape, and also for reasons of safety and public hygiene”.

Now, if you’re thinking that these measures are the urban equivalent of a scarecrow and are only in place to ‘frighten’ visitors into respecting the city, think again.

The regulations are enforced day in and day out by local authorities, and those flouting the rules do receive steep fines – as in the example of two German backpackers fined a total of 950 euros in summer 2019 after being caught making coffee on the Rialto Bridge.

So here’s a quick look at what NOT to do to avoid getting in trouble while visiting Venice.

  • As you may have heard, Venice has a strict beachwear ban. Don’t walk around bare-chested or in a swimsuit, unless you want to risk being fined 250 euros.
  • No eating or drinking while sitting on the ground or on the steps of the city’s monuments. The same goes for those who might be tempted to have a snack while sitting astride a bridge railing. Transgressors receive a fine of 100-200 euros and, above all, a city ban (also known as DASPO urbano), i.e. they will be immediately and indefinitely banned from the city.
  • Though the traditionally murky waters might not be that enticing at first sight, the summer heat still tempts some visitors into swimming in the canals. Don’t do it. The fine here is 350 euros and, again, it comes with a city ban.

  • Don’t feed the pigeons or seagulls. As a Venice resident, I can assure you that the local fauna is doing just fine and is in no need of external assistance. Fines for feeding the city’s birds range from 25 to 500 euros.
  • Bicycles and e-scooters are forbidden in the city centre, even when only led by hand. However, you can use them in Lido, Pellestrina and Punta Sabbioni.
  • No camping in public areas. Check before you pitch a tent or bivouac – you could be hit with a 200-euro fine and a city ban. Camping is allowed in Lido, Punta Sabbioni or in the mainland.
  • Don’t buy items from street peddlers. You can be fined anything from 100 to 7,000 euros for buying counterfeit goods. Also, unsurprisingly, any purchased item will be confiscated.
  • Don’t litter or dump rubbish in public areas. This one might sound obvious but, like the accompanying rule against dog fouling, exists for a reason. Fine: 350 euros.
  • Dogs must be on a leash and wear a muzzle on public transport, whereas smaller animals must be transported in a carrier. You can be denied access to the service otherwise.

Bonus unofficial rules

While these aren’t legally enforceable, flouting the following unspoken rules could incur the wrath of the locals – something that could be far more unpleasant than a fine.

  • Don’t block the calli. Venice is known for its narrow streets, or calli. Try not to stop in the middle of a calle or a bridge to avoid creating blockages and, above all, spare yourself the rage of residents going about their day. If possible, always stand on the right so as to allow people to walk past you.
  • Take off your backpack on public transport. The city’s buses and waterbuses (or vaporetti) are usually very crowded, especially during peak hours and over the summer months. So this will decrease your chances of hitting other passengers in the face.
  • Be quiet. Venice is a relatively small city, with most houses overlooking at least one calle. When walking through residential areas, try to be as silent as you possibly can to avoid upsetting residents.
  • Recycle properly. If you’re staying in an apartment or flat, don’t forget about recycling and waste collection. Find out more via a mobile app offered by Veritas, the local waste management company.
Tourists fined for consuming food on the ground in Venice

What isn’t banned

You may have heard that wheelie suitcases are banned in Venice, but in fact you can safely bring them to the city. A ban on dragging luggage through the streets was proposed in 2014 due to the noise, but it was never enacted. 

That doesn’t mean residents will appreciate being woken by the sound of your rolling luggage rumbling through the calli, so refer to the unofficial rule above and take care if you arrive late at night.

READ ALSO: Drink from fountains not plastic bottles, Venice tells visitors