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Venetian gondolas afloat in California

Story and photos by Dorothea S. Michelman

Framed by a group of high-rises, several unusual boats glide by on California ’s Lake Merritt . Black and narrow, with gracefully shaped prows, and richly decorated with brass fittings of horses and other animals, these boats are a surprising sight next to the modern skyline.

There are the two always-standing boatmen, Angelino and Raffaele, each sporting a wide-brimmed, beribboned straw hat, black jacket over a wide-striped shirt and black pants. True to the 17th-century fashion –just like the gondolieri we saw in Venice a few years ago.

It turns out that Angelino and Raffaelo are Venetians, and their graceful boats genuine Venetian gondolas, handcrafted over a two-month period in Venice and christened in the 1,000-year-old tradition of gondola history. The boats were brought to their current residence for the new Gondola Servizio that began, appropriately on Valentine’s Day 1999.

As we stepped on to his gondola, Angelino serenaded us with traditional Venetian folk songs accompanied by his guitar. Over the next 55 minutes during our 3-1/2 mile cruise, he shared tales from the long history of gondoliering. Gondolas have to be fashioned only in Venice , and the gondoliers have to be born in the Italian province of Venice . By law, there can be a maximum of 408 gondoliers in Venice , and their boss is the cities mayor.

Until 1664, Angelino is quick to point out, gondolas were made in a variety of colors, but later restricted to a uniform black because it was less expensive.

Until recently, gondolas transported only the rich and famous with no singing or musical accompaniment. In modern times, these romantic water-vehicles serve as public transportation as well as for pleasure trips.

”Whenever possible,” Angelino says, “gondoliering was passed on from father to son.”

My husband had brought along photos he had taken of several gondoliers gathered around the Grand Canal more than 30 years ago. Much to everyones delight, we discovered that the then-current group of gondoliers were the sons of those we had originally photographed.

Gondoliering on Lake Merritt doesn’t have quite the same rich history but for the romantically inclined, these boats have been the site of numerous proposals and picturesque wedding-party scenes. The clergyman shares a gondola with the young couple, and the congregation glides by in other gondolas or Venetian-fashioned pontoon boats.

Gondola cruises are offered every day year-round (weather permitting).

RESERVATIONS: It’s best to make your reservation one to two weeks in advance. Tours are offered from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Gondola Servizio Oakland is located at the Lake Merritt Boating Center inside Lakeside Park :
568 Bellevue Avenue
Oakland , CA 94610
phone 510.663.6603
fax (510) 238-7199

Gondola Servizio Napa, office and gift shop, is located at the Hatt Market:
540 Main Street
Napa , CA 94558
707.257.8495 Napa

Call us toll-free 866.SERVIZIO (866.737.8494)

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