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4th May 2013 10:27am | By Xav Judd
A gondola is fine for lovers, but if you really want to see the canals of Venice in all their glory, do it in your own kayak
One of the truly classic European travel images has to be that of a guy wearing a stripey T-shirt and straw hat, coolly steering a canoodling couple along the Venetian canals in an old-fashioned gondola. But times are a-changing.
Today I’m swapping the stripey tee for a waterproof paddling jacket, the hat for a tiny headlamp and the gondola for a kayak, as I’m off to explore this iconic network of waterways using my own paddle power.
My guide Rene and I start off in daylight at 5.30pm from the lilliputian landmass of La Certosa, which is one of the 118 islands that make up Venice. This was a military base up until the Fifties, and army precision is definitely required right now as Rene fits me out with a buoyancy aid, and a spray cover which goes over the cockpit hole, so that I don’t get too wet.
The final part of my get-up is the tiny headlamp, along with a navigational light on the rear of my boat so we can be seen by other vessels when the light fades.
Once I’m in this ensemble I look as if I should be going down a coal mine rather than taking a gentle paddle through the sparkling turquoise waters that the city sits on, but Rene assures me I’ll be grateful of it later on.
He gives me a quick refresher on kayaking technique: “Sit upright, keep a relaxed grip on the paddle,” he tells me, adding, more enigmatically: “It’s not about how much energy you spend, but how you spend your energy.” Got it.
I’m soon back in the swing of things and before I know it my paddles are cutting cleanly through the water. Rene guides me towards the island cemetery of San Michele, where Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky among other luminaries are buried.
It’s an eerie place, but beautiful – brush-like sprouts of green foliage stand aloft of high brick walls with prominent white arches, underneath a pale sky smattered with clouds as puffed-up as candyfloss.
Despite the stunning setting, being near so many graves puts me on edge, so I up my pace, as I follow Rene down one of the 177 canals, passing by pastel Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all of which are in various stages of the elegantly tragic decay Venice is famous for.
I stop paddling for a few minutes just to watch as shafts of early evening, fading sunlight bounce off the waves and fall on the old, creaking foundations of these once magnificent houses. Now darkness begins to descend as our journey takes us into one historic canal after another.
Venice is divided into six sestieri (neighbourhoods) and we take a route through them, crossing the waterways of the Rios de San Luca, dei Fuseri and dei Bareteri. Eventually my arms begin to tire and I realise I’ve rowed at least four kilometres already.
My strokes become a little sloppy, and the canal traffic is heavy: vaporetto, water taxis and gondolas are everywhere I look. Suddenly I see a speedboat is heading right for me – it’s sink or swim time.
I paddle backwards furiously in a complicated manoeuvre, and just manage to get out of the way as it whizzes by me, avoiding what would have been a nasty collision. It’s certainly got my heart racing but, as Rene reminds me, this is all part of getting to see a new side of the Venetian canals.
“Travelling in a gondola is just a passive experience, where you’re taken along at a snail’s pace. But in one of our boats you’re in for an engaging adventure,” he tells me.
We cruise on down Rio de San Giuliano and Rio Palazzo, passing under the distinctive Venetian arched bridges. The blissful and gloomy faces of sculptures and stone-barred windows swing into view as we approach the white facade of the Bridge of Sighs.
Folklore has it that if lovers kiss under this 1602-built structure while in a gondola during sunset, everlasting affection will be bestowed upon them. It might be the right time of the evening, but I’m sans lover as I drift underneath, and not sure if a kayak would cut it anyway.
For locking down eternal love, it might not be quite the thing, but I decide that for every other aspect of exploring Venice, this awesome mode of transport is all I need.
Venice Kayak runs a variety of tours starting from £75pp for a half-day excursion.
More quirky city tours at tntmagazine.com/weirdtours
Getting there: Fly from London Gatwick to Venice from £72 return with easyJet.