At 9am next Sunday morning a cannon shot will ring out and the calm waters in front of St Mark’s Square will be transformed into a churning frenzy by thousands of oars. Hundreds of boats will jostle for position and then head off towards the distant islands of Burano and Torcello, rapidly forming a snake-like armada.
This is the start of the Vogalonga, a unique celebration of traditional Venetian rowing that for one day each year takes the Serenissima back in time: all motorised boats are banned from the Grand Canal and part of the lagoon. Visitors arriving in Venice need to plan ahead, because after getting off the train at Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, or parking the car at Piazzale Roma, there is no convenient Vaporetto (water taxi) to ferry tourists to the Piazza San Marco, no swish speedboat taxis lined up to transport guests, even for those booked into the most palatial hotel. Everything has to be reached on foot, unless you have the budget to hire your own private gondola.
Having lived here for many years, this is the one event of the year that I never miss, a day Venice really seems like a living city again, when residents, for once, are more important than tourists. Yet, unlike the centuries-old carnival and traditional regattas, the Vogalonga is a relatively new phenomenon, a protest movement dating back to 1975, when it was established by an influential group of Venetians, including Lauro Bergamo, editor of the local newpaper, Il Gazzettino. Their idea was to create a regatta that would form a rallying cry against one of the biggest perils facing Venice – the moto ondosa, the deadly waves created by motorboats, water buses and cruise liners that slowly but steadily erode the city’s foundations.
A daunting 18.75-mile course was planned, running from St Mark’s Basin past the islands of Sant’Erasmo, the market garden of Venice, the idyllic San Francesco del Deserto, the brightly painted fishermen’s houses on Burano and then, finally, past the glass-making island Murano, before coming back into Venice for a triumphant last lap along the Grand Canal, terminating at the Punta della Dogana.
The Vogalonga is anything but a competitive race: there is no winner, no official finish time to boast about, only a certificate of participation and a commemorative medal. While some participants speed their boats round in just a couple of hours, many take most of the day, stopping-off for a drink at one of the islands, or perhaps even for a quick lunch.
In the festival’s first year, its organisers were shocked when 500 boats turned up. This year’s edition will draw more than 6,000 rowers in three times as many boats, ranging from tiny “pupparini”, a mini-gondola with a single oarsman, to kayaks and canoes from all over Europe, speedy rowing boats from London clubs, and noisy Chinese dragon boats.
Rowers arrive throughout the week before the actual race. A good place to enjoy the atmosphere is the ancient bacaro, Il Bottegon, on the San Trovaso canal. This is where many of the boats moor and you will hear a dozen languages at the packed bar as the owner, Sandra de Rispinis, valiantly attempts to make enough of her delicious cichetti to satisfy demand.
When it comes to race day, everyone has their own favourite spot. Enthusiasts arrive in the early hours to get a place on the water’s edge in front of the Doge’s Palace for the start. (It is worth knowing that the Daniele hotel has a panoramic rooftop terrace where breakfast is served.) For the finish, two grand hotels, the Bauer and Monaco, have chic bars opposite the Punta della Dogana, but the preferred spot for locals is the humble Canal di Cannaregio, which links the lagoon and the Grand Canal. Outside old-fashioned trattorie such as Dalla Marisa, crowds set up tables and chairs for a picnic, and as each boat comes past, the rowers pause and raise their oars in a salute to the people of Venice.