A tourist looks on, waving as I guide the gondola toward the Ponte di Rialto, the morning sun illuminating Doge’s Palace behind me. “Buon giorno!” I shout, smiling wide and taking a break from directing the barge to reciprocate a stranger’s friendly gesture.
In a red-and-white-striped shirt and straw hat adorned with a long ribbon, I certainly look the part. But aside from simple greetings, I don’t speak a lick of Italian, and I just stepped foot onto a gondola for the first time about 20 minutes ago. I’m on the Strip at the Venetian, which recently began offering tourists and locals the opportunity to pilot and perform for a day through its Gondola University program.
After I change into stripes, my journey to gondolier certification begins with a crash course on the history of Venice and the centuries-old profession. A quick video informs us that these watercraft were once the most common mode of transportation in the City of Canals, that it used to take a decade to become a gondolier, and that Venetian blinds originated on the gondola when the boats had small cabins called felze. Who knew?
Tino, short for Constantino, knew. He’s our professor of sorts. He continues class with a tour of the property, imparting info about the Italian monuments replicated here (the St. Mark’s Campanile bell tower collapsed in the 1900s) and providing other fun nuggets. (About those felze ... the Pope totally has a badass, bulletproof one.) After Tino gives us a quick ride around the canals, showing the three main strokes used to pilot the boat and serenading us in Italian—resort gondoliers are required to know eight songs—it’s our turn to take command of the oar, er, remo.
“It’s all about the finesse,” he says. “You’re going too fast.” I slow down and get the hang of it, but then I get a little cocky and attempt a rendition of “O Sole Mio.” I can tell from Tino’s laughter that I’ve butchered a classic, and soon our gondola is headed toward the dock, just missing one of the striped mooring poles. Despite the near-collision, Tino gives me a pass, and it’s soon time for the sash and scarf ceremony, which also concludes the three-week training each resort gondolier completes. The “graduation” comes complete with certificates and ceremonial Italian names. I definitely still need to work on my Italian, but Piero Adams has a nice ring to it.
Gondola University Daily, 8-10 a.m., $199. Venetian, 702-607-3982.