Built on water, Venice’s history is inextricably linked with boats, the ability to steer them and the aptitude to stand firm on shaky ground.
The city and former maritime republic still celebrates its illustrious past with a myriad of rowing events every year. The highlight of these is the famous Venice Historical Regatta, first organised in the second half of the 13th century.
The Historical Regatta attracts participants from all over the Northern Italian region of Veneto and even the world. It is held during the first week of September and its highlight is the splendid opening parade on Sunday after which the main rowing races take place.
The Venice Historical Regatta was one of the very first events we went to after we moved to live in Italy in the summer of 2014. Both my husband and I are die-hard devotees of Venice and, believe it or not, proximity to La Serenissima was one of the defining factors in the process of choosing a new base for our small family in the Bel Paese. Hence, we ended up in Vicenza.
So, when a few weeks after our arrival, we read that the Historical Regatta was to take place that Sunday, we took the train to Venice pronto and spent a happy day traversing its curving streets and tiny bridges, just immersing ourselves in the beauty and the craziness of the city on water. The regatta and, especially, its opening parade were splendid and we saw it all kick off from a jetty right opposite the iconic church Santa Maria della Salute.
The only downside to the day was that it was incredibly hot and sweaty. Having just recently left the foggy shores of England, we enjoyed it nevertheless, still quite unable to believe it that whilst the shops in London were selling heavy winter garments, here, in Venice, people were getting tanned just by walking from one place of interest to another.
All in all, the Historical Regatta was a great day out and since then I have been hankering for an opportunity to live through it once more. Fast forward to this year, when over breakfast this past weekend, I told my husband: ‘And, by the way, it is the Historical Regatta in Venice this Sunday…’
‘OK, he replied. Feel free to go. I’ll take the child and head off to the mountains.’
Honestly, it is not fun walking through the dense crowds and the oppressive heat in Venice en masse with a toddler. I mean, Venice has a lot to offer to families with children and one of my most favourite days there was spent on my own with my little daughter visiting the Natural History Museum, eating polpo alla Siciliana and riding the traghetto, but that was back in December when the crowds were non-existent and the city didn’t feel like a greenhouse.
So, I thanked my lovely husband, got my camera ready and jumped on the train as early on Sunday morning as I could possibly manage. A day on my own in Venice culminating in a historic event?! My kind of heaven.
I walked all over the city, avoiding the main tourist thoroughfares as much as I could and noticing little details about this beautiful city which had escaped me during previous visits. I had a sort of a plan for the day, including a guided visit to Venice University Ca Foscari (which was splendid!) and the Naval Historical Museum (a nice and neat place!), but there was also lots of room for improvisation and spontaneous discoveries. As such, I saw the church of San Pantalon and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini with their breathtaking ceilings painted by, respectively, Gian Antonio Fumiani and Giambattista Tiepolo. I will tell you all about these explorations in future blog posts.
The highlight of the day was to be the Historical Regatta and its opening parade and, interestingly, whilst at Ca Foscari, we were shown La Machina – the red tribune erected right in front of the University on the Grand Canal where the prize-giving ceremony for the winners of the races was to take place. I asked if they were selling tickets for the tribune, but was told that most likely there wouldn’t be any left and that, anyway, their price was around 60 euros.
We were not really allowed to step on La Machina either, as a team of people was putting its finishing touches, but I managed to take a quick photo and see the two green boats moored right next to it with which the University was going to take part in the regatta.
The two ladies, leading the guided tour of Ca Foscari, also explained that the opening parade and the races of the Historical Regatta would start from the basin between St. Mark’s Square and the islet of San Giorgio Maggiore and then proceed up the Grand Canal past the church of Santa Maria della Salute, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, past Venice University Ca Foscari, then Rialto Bridge and once they reached the Santa Lucia train station they would row back doubling on their itinerary all the way down to the finish line at Ca Foscari.
‘Normally, whoever reaches Santa Lucia first, also wins the race, the ladies said. Oh, and another tip. Look out for the most exciting race of them all – the gondoloni! These are just like gondolas, but much smaller, very fast and very difficult to row. Plus, traditionally, you have to row them standing up. Balancing on one is not an easy feat at all.’
Anyway, after all that sightseeing and walking around Venice, all of a sudden it was already 2:30 pm. It was time for me to head back to the Grand Canal to find myself a good spot alongside it in order to see and breathe the Historical Regatta. I had just finished my visit to the Naval Historical Museum right by Venice Arsenale and was busy taking pictures of the imposing towers of the latter, when I became aware of a group of people dressed in historical costumes which were milling on the quay beside me.
As luck would have it, this turned out to be the meeting point of all the participants in the opening parade of the Historical Regatta.
They would change in their costumes in a nearby building and then in groups of two, three or ten or twenty head to the quay to await further instructions from the members of the organisational committee.
The participants were putting make-up on, filling their bottles with water from one of the seventy free water fountains dotted around Venice…
taking photos of each other and simply engaging in convivial conversations whilst holding the chart showing the position of each boat during the opening parade (see it in the hand of the guy with the blue bag to the right below).
My dormant journalistic instincts kicked in and I seized my chance. I snapped lots of pictures…
but, most importantly, I also found from somewhere the courage to approach some of the participants and to interview them. I know!!! They were very kind to stop and answer my simple questions. It all happened in a very spontaneous and unrehearsed manner, so here is the result. By the way, I got so excited, that I remembered to press the ‘Record’ button only after having asked the girl my first question, which was: ‘What’s your name?’
The second interview was with these three splendid noblemen whom I managed to run into.
Here you can also hear me speak my very own Italian, which means a rather broken and unrefined language (apologies to all proper Italian-speakers, I am still learning and I was quite emotional, so this is the best I could muster). Anyhow, the noblemen told me that two of them would be on gondolas and the third would be on La Serenissima – the main and most splendid boat in the opening parade.
I also asked them (off camera, unfortunately) what was the criteria to be on La Serenissima during the parade. The three noblemen laughed out loud and said: ‘They chose the piu bello!’.
By the way, here is a picture from later on showing the gentleman I spoke with manning the flag on La Serenissima.
Just then a gaggle of motor boats arrived and the organisers started motioning the participants in full costume to get on them. The motor boats then drove them into Arsenale – the former shipyard of Venice and current military zone which is off limits.
I gathered that there they would embark on the large boats for the opening parade and maneuver them to the basin in front of St. Mark’s Square. It was time for me to start moving and find a good spot from which to watch it all unfold.
It was by then hot and sweaty and I was bang in the middle of the tourist crowds disembarking the boats transporting them from Punta Sabbioni into the heart of Venice. People walked around dazed by the sun and the thousands of others all around them. The usual bottleneck of pushy tourists in front of the Bridge of Sighs could test the patience of even the most docile person.
Then, I crossed St. Mark’s Square, admiring as always its splendid architecture, walked fast past Florian – allegedly, the oldest cafe in the world – and dove into the maze of streets beyond the square. A narrow street beckoned me to the left and at the end of it, by coincidence, I found myself at the exact spot from where my husband, our sleeping baby and I had watched the opening parade and the start of the races of the Historical Regatta two years prior to that moment.
Right in front of me stood proud and beautiful the church Santa Maria della Salute.
Behind me the islet of San Giorgio Maggiore rised from the waters of the lagoon with its splendid Palladian architecture.
On my right hand side was the luxurious hotel Bauer and all around me people were waiting for the kick-off of the celebrations.
Tourists and locals were sitting on the jetties watching the many gondoliers picking fares and driving their big black gondolas on the sparkling waters of the Grand Canal.
In the basin the racing boats, the 16-th century style galleys and other typical for Venice watercraft had started to take their positions according to the chart I had glimpsed earlier in the day.
Just then two large barges with live bands on their decks came sailing down the canal and the huge crowds on the steps in front of Santa Maria della Salute erupted in loud cheers. The atmosphere was light and happy and the three German ladies next to me on the jetty took three proper (not plastic, mind you) glasses out of their bags and poured themselves some wine out of a tetrapack box to enjoy the moment.
An ambulance boat…
a police boat…
and the TV and press boat all sailed past us, proving that Venice is perfectly adapted to life on water.
It was now 4 pm on the dot, but nothing was happening. We waited patiently a bit more. I noticed yet another bright yellow barge which drew our attention to the Italy-wide campaign highlighting the abuse women suffer at the hands of men all over the world.
A song sung by a choir floated over the waters from Santa Maria della Salute. I strained my eyes as much as I could and made a group of nuns right by the doors of the imposing church, ready to enjoy the parade and the regatta.
And just then, the huge mass of boats in the basin started to move towards us. It was beautiful to watch. Decorated in different colours and figures, with people in full costume on board, with drummers in perfect rhythm and with the trumpeters bringing a special solemnity to the event. You could feel the splendour of Venice, its glory as a maritime force.
I took a couple of videos, too. Click here to watch one of them on my Facebook page, as it is too large to upload on the blog! Excuse my (here and there) shaking hands. It still gives you an idea as to how splendid it all was.
Once all the boats had passed us by, I headed back to the train station following as much as I could the curve of the Grand Canal. All the way through I could see and hear the huge crowds of people cheering on the passing boats and the rowing crews. It was truly exciting!
The Historical Regatta is a great event. A must-see in Venice, as it shows you the city at its peak rather than as a cheap day trip to an adult Disneyland as some travel writers of today like to refer to it. A metaphor I, personally, detest (sorry for the strong word, but, really, Venice – Disneyland?!).
If you want to live and feel the authentic Venice, book a stay there in the first week of September. You will have a great time. I, for one, have already made a note in my diary to head to the Historical Regatta next year again.
Have you been to the Historical Regatta in Venice? Or any other events in the city on water? Share with me your impressions and observations in the ‘Comments’ section below. I would love to read them and engage with you.