Gondola Greg, as he’s widely known, reached out to me years ago when I published my first book Free Gondola Ride. He’s the president of the Gondola Society of America and also runs an American gondola company with multiple locations in the US (details at the bottom of this interview). He has actually given me free gondola rides in more than one location! Greg has a deep love for all things Gondola, which of course extends to a deep love of Venice. Enjoy my interview with him to dive into a different view of Venice. Greg also provides links to his many favorite things.
How has Venice seduced you?
When I first climbed aboard a gondola, it was in Newport Beach. The year was 1993, and I was proposing marriage. She said “yes” (thank God) and from that point on I had an affinity for this unusual boat. We were in the yacht charter business, and the gondola was just one of the many boats our company booked cruises on.
Later that year I stepped on the back of a gondola and discovered how great it was to pilot the boat. A few years later, we had increased our gondola cruise business enough to bring in two more gondolas, and we commissioned the launching of several more. I fell in love with the gondola long before I discovered the city she came from. I became a true “gondolaphile.”
On a warm afternoon in the summer of 2000, I stepped off a train in Venice. After collecting the luggage and the children, we made our way towards the entrance of the railway station.
I will never forget my first glimpse of the Grand Canal.
It was rustic, with ancient buildings and all the trappings of what we might expect to see there, but it was the gondolas that grabbed me. Sure, I expected to see some, but where I came from, we only had a few, and they were a rarity, but looking out that wide portico, I saw a dozen or more of them glide by.
The more time I spent there, the more I felt like I’d finally found a place that understood me. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe most Venetians would see me as just another tourist (with an interesting business card), but for me – it was like coming home.
Seduced? Maybe not. But one thing’s for sure – she calls to me incessantly, and I can’t wait to see her again, and again, and again.
What do you never fail to do in Venice?
Ay-yay-yay. The list is long.
— Each morning I’ve got to get coffee and breakfast at a stand-up counter. If I’m in the city with my daughters, I’ll drag one or both of them with me for that. Breakfast with Daddy is a sort of family ritual in Venice (even now that they’re 17 and 20 years old.
— Row at the GSVVM rowing club with my friend Nereo Zane.
— Take photos and video of gondolas and gondola stations.
— Have an Aperol spritz as the day begins to turn towards evening.
— Dinner in a restaurant with my wife and whoever else we’re there with. Sometimes in Campo Santo Stefano, sometimes Campo Santa Margherita.
Gosh, the list is so long.
— I always drop in on Gilberto Penzo – the authority on all things related to boating in Venezia. He’s written so many books on the boats I love. He has fun model kits too. Now and then I’m faced with a question I can’t answer – Gilberto always has the answer.
You can learn more about Gilberto and his, well, everything http://www.veniceboats.com/eng-home.htm
— I like to visit at least one squero (where they build gondolas). That’s not so easy to do – you have to know somebody there.
— Stocking up on striped shirts and other gondolier clothing at Emilio Ceccato is a must-do with each visit. Learn more at https://emilioceccato.com/it/
— Each time I visit Venice I stop by Giuliana Longo’s hat shop to get a fresh gondolier’s hat for myself and usually one or two for some of my gondoliers back home.
Giuliana’s website is http://www.giulianalongo.com/
— Lastly, I stop into the workshop of Saverio Pastor. He carves the oars and forcolas (rowing oarlocks) for Venetian boats. Watching a master craftsman and his staff carve and shape is a timeless thing. It’s like watching Michelangelo releasing statues from the marble they’ve been trapped within. Most of all – I love the smell of the shop. The scent of the wood is incredible. If I ever go blind, I want to just sit in Saverio’s shop and take in the smell of freshly carved wood.
I’ve posted several times about Saverio and his work. Here’s a post that has a nice collection of photos of the shop: “Tanti Auguri Saverio!” To learn more about Saverio Pastor’s craftsmanship, go to: http://www.forcole.com/
What is your Venice soundtrack?
I don’t bring music.
Venezia provides her own:
— The footsteps of people making their way over bridges and through the city, the unique echo of voices as people walk through ancient passageways,
— The sounds of gondoliers as they communicate with each other on the water,
— The occasional vaporetto engine or water taxi,
— Venetians catching up on the latest whatever,
— And even real music – produced by an accordion and singer.
It’s all so distinctly Venetian.
Another thing that’s noticeable: no cars and vespas.
Walk or take a boat?
The walking is fantastic, but there’s no better cheap and quick way to see the city than from the front of a vaporetto as she plows her way up or down the Canale Grande. I also like to step on a traghetto (ferry gondola) for a canal crossing whenever it’s convenient.
Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.
I love Campo Santa Margherita. So much life. So much activity. All the basic nutritional needs are there: Cappuccino and croissants in the morning, panini in the day, spritz as the day goes on, good restaurants to sit down and have dinner, and of course, gelato. Maybe follow that with a shot of espresso.
It’s not unusual to see young children playing there – maybe even kicking a ball around, Venetians walking their dogs, it’s a nice snapshot of the city. My favorite church is San Trovaso – it’s adjacent to an historical gondola building yard, and even has an ancient version of a gondola carved into the stone of an altar there.
Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?
Most of my friends in the gondola world (American and international) would answer “Vogalonga! Of course!” without hesitation.
But for me it’s Regata Storica. The history, the pageantry, and the competition are all so very Venetian, so hugely popular within the city, but not as well-known outside of the realm of the Veneto.
You get yourself on a boat from a rowing club and take part of the unofficial parade portion, row with the team, look your best, and raise your oars as you pass the judging platform.
Next the boat is pulled to the side of the Grand Canal to watch the various races. Everyone breaks out something to eat or drink, and unlike Jeff Spicoli – everyone DID bring enough for all the people on the boat (even in a 14-oar vessel). It’s just about the best picnic you could have on the water.
Races go by and everyone’s got favorite rowers. Some are members of the club, or come from the neighborhood. And this usually bustling main street, which just happens to be paved with water, is shut down for the whole day for an incredible event each year. Because it happens at the end of the official racing season (early September), it’s essentially the Superbowl of voga-alla-Veneta.
People line the shore wherever they can, hang out of windows, drink cocktails on rooftops, and then there are all of the boats. Having experienced it first-hand I am continually amazed at how many people don’t know about Regata Storica.
Spritz or Bellini?
Spritz – preferably with Aperol, but Campari ones will be welcomed with a smile as well.
What do you do when you’re alone in Venice?
I do all of the things listed above and below. I also smile an awful lot – reminding myself that I’m once again in the city that I love.
What do you always tell friends to do when they visit the city?
— See Bacino Orseolo – with all those gondolas jammed in together. Over the years I’ve launched dozens of blogposts about this remarkable place. Search “Orseolo” on the Gondola Blog and you’ll have no shortage of cool images to look at – of gondolas stacked and packed. One of my favorite posts is “Bacino Orseolo at Night – a Lineup of Ferros.” http://www.gondolagreg.com/2010/11/bacino-orseolo-at-night-lineup-of.html
— Arrange a rowing lesson with Row Venice – a company that will teach you the art of voga-alla-Veneta in a true Venetian boat on canals, with the expert tutelage of women who are experts (many compete regularly in regatas). To learn more, go to https://rowvenice.org
— Get lost – you can’t walk too far before you run into a shoreline. In the meantime you might find a quiet and tranquil place (the opposite of Piazza San Marco) – some little campo with a cistern, a couple Venetians sitting on a bench while a cat suns in a window, with water trickling from a small fixture somewhere, the whole thing guarded by a small iconic statue mounted in the side of a wall. See the Venice that’s always been there, all you have to do is look for it.
If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be?
I would have dinner with Domenico Tramontin. For the longest time, gondolas were built symmetric, just like most boats. In the mid 19th Century, he built the first asymmetric gondola. To this day, gondolas are built about nine inches off-center – leaning to the right.
I would love to hear it straight from the man himself: How he came upon the idea, what his peers said and thought, and how long it took them to all start building their gondolas crooked as well. The meal itself wouldn’t matter too much, because I’m sure I’d be mindlessly nibbling on whatever was handed to me – all the while hanging on his every word.
Casanova: genius or cad?
Both, I think. I often wonder how he would have fared in Hollywood in the 1980s.
What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice?
I guess I’d like to ask “How long can I live in Venice on that thirty grand?” Renting a small apartment overlooking a small but traveled canal would be great. I could call Venezia my home for a while.
If money were no object, which palazzo would you buy?
The Palazzo Labia would be my home. It sits at the intersection of the Canale Grande and the Cannaregio. There’s a campo in the front, and you can hear the church bells ringing from Ciesa di San Geremia next door. The main reason I’m drawn to this particular palazzo is a great story about the family who lived there.
Apparently they were known to throw lavish dinner parties, and in order to impress their guests, after dinner they would step to the windows overlooking the Cannaregio Canal, and fling the fine china into the water. The message being that they were so rich that they didn’t need to wash their dishes. The guests were indeed impressed, but what they didn’t know was that late at night, when the city was asleep, the servants would sneak down to the water and retrieve those dirty dishes from a secret net which had been placed under the water. The palazzo is also quite enormous, so I could have as many friends over as I wanted (and maybe we could carry on the tradition of chucking dishes into the canal).
Would you rather be a courtesan or a noblewoman? Make your case.
That sound you’re hearing is my brain short-circuiting.
It’s a hard question to answer. I suppose the answer would be courtesan, although I can see a lot of benefits to being a noblewoman as well.
What is your favorite cicchetti? Do you have a cicchetti story?
Understand that when I go to Venice, it’s a busy affair. I’m stocking up on various supplies, getting some expert training from a maestro at the rowing club, meeting up with various important people in my field, taking photos and video, and somewhere in the mix…I need to get some sleep. Unfortunately, like so many Americans, I tend more towards a fast-paced itinerary – which doesn’t exactly match the lifestyle of most Venetians, or Italians for that matter. So I don’t often get the chance to slow down for cicchetti. Someday I hope to visit Venice for a month or two at a time, and I plan on becoming an expert on the subject of ciccetti.
But I DO have a story:
One hot September afternoon, I was out rowing with my Venetian friend Nereo Zane and Arturo Moruccio (a true maestro of a rower), and we were on a GSVVM club gondola. Arturo spoke zero English, and at the time my Italian wasn’t much better. There was a lot of pantomime, as well as translation by my patient friend Nereo.
We entered the city through the Tre Archi canal in the Cannaregio district, turned down the Grand Canal, and stopped just short of the Rialto bridge. We tied the gondola up next to the fish market, and Arturo showed us a little cave of a wine bar. We stepped down into a basement-like room, where wine was kept in huge wicker-wrapped bottles on the cold stone floor. It was the house red, poured from a plastic siphon tube into my glass. I hadn’t expected to be given red wine on a hot day…and I certainly hadn’t expected it to be so refreshing. I credit the cold stone floor for naturally chilling it.
So, enough about the rowing and the red wine.
As we stood there sipping chilled red, elbows against the bar, maestro Arturo decided that the kid (that would be me) needed to try a sort of delicacy. He said something in Venetian dialect to the girl behind the bar, and she produced for us…three whole cuttlefish.
Arturo laughed, and in his swim-coach voice gave what sounded like instructions.
Barking what I can only imagine was “look here, you Hollywood poser. This is how it’s done!”
He popped the tiny squid in his mouth and away it went. Nereo followed with the same ritual (minus the apparent insults).
And then it was my turn. I thought to myself, this looks a bit like the old fraternity goldfish swallowing hazing ritual. I took a slug of cool rosso from my glass, tipped my head back, and down the hatch went the cuttlefish! I could be imagining it, but I think I won Arturo over a little bit at that point. We rowed for the rest of the day, and I came away with expert coaching… and a great story.
Which gelato flavor are you?
I asked my wife just now about this and she said “YOU? You’re stracciatella,” definitively. There was no hesitation. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I like it.
How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits?
Gondola Greg is the president of Gondola Adventures, Inc. – with locations in Newport Beach, CA and Irving, TX, ( www.gondola.com ) as well as the Gondola Company of Newport – in Newport Beach as well. ( www.gondolas.com ) He is also president of the Gondola Society of America, and past president of the US Gondola Nationals.
Greg has planned and led several gondola expeditions in different US waterways.
He’s hosted the Gondola Blog (www.gondolagreg.com) since August of 2007.
When he’s not rowing a gondola, or training to race one, he’s either painting one…or painting a picture of a perfect moment on the water for his readers on the Gondola Blog.