The Grand Canal winds through Venice like a long snake, dividing the city into two parts. This separation poses a problem for those who are on foot and need to get from one part to another.
The need to feel one might always be able to get across the Canal led to the building of three bridges.
The oldest and most well known is the Rialto Bridge. It sits in the middle of the city’s main waterway. At the two far reaches of the canal, there are two more bridges, the Scalzi Bridge and the wooden bridge of the Accademia.
With much debate, a new one, Il Ponte della Costituzione (the Constitution Bridge), was added a few years ago. For Venetians, this bridge is known as Il Ponte di Calatrava, after the architect who designed it.
Having only these few options of getting across the Canal means that travellers often have to go a bit out of their way to get from one bank to another. Today, just as in the past, one can use the “traghetti” (gondola ferries) to avoid that. It’s a no-frill gondola service, without seats or other refinements, which gets you from one part of the Canal to the other.
Today, only a pair of these traghetti still exist, the San Tomà and the Santa Sofia. The first one is widely used, especially by those coming from Piazzale Roma or those who want to go from the train station to the area of Piazza San Marco. The Santa Sofia connects the “Strada Nova” with the Rialto market. Until a few decades ago, there were others, but they’ve disappeared due to low use.
In the past, there must have been many of them, as the numerous streets in Venice with “traghetto” in their name suggest. Today, these names remind us of this old custom and a profession that’s almost disappeared.
For little more than a Euro, you can experience a traghetto. It’s a bit of a strange sensation for someone who’s not accustomed to balancing and standing on a gondola while it glides over the water.
You board it with the help of a gondolier. To feel the boat swaying under your feet is really something to experience. The natives and habitual users get on and off the gondola with no difficulty and remain calmly on their feet during the short crossing. They stand out in a flash.
Meanwhile, first-timers move about trying to steady themselves on their legs, feeling their feet below without solid ground. They grab the gondolier’s hand getting in and out or rush to take the only seat in the boat, a bare wooden plank in the front. Or, they get to the side of the boat where, towards the front, there’s a big chest with all types of coins for giving change to the passengers. As the people gradually get off the gondola, the changing weight makes it rock. This frightens the occasional traveller who may let out a little cry, half in wonder, half with fear. This happens with tourists of all ages the first time they try a traghetto.