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Alex rowing forward into the past. Photo: Marco Secchi
Alex rowing forward into the past. Photo: Marco Secchi

Alex is Venice's first female gondolier

For a thousand years, the profession of gondolier was open only to the men of Venice. That changed in the mid-1990s when Alex Hai overcame prejudice and convention to become “la prima gondoliera” – the first female gondolier.

A gondola ride is a must for many tourists visiting Venice. In the 17th and 18th centuries, up to 10,000 gondolas plied the city’s canals. Today there are just over 400. It’s a fiercely traditional profession handed down from father to son over the centuries. Until Alex Hai came along.

We meet her at Venice’s Opera House, Teatro La Fenice, close to Saint Mark’s Square. Her gondola Pegaso (Pegasus in Italian) is moored nearby. This is the place where Hai always likes to meet her customers.

Alex has had to overcome controversy to get to where she is today. Photo: Marco SecchiIt’s been a struggle to get to where she is today. In addition to being female, Hai is not even from Venice. Or Italy for that matter. Born in Hamburg, she grew up in Germany and America before coming to Venice 20 years ago. She immediately fell in love with the city, its architecture and its people. And she discovered her aptitude for rowing. Hai learned her trade as an apprentice on the traghetto, the gondola that takes people from one side of the Grand Canal to the other.

It’s not easy being an outsider in Venice, a small city with many long-held traditions – not least around the ancient tradition of gondolas and gondoliers. The profession is controlled by the thousand-year-old gondoliers’ guild, which issues licenses following stringent training and examinations.

It’s little surprise that Hai’s ambitions were controversial to say the least. “She is a woman, she wasn’t born in Venice, and she simply cannot row” were just some of the argued used by her opponents.
“Venice is a city that does not like change,” Hai says as we cruise the narrow canals aboard Pegaso. “But Venetians realize they do need to move with the times.”

“Venice is a city that does not like change”

After failing to gain a license from the guild, Hai set herself up as a private gondolier, gaining a permit after several expensive court cases. She’s currently the only gondolier not employed by the City of Venice. Despite official approval, there are still those who refuse to recognize her as a “real” gondolier.

Hai has spent many years on the waters of Venice, learning her profession from scratch – how to turn an 11m gondola through a 90° angle in narrow canals, how every little movement of the paddle in the water makes a big difference to how the gondola moves, which small canals are the most picturesque to bring tourists to, and at what time of day they will get the most out of their trip.

Working as a gondolier requires great skill perfected over years, physical strength and constant focus when navigating the narrow canals and busy boat traffic of Venice.

Alex on the Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge in the background. Photo: Marco Secchi

Hai has now put the old controversy behind her and is taking up a new and important fight for the city – this time against the big cruise liners.

In the port of Venice, the picturesque town is now often obscured by large cruise ships, an issue that has stirred up feeling among residents. Hai is one of many who are passionate about the issue. Not only do the ships spoil the image of beautiful Venice, she says, they are also bad for the environment and a danger to the many Venetians and tourists who travel the city’s waterways in small boats and gondolas. The challenge has intensified with the 2015 election of mayor Luigi Brugnaro, a strong supporter of the cruise ship industry.
“A hundred thousand signatures against cruise ships and a statement from Unesco still isn’t enough,” Hai says.

“The best part of being a gondolier is rowing forward into the past"

Tourism is an impassioned subject in Venice. Many residents want restrictions – some 17 million people visit Venice every year – but tourism is important to the city’s livelihood. At the same time, it’s to blame for the high cost of living that is driving locals away. The population has been falling for years and has now dropped below 60,000. A generation ago, three times as many people lived here.
It is not hard to see the attraction of Venice to tourists. With its unique location in the lagoon, the silence of the non-existent cars, the narrow canals, the slow-moving gondolas passing under clotheslines, window boxes and bridges, it’s like no other city in the world and it is impossible not to become enchanted.
But Hai is not a woman to shrink in the face of adversity. She loves her historic city and her profession.

“The best part of being a gondolier is rowing forward into the past. My clients make my work so much fun, and I never get tired of the views of the city.”

Text: Emma Brink 

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