Sunday, April 01, 2007

Venice Finally Approves Female Gondolier

For centuries, Venice's gondoliers have been men. Now, in a history making move, a woman has been approved to be a gondolier (after ten years of trying). Here's the article from the Sunday Times. (

(Note: the photo does not show the woman gondolier. I took this shot in May 2004--when Alexandra Hai was still trying.)

Lady with a gondola turns tide in Venice

John Follain

SHE may have failed the basic canal-navigating exam three times and sing only while taking a shower, but Alexandra Hai has made waves in Venice by winning a 10-year battle to become the first woman gondolier.

The struggle pitted Hai, 35, against one of the world’s most exclusive all-male cliques – the 405 members of the Venice Gondola Association, all of them Italian men.

She celebrated with a dinner of champagne and Florentine beef on Friday after the administrative tribunal for the Veneto region recognised her right to navigate her gondola throughout Venice for customers of the three one-star hotels where she works.

“I’m thrilled because I was beginning to doubt there was any justice left in Italy,” Hai said yesterday. “The gondoliers in Venice make up a caste, that’s for sure. They’re not all male chauvinists, but the ones at the top fought against me as a woman.”

Hai, the daughter of an Algerian civil servant and a German midwife, grew up in Germany and spent four years in America before moving to Venice in 1996.

“A man at a market in San Francisco gave me cuff-links with gondoliers on them and that’s what gave me the idea of moving to Venice,” she said.

Her first plan was to become a film-maker, but three days after her arrival in the canal city, she boarded a gondola for the first time. “I’ve got a bit used to it now, but being on a gondola is a magical, emotional moment for me. The way a gondola is made is extraordinary, and it transmits to visitors what Venice is more than anything else,” she said.

Asked if she was married, she replied: “I’m married to the gondola.”

Three years after her arrival in Venice, after coaching by a few friendly gondoliers, she took her first examination to obtain a license. She was motivated partly by a desire to help improve the reputation of the gondoliers, who are notorious for fleecing tourists.

She failed her first 20-minute test, officially because of a botched manoeuvre, but won an appeal on the grounds that there were no women in the examining commission.

In two subsequent attempts, which saw two women join the commission, she bumped into another gondola in choppy waters, then failed to keep hers – and the judges sitting in it – steady when she met a motor-boat coming the other way under a bridge.

After the third failure, Hai initially said she would give up and leave Venice. But she returned to the fray and for 18 months defiantly took her customers around the city aboard her gondola. “Some gondoliers would shout insults and make rude gestures at me as I passed them. I didn’t like that because even though the words were in Italian, my customers understood,” she said.

In mid-October, a municipal police launch stopped her on the Grand Canal and fined her £92. She was told it was the first day of a city hall ban on the use of gondolas “for private and commercial ends” – effectively defending a monopoly held by the Gondola Association.

She and her employers appealed against the decision, which led to last week’s ruling in her favour. “There is frankly no reason why, in a city like Venice, customers cannot be offered a transport service like a gondola,” the verdict said.

Hai aims to restart work on Wednesday, offering gondola rides as part of a package which includes the hotel room, a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers. “We want to ensure tourists don’t get ripped off,” she said.

The city hall plans to appeal to a higher court. Franco Vianello Moro, head of the Gondola Association, has said the strict tests and a limit of 405 on the number of gondoliers helped to preserve a unique tradition. “Sexism had nothing to do with it,“ he said.

But Hai’s triumph was hailed as a victory against the rigid corporations which rule over a host of services from markets to motor launches. “I defend Alex against the Gondola Association. This city is in the hands of corporations,” said Count Girolamo Marcello, a prominent Venetian resident.

Elio Dazzo, president of the Venetian hoteliers’ association, said he hoped the ruling would mark the beginning of liberalisation. “Today hotels aren’t allowed to send their own boat to fetch tourists. The result is thata water taxi from the airport to the historic centre costs £80. The city hall should be more open about this,” he said.

When Hai boards her gondola again, her customers will not, however, hear her sing O Sole Mio, the serenade favoured by her more established colleagues. “I sing only under the shower,” she said. “And in any case lots of the gondoliers who think they can sing, can’t. You often have to pay extra for a real singer.”

1 comment:

Mimi said...

gondola rides in venice are the amazing rides. And now women gondolier's are welcome.