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“This is the closest you’ll get to walking on water,” says Nan McElroy, flashing her wide grin. I am standing, uncertainly, in a flat-bottomed wooden Venetian boat, and the water does seem perilously close under my feet.
“That’s what I say to visitors from the American south, anyway.” She grins again. Nan can make this Bible Belt-y joke: those are her countrymen. Originally from Kentucky, she came to Venice a decade ago and never left. And to see her standing high on the back of the historic batela coda di gambero (shrimp-tail boat), her long single oar guiding it with breathtaking skill through the narrowest of canals, and to hear her give the hoarse eerie cry – “Hooo-ah-way-eeee” – that traditionally warns other boatmen at blind corners and low bridges, she seems Venetian to the bone.
Except that very few other Venetians do this, the voga alla veneta – the traditional Venetian style of rowing. There are the gondoliers, of course, for the tourist trade; apart from that, Nan tells me, there are only eight of these particular batele left on the Venetian Lagoon: their slim elongated ends won’t accommodate an outboard.
It was partly to preserve the old water culture of the place that Nan, with four women friends of different nationalities – “Venetians by birth or by choice,” as they put it – established Row Venice, a non-profit organisation that teaches la voga. There are various options on offer: a straightforward rowing lesson; the “Venezia di Sera” evening row (magical, highly recommended); and the “Cicchetto Row”, in which your efforts are rewarded with stops at small canalside bars to sample wines and cicchetti – local tapas.
Naturally, I opt for the last. I meet Nan late on a brilliantly sunny afternoon at the gates of a boatyard in the sleepy northern district of Cannaregio, where a few dogs bask on the wide canal banks and the bustle of the tourist hordes seems miles away. She starts to tell me about the boat with the quiet intensity of an enthusiasm that never dulls, and then shows me, literally, the ropes. And the moves. One foot well in front of the other; twist your oar; step forward; push straight out from the shoulder as if you were shoving a piece of furniture.
For anyone used to “normal” rowing, this could hardly be more counterintuitive. But, astonishingly, Nan’s quiet instructions, gently repeated from behind me once we are under way, actually work – and I find myself able to make a few strokes that are not completely ridiculous. After only a short time we are heading out into the wide, terrifying northern lagoon, where the water taxis from the airport scream along the deep-water channels and the boy-racers are out with their girls for an ear-splitting, diesel-burning Saturday-evening ride.
“That’s illegal,” says Nan, still smiling, of one crazed speedhog. “So is that.” Somehow, we brave the wash of taxis and cross the channel, out to soft, clear water. It’s a feeling of tranquillity, and power. I am loving this.
But Nan has decided that I’ll try her spot, at the back, with a much longer oar – it will be a miracle if I don’t fall in. Then she suddenly sticks her oar down into the water and to my surprise it goes down only about five feet. “If you fall in, you could just walk,” she teases me.
Back along the canals of Cannaregio, the Saturday evening crowd is out now, on the wide pavements of the Fondamenta de la Misericordia: students, families with young children, a few foreigners, chatting, eating, lazing in the sparkling evening sunshine. Giacomo, our photographer, was born and bred here, in the Ghetto Nuovo, and people wave and chat from the banks as we glide slowly past. (Occasionally they clap: to see vogatori, especially a pair of women, is a rarity on these canals.)
Our first stop is the Osteria Timon, where we rope ourselves alongside a moored barge being used as the bar’s overspill, and Nan surprises us with a bottle of prosecco, perfectly chilled, from a coolbag under the seat. I can’t remember when I have been happier to see a plastic cup of fizz.
Then she leaps out of the boat and dives into the jam-packed bar, to re-emerge with a plate of super-pretty cicchetti.
It is obvious, right away, that today’s cicchetti are subject to all the usual foodie forces. The plate includes some nods to tradition – baccalà in tecia (a splodge of deliciously balanced creamed salt cod on bread), some nippy salami, and that old standby, an anchovy curled on a slab of boiled egg – but the ricotta topped with half a strawberry and the Gorgonzola with walnut spoke of contemporary fusion. In his younger days, Giacomo tells us, “Everything was fried, everything” – but new-style cicchetti such as these are geared to a different crowd.
On to Vino-Vero, further along the same canal. Matteo Bartoli, a Tuscan, opened the bar with his brother only a few months ago, and the bottles that soon appear on the canal bank speak of an inclusiveness that bows only, as he puts it, “to genuine producers”. So a delicate Borgoletto Soave, a beefy Catarratto di Sicilia 2013 and a white Veronese “biológico” 2012 are joined by Bartoli’s own wine, produced in Tuscany – a zinging blend of Pinot Noir and Sangiovese that, I notice worriedly (there is still more rowing to be done), weighs in at a hefty 14 per cent.
The cicchetti here too are deliciously various, and the highlights – a generous pile of baba ganoush topped with a swirl of silky prosciutto, a red-pepper mousse lit up by a thwack of chilli – properly Venetian only in so far as the city has always been a meeting place of cultures.
It’s late now, and the sun is slanting low, but Nan is determined that we’ll get to the heart of the traditional city, so it’s on through some tortuous canal turns to La Vedova, a Venetian institution famed for its polpette.
As with ragù (bolognese sauce), there are as many recipes for these classic Italian meatballs as there are kitchens in Italy, and all are carefully guarded – so my nervous request for La Vedova’s recipe is met with polite but frank incredulity. I can only dream that it would be a mixture of beef and veal, minced with cooked potato, garlic and parsley and bound with egg before being wickedly, delectably deep-fried. And, as it turned out, dream was all we could do: by the time we got there, the polpette were finished.
But that’s a good reason to go back. And by way of compensation, the rising sliver of moon and the sudden quiet of the evening were enough to lure us out on to the Grand Canal itself. Where we went. Under the moon. With me rowing. It seems a dream.
From £80; details from rowvenice.com.