‘Dai! Dai!‘, shouted the only other girl journalist on board. The skipper looked at her startled, fumbled for a second and then the motor boat lurched forward eager to shorten the distance between us and the four galleons.
Even though the Italian ‘Dai!‘ sounds just like ‘Die!’ in English, it means simply ‘Go!’. Still, stealing a sideways glance at the girl who uttered it with such passion, I wasn’t quite sure which way she meant it.
You see, the atmosphere was one of tense expectancy. Any second now the winner would be crossing the finishing line and we needed to be as close as possible to witness and report on this momentous event.
Clutching cameras and smartphones the gaggle of photographers and reporters around me stood up, some of them on the prow of our boat.
The most beautiful waterfront in the world came into focus. A second later and the thousands of people crowded on dry land and in the myriad of boats around us erupted in loud cheers.
We had a winner! Venice had done it again.
I was in the press boat brimming with representatives of international and national media outlets. Around me photographers with lens as long as my arm were snapping furiously away. Reporters were firing quick social media updates.
It was the 60th Edition of the Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics and for a third time in a row Venice had emerged victorious.
There was a surge of energy in the air. The type of raw happiness when people get together as one to celebrate a victory. I was busily pressing the shutter of my own camera, trying to capture the essence of this wonderful event.
Above all, Venice looked its absolute best, having asserted its seafaring superiority over its rivals – Pisa, Amalfi and Genoa.
Two hours prior to all this, I had presented myself at the stand of Venezia Unica – the official tourism website of the city of Venice. They had kindly invited me to watch the historical parade which precedes the regatta and then follow the race up close and personal from the press boat.
It was an invitation I couldn’t decline.
I love Venice! I can’t get enough of its mystery, architecture and history and the whole city for me is a testament to the strength of the human spirit when faced with adverse conditions.
So, this past Sunday I got the fast train from Vicenza and 45 minutes later I was walking by the canals of Venice on my way to St. Mark’s Square. I had read as much as I could about the regatta and was getting more and more excited with every minute.
The Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics is a throwback to a splendid past, when Venice, Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa ruled the seas. Every year since 1955 the four cities organise a rowing race and take turns to host it.
Rowing crews compete over a 2 km course. In the early years of the regatta their galleons were constructed of wood, but nowadays they are made of fibreglass. Each galleon is a different colour and its figurehead is a historical symbol connected with the city it represents. As such:
- Venice’s galleon is green with a winged lion;
- Amalfi’s galleon is blue with a winged horse;
- Genoa’s galleon is white with a dragon; and
- Pisa’s galleon is red with an eagle.
Each galleon is staffed by eight rowers led by a helmsman.
If you ever thought that the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race was a thing to behold, you need to multiply its appeal at least by ten to get a pale idea of this Italian event.
The regatta is always preceded by a Historical Parade with the four cities showcasing their illustrious past. There are actors in splendid costumes, flag bearers, drummers, fair maidens and many more personages from the glorious centuries of the Italian Republics’ maritime dominance.
It was half past four on Sunday and I was looking forward to the start of the parade. The stands in front of the Doge’s Palace were slowly filling up.
An eager crowd had started to gather behind the metal barriers, too.
Putting my press pass to good use, I walked down the waterfront all the way to the Naval Historical Museum where the actors in full costume were gathered in a shadowy side street waiting for the signal to start the historical parade.
I met the representatives of Genoa, had a little chat with them and snapped a few photographs.
I admired their ability to wear such heavy historical costumes on a very hot day. They all looked so well presented and dignified, while I was really suffering with the blindingly bright white sunlight.
The parade was about to start, so I ran back to the Doge’s Palace where the stands were now full and several members of the press had taken prime positions ready to fire their cameras away.
Amalfi started first, followed by Pisa, then Genoa and finally this year’s host – Venice.
It was a splendid show! There was beauty…
There was wisdom…
And there were drums…
Towards the end of it, I looked at the time and I had to rush off. I had been given a strict hour to be at a nearby pier from where a boat would leave to take the press to watch the race in the Venetian lagoon.
The galleons were already manoeuvring towards the race’s starting point. One by one they passed by us with people from the shore cheering them up.
With all journalists and photographers piled in the press boat took us round the island of San Giorgio Maggiore…
And brought us close to the start.
It was quite incredible, as apart from the four galleons, there were loads of other boats in the lagoon giving you a clear idea how every aspect of life in Venice has been adapted to function on water.
Right in front of us, for example, was the TV boat. A cameraman was transmitting the race live. One of his colleagues was keeping the aerial upright.
There was also an ambulance…
… a fire brigade…
… a carabinieri team…
… plus the watercraft of the coast guard.
Not to mention the myriad of private boats around us – from dinghies to proper yachts – with people out and about enjoying the hot day and the race. There was even a tiny boat with a mum, a dad and three little kids who looked just as used to water as to dry land.
Just then the race started. The four galleons were propelled ahead guided by the powerful arms of the rowing men.
Each team was giving it their all.
For a second it was a very close race with the galleons running almost parallel to one another.
Then the winning teams broke ahead under the cheers of the hundreds of spectators lining up the promenade.
On the press boat every second of the competition was captured in pictures and social media updates.
I could hear the whirring of the cameras firing multiple shots at a time. The photographers had taken over the prow of the boat and I did my best to get my photos through the web of arms and lens which was stretching out in the direction of the competing teams.
Everything was happening super fast. Emotions were running high. The finishing line was very close.
Just then the rowing team of Venice crossed it with a roar.
The city erupted in mighty cheer. Right in front of the Doge’s Palace the lagoon was teeming with boats. All eyes were on the winning galleon.
The boys in green were celebrating their win. And everyone in the boats around them cheered with them.
A pack of bottles with mineral water was passed to them. The helmsman threw a bottle to each member of his crew and everyone drank thirstily.
The press boat reached the pier and all the journalists and photographers ran across the square to document the award ceremony in front of the Doge’s Palace.
The rowing teams were coming to dry land, too. They were met by girlfriends, mums and acquaintances. Celebratory or consoling hugs and kisses followed. It was all so passionate and so Italian.
The winning team was full of joy. You could feel the strong connection between these young men who had worked as one to achieve victory for their team and their city.
They cheered, lifted their helmsman in the air, waved the Venetian flag. With legs still sore from the utmost effort, they poured water down their shins to relieve the muscle tension in them.
Above all, they were happy and their smiles said it all.
One by one, the teams were called to the podium to receive their awards.
At fourth place was the rowing team of Pisa.
Genoa claimed the third place.
Amalfi were second.
And for a third consecutive year and 33 times out of the 60 that the regatta has been held, Venice took the first prize with a 9 min 45 sec race.
Thank you so much to Venezia Unica
for having me at this event combining sport and history in one. I really enjoyed being there and witnessing the emotion of the audience and the rowing teams.
If you are planning a visit to Venice, make sure that it coincides with one of the main events on the calendar of this amazing city. It will leave you with a memory to cherish your whole life.