When you think of Venice you probably imagine moonlit canals, floating along in a vintage gondola while a stripy-shirted gondolier sings Italian classics while guiding you under ornate bridges.
Now imagine that gondola with a licence plate attached to it. Doesn’t quite have the same romance, does it? Yet Venetian gondoliers have recently been ordered to fit their vessels with GPS and personalised numberplates, following a series of complaints of bad behaviour.
But don’t worry, we’re not talking about glaring white EU-standard show plates here. In typically Venetian style, the gondola plates take the form of elegant little metallic numbers which are subtly affixed to the side of the craft. And as there is a strict limit on the number of licensed gondoliers in the city (currently 425), the licence plates will never exceed three digits in length.
But why introduce gondola numberplates now?
Ultimately, the plates are there to help police keep an eye on unruly gondoliers. Historically, gondoliers could be identified by the unique carvings, engravings and decorations on their boats, but this is difficult to prove under modern laws.
Over the past few years, there has been a rise in the number of complaints which have been made against the city’s gondoliers and gansers (the gondolier ‘assistants’ who pull the boats to shore and help tourists embark and disembark). These complaints include overcharging (the local authorities have placed a maximum cap of €80 per half hour), dangerous ‘driving’ by gondoliers who go to work while under the influence, and hazing rituals where would-be gondoliers and gansers are put through humiliating initiation ceremonies before they receive a formal job offer – the most popular ritual involves jumping naked into the canal near one of the more popular tourist sites.
Last year, a German tourist died after being crushed between his gondola and a water bus near the Rialto Bridge, sparking an investigation into safety and policing regulations.
All gondolas are also required to be fitted with a GPS device, and gondoliers must submit to regular drug-testing and training at their guild.
These new rules and regulations may take away from the olde worlde romance of a Venetian holiday, but there is something to be said for the peace of mind that comes with lolling about on a properly licenced gondola, safe and secure.