She carries tourists around telling legends and stories of the city she loves

Venice – When a “foresto” (foreigner) comes to live in Venice he can often find some difficulties. Not only because he has to forget how comfortable it is to go to the grocery store by car and carry up the bags in an elevator, but also because some healthy exercise habits come to a slowdown. Especially in the wintertime.
Storiedichi_Gondola_Tour_VeneziaThere are no large and lush parks to run and jog in, but it’s wonderful to get up at dawn and burn kilometers on the stones, along the Fondamenta delle Zattere or the Riva degli Schiavoni. And is equally as rewarding to walk to the “piscine” (pools) challenging a range of weather conditions: from cold temperatures that freezes the hair, to fog that envelops everything and everyone in a romantic way, and to water that rises mercilessly, forcing thousands of feet in the cold of rubber boots.

When I ask Chiara Curto how she arrived to becoming, professionally, a sandolista – that is who leads the “sandolo”, a boat with a flat bottom, like a gondola, that is used only for tourist public transportation – she replies in a candid manner. “The sport to do in Venice is rowing, when I came to study here I immediately started to row. Then I became passionate about it, and now I am here.”

Here she is. From nine in the morning to sunset you can meet her at the foot of the bridge that connects Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto) to Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, ready to start her daily gondola tour in Venice.

“A sandolo ride, sir?”, she asks a Russian couple that is a bit hesitant: “That’s not a gondola, what is that?”, they answer. “It’s a san-do-lo”, she answers back. And then invites them to explore Venice from the lower perspective of the fascinating and unique canals that embrace the Jewish Quarter.

To meet a woman sandolista, by chance, with the typical gondolier hat and the blue and white striped shirt, it is a rare experience, because there are only two women, in the whole historic center of Venice, that are qualified to do this job. The other brave one, the first woman to have broken the long tradition of a job that was almost solely for men, is Giorgia Boscolo, promoted to gondolier in 2010.

Storiedichi_Gondola_Tour_Venice_wm_05“And I’m not even Venetian – Chiara Curto tells me – I was born and raised in Genoa, where I did all kinds of sports, and I came here almost twenty years ago to go to University and study Japanese”. “Now that I’m 38 years old I can say I’ve had great luck: being able to transform sport, my passion, in a full-time job – she continues – But in the past I’ve been a Murano Glass merchant and have exercised extensively in “voga alla veneta” (to row standing up).

Sandolista a Venezia_Storiedichi

Chiara became a professional sandolista last November. “But I’m just a stand-in – she clarifies – A sort of substitute that replaces other sandolisti when they cannot work”.

“About a year ago, I took advantage of a Tender offered by the City of Venice, which assigned twelve spots for sandolisti substitutes, and simply gave it a try – she says – Besides, I started rowing when I enrolled in University, I attended seven historic regattas and have always trained with consistency. I felt that one of these spots could be mine”.

And so it was. Chiara gave her best in the swimming and rowing trials, she followed a three-month course in Venetian History and Toponymy, and passed a final test that is very similar to High School Final Examinations.

“The selection process lasted almost a year: it was a very interesting year, in which I rigorously prepared to do this job”.

“Any snubbing from colleagues in accepting another woman on planet gondola? “Absolutely not. – she answers – On the contrary, I felt welcomed and well accepted from the start“. “And I found a job five minutes after I got my card”.

In the Ghetto of Venice, Chiara is replacing the sandolisti “Kuba” and Luca. And this is an intense and interesting time, because 2016 is the year in which the Ghetto of Venice commemorates its first 500 years of history and, therefore, is visited by many tourists.
Storiedichi_Gondola_Tour_Venezia_wm07I want to live this story so I have Chiara bring me on her sandolo. While I prepare my camera, she sets the oar and begins rowing backwards in order to position herself at in the center of Rio del Ghetto, which literally embraces the Jewish Quarter and flows into Rio della Misericordia.

Storiedichi_Gondola_Tour_Venezia_wm_021 –The History of the Ghetto: “Of course, the first thing I tell tourists is why the Ghetto is called Ghetto – Chiara tells me – They called it that way because 500 years ago this area, then a small island, was where they had the public foundries in which they made church bells, weights and bombards”. The word “ghetto“, often pronounced in Venetian as “geto”, seems to derive in fact from “getto” (to cast), and it was probably the Ashkenazi German Jews that first pronounced the word with the hard “g”, typical of their language.

2- Campo dei Mori: Rowing towards Rio dei Lustraferi, where you once shined (“lustrare”) the irons (“ferri”) of the boats, and passing in front of the old “squero” (shipyard) of the Arzanà (as Dante called the Arsenal in the Divine Comedy), Chiara tells the story of Venetian boats. When she passes in front of Campo dei Mori, the eyes of the tourists open wide: “Here is where I tell the story of the ‘Tre Mori’ (three Moors): according to legend they were three brothers, Rioba, Sandi and Afani, who later took the surname of ‘Mastelli’ – Chiara explains – They came from Morea, from the Peloponnese, and traded in silk”.

On the Eastern side of the campo, the three Moors are represented by three time-worn stone figures. The most famous is that of “Mr. Antonio Rioba” (in the picture, from Wikipedia), with its rusty metallic nose (added in the 19th Century), that brings luck to those who touch it. Some will remember that, in 2010, the head of the poor Rioba was stolen and… found again.

3- Palazzo Mastelli del Cammello: And speaking of the Mastelli brothers, the three Moors, one cannot not speak of their palazzo, nicknamed “La casa del Cammello” (House of the Camel). “When I pass in front of its façade with the sandolo, tourists often wonder why there is an alto-relievo that represents a camel pulled by a man – says Chiara, the sandolista – In fact it is really strange to see a camel in Venice”. Yet again, it is a legend that gives a (romantic) interpretation: according to an old tale, it was an Eastern merchant that commissioned this work, to make his Venetian house recognizable for the woman he loved back at home but that, unfortunately, did not return his feelings”.

4 – The House of Tintoretto: Leaving Campo dei Mori behind, Chiara cannot fail to mention the House of Tintoretto, the Gothic house where the great Renaissance painter, initially named Jacopo Robusti, was born. On the façade, you can quickly read a plaque that says: “Do not ignore, wanderer, the former home of Jacopo Robusti called the Tintoretto. From here to every which where countless paintings were spread, publicly and privately enjoyable, that were masterfully made with refined genius by his brush. You’ll be pleased to learn this thanks to the attentiveness of the current owner”.

5 – Madonna dell’Orto: “We also we pass in front of the place where Tintoretto is buried: the Church of Madonna dell’Orto, which was originally called the Church of San Cristoforo, after the Saint to which it was dedicated”, Chiara tells us. “It is now called Madonna dell’Orto because, in the 14th Century, the priest of a nearby church commissioned a young sculptor to create a statue of the Madonna, but the priest did not like it so the young man hid it in the garden of San Cristoforo“. “From that night, in the garden, people began to see strange lights and flashes. It was thought to be a miracle and the statue was brought within the Church, where the ‘Madonna dell’Orto‘ still stands tall today”.

On the way back from our lovely Venetian ride, I ask Chiara if her customers are for the most part foreign or Italian, and Chiara gives me the answer that I expect least: “Italians!”, she says proudly. I do not expect this since, with the financial crisis we are going through and our half empty pockets, it is certainly not easy to spend 80 Euros or more for a tour through the canals of Venice. “And I treat them well – she adds – I sometimes invite them to have a coffee or, in this time a year, offer them a Venetian frittella aboard”.
Storiedichi_Gondola_Tour_Venezia_wm_06How many things does Chiara see (and hear) while rowing on the sandolo! “Since I started, I have already stopped counting the many times I’ve assisted to love declarations or marriage proposals, complete with a diamond ring that made girls and women blush and tremble with emotion“. “Sometimes their partners ask me to collaborate and help set up the scene. It’s great fun”.

This is an ideal winter to start working on the sandolo. With the sun shining most of the day, it is a pleasure to both row and go sightseeing.

I love this job – says Chiara, with her heart – I’ve never felt so free. Sport and freedom, fresh air and healthy living. When I started to row, I never thought of becoming a sandolista, but now that I’m in I am not going to give it up.

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Three fun facts:

  • There are five stations for sandolo tours in Venice. They are in Santa Maria Formosa, San Bartolomeo (Coin), at the Ponte dei Greci, in Campo Sant’Angelo and in the Ghetto.
  • There are about 500 gondoliers and 20 sandolisti in the city of Venice.
  • You can read more articles on Chiara and her job on the website: http://vogainrosa.it/

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY Silvia Zanardi