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Today, there are 425 gondoliers who ply the waters of the Venetian lagoon, and, contrary to appearances, they are not just pretty faces with great bodies. Competition for the medieval occupation is fierce, and licenses are limited. If selected, gondoliers go through intensive training for about a year, studying the history, architecture, landmarks and lagoon system of Venice, in addition to English, French and Venetian languages -- not to mention the practical method of learning how to master the difficult boats that are sometimes compared to "fillies."
The gondolier stands facing the bow, holding a long, single oar. He rows one stroke forward, then a backward stroke, performing a graceful ballet. The gondola is asymmetrical, the left side longer than the right, so that it doesn't veer to the left on the forward stroke. To qualify for this extraordinary job, gondoliers must also spend a period of time as an apprentice, and pass a comprehensive exam.
Simon, tanned, blond and handsome, Venetian-born and -bred, has been rowing a gondola for about ten years. "It was hard and difficult at first, until I understood the work. Now, I love it. It is a beautiful job that allows me to be free. The gondola you see is just a tiny piece of Venice's history, a story that starts back in the year 421. It is a story that is 1500 years old. People escaped here from the mainland, fleeing from invaders. They settled first on the island of Torcello. The gondola evolved over the centuries as a way to travel around the waters of the lagoon and the canals. It is a boat designed specifically to fit its environment."