I paddled as fast as my aching arms could go in the shadow of the coloured buildings, which towered above the yellow kayak where I sat. Up ahead, the sunlight grew increasingly brighter as we approached an opening to the Grand Canal – the highway of Venice.
The water was beautifully calm when we set off early afternoon, and the sound of our splashing paddles was all that could be heard in the quiet streets of Cannaregio. The sun provided a little warmth from the chill that still lingered in the low travel-season we were in, meaning that not only were the streets a little quieter, but the canals were too.
This was helpful because my only kayaking experience so far dates back two years ago to a remote lake in Thailand, which while unforgettable, wasn’t quite the same as navigating the narrow waterways and busy canals of Venice. Luckily though, we had Nico from BV Kayaks to help guide us, who sailed ahead at twice the speed and yet seemingly half the effort.
We followed Nico through the tranquil streets into the city, and shortly made our first stop in the sunshine to learn a little about the history of Venice, and what it was built on. It was refugees who fled from nearby Roman cities that first came to settle here, and built on the marshy land using wooden spikes dug into the ground. Over the years, through a lack of oxygen in the salty water, the wood has since petrified into a hard, stone-like foundation.
We continued further into the city, sailing past footbridges under the gaze of tourists who stopped to photograph us, and pulled aside to let a couple on a gondola pass by. As romantic as it looked, I was really happy with my decision to swap the tourist ride for a kayak instead – and especially glad that I’d chose a double kayak instead of going it alone, as my arms ached embarrassingly quickly into our two-hour tour.
But there was no time to rest, as we neared the Grand Canal ready for our first crossing.
“We go after the Vaporetto”, instructed Nico, who we quickly followed across the vast waterway, our kayaks rocking against the wake of the passing water bus.
We made our next stop on the other side to see the palatial casino building, and to learn why all of the gondolas in the city are the same colour. Much like the lavish buildings found along the bank of the Grand Canal, the affluent also liked to show off their wealth by using increasingly extravagant decorations on their gondolas. In an effort to curb this competition among the nobility, the city made it customary for all boats to be painted black.
Despite making it successfully across the most high profile area of the city, our kayaking skills certainly weren’t without fault – namely, our inability to paddle in a straight line, Dave accidentally soaking me within three minutes of setting off, and when we misjudged a turn and crashed into the corner of a building, much to the amusement of a passing gondolier.
But we must’ve been doing OK, because we managed to cross the Grand Canal two more times before Nico led us back towards where we started. But the tour wasn’t over yet, as we made a quick detour into the open water next.
After walking through Venice’s maze of winding streets, you can quickly forget you’re on an island (or more accurately, a series of connecting islands). But sitting in our kayak rocking against the strong tides on the outskirt of the city, it was the perfect reminder of the true feat of Venice’s construction.
We paused to gaze at the snow-covered peaks of the stunning Dolomites just visible above the horizon, before making our way to our last stop.
“This is the real Venice”, said Nico, as we pulled up by a quiet canal street with clothes that hung on washing lines across the coloured buildings.
“Look at the pages of a history book, and you’ll see exactly the same picture as this today”, he said passionately. And I can understand why he’s so keen for us to appreciate this authentic view of his beloved city, because it certainly feels a world away from the endless crowds gathered outside St. Mark’s Basilica – and one which you wouldn’t get to see from a gondola.
We paid €50 each for our afternoon tour with BV Kayak – which compared to €80 for a 30-minute gondola ride, you’re not only saving money but getting a much better perspective of Venice, too.