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east bay gondolas
unique gondola experience arrives on oakland "lagoon"

by Craig Focardi

Gondola rides, in Oakland? Absolutely, now that a family-owned business with strong ties to Venice's gondola-making traditions is offering gondola rides with music, Venetian storytelling, food and wine, and an unrivaled sense of romance. But gondolas were built for the canals of Venice. You can take the gondola out of Italy, but does that take Italy out of the gondola riding experience?

Embodied in Italy's export products is its culture, in the form of food, wine, clothing, and other products. Now add to the list GondolaServizio, which provides perhaps the most authentic gondola rides outside Venice. It is a unique, delightful and romantic experience on Lake Merritt, overlooking the Oakland hills in Northern California.

Owned and managed by Angelino Fisher and April Quinn, who are married not only to each other, but also to Venice's famous boats. Angelino spent many years living and working in Venice, where he grew to know and love le gondole. April also lived in Venice and is an accomplished rower. According to Angelino, GondolaServizio is a way of life first, a business second, and most of all an unforgettable ride.

Walking to the end of the docks at the boathouse on Oakland's Lake Merritt, past the canoes and sailboats, one discovers a dock housing four authentic Venetian gondolas. These magic gondolas seem to have the effect of transporting you out of the present. To begin the journey, you enter the dock through a wooden doorway painted with water scenes evoking the imagery and romance of Venice. The pier is brightly decorated with potted plants and lights. The Marine Republic Flag of Italy, representing Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi, blows proudly at the end of the pier.

April, Angelino, or one of their experienced gondoliers dressed in authentic gondolier clothing greet you, and thoughts of work, responsibility, and contemporary life continue to fade. Every gondolier is an accomplished musician or singer, and the gondolier also describes the gondola's role in the history of the world's most famous lagoon city.

The Goldola
You step into a gondola that is a work of art. Think of a gondola as a Stradivarius violin. Each one is handmade without a blueprint, and is an individual masterpiece with a distinct personality. As the violinmaker knows his violins from their look and sound, a gondola maker knows his boats by sight and how they ride on the water.

Gondola making is an art that no factory can ever reproduce. Since 1890 gondolas have been built asymmetrically, so that only one gondolier is needed to row the boat. This efficient design enables a gondolier to row continuously from just one side while maintaining the ability to steer the boat. Every part of a gondola is custom made, including the oars and fine metal ornamentation. The boat is made from many types of woods, although oak and mahogany are very common. Oak forms the boat's sides and bottom, and mahogany is used for the decorative sections.

Venetian Boatmaking
In an era of mass customization, when consumers can customize a car purchase on the Internet and have the car in a few weeks, it can take ten years to receive a new gondola. A gondola builder makes about four to six new boats per year. Significant time is also spent maintaining boats. Further, good apprentices interested in devoting a lifetime to making boats by hand are hard to find.

A new gondola can cost more than $25,000. Not just anyone can buy a gondola, lest you're thinking about buying one for your neighborhood pond. The market for authentic gondolas is determined more about Venice's need and the number of living gondola makers, not pure supply and demand. Angelino's new gondola, christened in a public ceremony attended by Venice's mayor, arrived after only three years and represents a special trust rarely bestowed upon a non-native Venetian.

Oakland's Lake Merritt
There is no mistaking Lake Merritt for Venice's Grand Canal. In contrast to passing by historical buildings along a narrow canal, Lake Merritt provides a view of the Oakland Hills, a beautiful bird sanctuary and calm water. Pelicans and wrens rest along strips of land in the water. Adjacent to the bird sanctuary is an outdoor reception area framed by Roman arches. The setting creates a special moment different in form but similar in substance to what one might feel in Venice.

Boatmaker and the Gondolier
What separates a GondolaServizio experience from, say, a trip to the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas? First of all, you will likely be the only tourist as far as the eye can see. But the deeper answer lays in the gondola itself, and the relationship between its creator and the gondolier who rows it.

It is rare that a gondola maker lets one of his boats leave Venice. Roberto Dei Rossi has built hundreds of gondolas in the past half century. Angelino knows him well from the years he spent living and working in Venice. At the christening of Angelino and April's boat in Venice, Roberto was the first to row the boat, and then he presented it to Angelino and April. The boatmaker rows the boat first because, as Roberto says, "he has brought the boat into the world, and has put his soul into it". It is not unlike a wedding reception, when the proud father dances with his daughter for the final time before she formally starts her new life.

A Living Museum
The Oakland and San Francisco city governments' approval were also important to GondolaServizio's arrival in the Bay Area. With the area's large Italian-American population and general interest in Italian culture, Angelino and April's working museum is an appropriate complement to its public surroundings. Service is expected to commence on Stowe Lake in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in September after Angelino's return from Italy. More information is available at


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