Beating out a slow steady rhythm the drums are the first sign that the Regata Storica (Historic Regatta) of Venice is on its way. The flotilla slowly enters the Grand Canal from St Marks Basin, glistening in the glorious summer sun. And gradually the ceremonial barges and gondole glide past, revealing their medieval-attired passengers, as we’re treated to the 500-year-old parade. It’s a sight to behold!
Regattas (regate in Italian) have always been very popular with Venetians with historic records of the earliest recorded regattas dating back to the mid-1200s. The city’s regatta calendar still includes around a dozen regattas per year with some being international events, such as La Vogalonga, whilst others are more local, such as the Regata di Mestre in early May or the final regata in San Michele at the end of September.
Its likely, however, that the idea of the regata goes further back than that as Venice was a renowned sea-faring nation always in need of oarsmen to man their warships. For example, between 1290 and 1540 the standard Venetian trireme (3 oar) warship consisted of 25 to 30 benches on each side and 3 oarsmen pulling a separate oar on each bench. For every warship that the Venetian empire built it had to find and train between 75 and 90 oarsmen. And as warships left the Arsenale shipyard at the rate of one a day, oarsmen were in high demand!
Today’s Regata Storica is actually a parade followed by a series of races over the course of the afternoon. Its a much anticipated date on the Venetian calendar and the locals come out in force to support and cheer on the rowers. The parade and most of the races row the length of the Grande Canal up to the Piazzale della Stazione (Santa Lucia station) so getting a good view of it is pretty easy as you can set up camp almost anywhere along the canal.
Some locals show their support by festooning their palazzi with ribbons and balloons.
Others take to their boats and barges by the boatload, cheering from their moorings along the banks.
Meanwhile many families stake out their bankside claims from lunchtime, bringing picnics and camping chairs to make the afternoon go with a swing!
The less well-prepared resort to paper sunhats or even a snooze sunbathing in the September sun waiting for the fleet to arrive!
Finally around 4pm the glorious historic parade of 16th century-style boats glides up the Grand Canal headed by the heavily gilded ceremonial state barge, the Bucintoro. The barge takes 18 standing men to row and is also used for the Festa della Sensa celebrations in early June. The Regata Storica parade actually commemorates the visit of Queen Caterina Cornaro, the wife of the King of Cyprus in 1489, and re-enacts the rolling out of the proverbial red carpet for her visitors.
Following behind are a series of gleaming barges and a rainbow of gondolas carrying the Doge, his wife and the city’s highest-ranking officials.
The parade gives a glimpse of what ceremonial life might have looked like for the upper classes back in the 1600s – without the pongs or the plague of course – although spotting one of the officials on his mobile did yank me back to the 21st century reality and make me chuckle rather inappropriately!
And then the racing regate finally get underway. The afternoon schedule has 6 regate with a variety boats and differing numbers of rowers, all using the traditional standing rowing method found only in Venice. This is what the locals are really waiting for.
Racing starts with the youngsters as pairs of children from 7 or 8 up to 14 years old take to the water. Be aware though, if you want to see the children compete you need to position yourself between the Rialto Bridge and Ca’ Foscari as the course is shorter. You can also listen to the commentary in front of the Church of the Salute, in Campo San Vio or on the radio.
Next up are the teenagers who race sleek, agile pupparini boats from Giardini di Castello, up the Grand Canal to Ca’ Foscari. At 10 metres long these are decent sized boats to be manoeuvering but the teenagers seem to manage impressively.
The women race next, powering their 8m long mascarete boats from the Giardini di Castello, up the Grand Canal to San Marcuola, where they turn to head back down the canal to the finish at Ca’ Foscari. The gondolier profession may be a largely male one, apart from one or two who have broken into their ranks, but many Venetian women compete in the regate each year with great support.
And the winners of the coveted red pennant this year are Valentina Tosi and Debora Scarpa.
But the grande finale of the regate has got to be the gondoliers race. Each gondola is rowed by 2 oarsmen, one in the usual position at the back and one towards the prow at the front. They row standing up as per Venetian tradition and power their way up the Grand Canal cutting through the water like a knife through butter!
Support for the gondoliers is very strong with shouts and cheers of encouragement from the banks all along the canal. Favourites include the legendary team of Giampaolo D’Este and his pal Ivo Redolfi Tezzat in the green gondola. They apparently win everything with Giampaolo nick-named Super D’Este but this year have a hard fight on their hands going past us neck and neck with their nearest rivals and being pushed right to a photo finish by the Vignotti cousins from Sant’Erasmo in the orange gondola.
Finally, as the sun gently sets behind the Venetian palazzi, the Regata Storica winds down as the Bucintoro, historic barges and boatloads of supporters wend their weary way back down the Grand Canal to return to their boatyards. Its been another historic year for the Regata Storica. Make sure you make a date for next year’s regata to see whether Super D’Este can do it again!
Official Regata Storica website – http://www.regatastoricavenezia.it/mg.php?pg=2&lang=en
Venice regatta calendar – http://www.comune.venezia.it/flex/cm/pages/ServeBLOB.php/L/IT/IDPagina/49520
Free viewing spots – you can view the regatta from anywhere along the banks of the Grand Canal but some good spots include in front of the Church of the Salute, in front of the Rialto on the Rivo del Ferro, in front of the Accademia or as near to Ca’ Foscari as you can get so you can see the finish line.
Paid viewing spots – If you want a guaranteed view of the regate (but not the finish), you can buy tickets for the Platea Galleggiante viewing platform at Campo San Vio. Tickets cost €60 but give a clear view from St Mark’s Basin to the Accademia bridge. The platea is shaded for most of the afternoon but you are not protected from bad weather – http://www.veneziaunica.it/en/news/regata-storica-i-biglietti-la-platea-galleggiante-di-san-vio