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We're going to Venice, Italy now for a ride on the city's famous canals. Our mode of transportation, a gondola. But it turns out there are two kinds, one for tourists and one for locals. Christopher Livesay reports that the local boats are fast disappearing and some fans have decide to harness 21st century technology to save one of them.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Even if you haven't been to Venice, you know what one of the tourists gondolas looks like. With baroque silver ornaments, shiny black lacquer, and sumptuous red seat cushions, they're unabashedly fancy, not to mention ubiquitous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Gondola, gondola.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

LIVESAY: A ride with one of these guys costs at least 80 euros, rain or shine. It's another 110 to be serenaded.

The second kind of gondola is a much simpler breed called a traghetto. There's no fancy ornamentation, no sound track either. And instead of one gondolier, there are two.


LIVESAY: They're typically used to get locals from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, and they cost just 70 cents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIVESAY: Back in the 18th century when Canaletto was painting the city, there were thousands of these gondolas. But for the past several decades, the population of Venice has been shrinking as tourism has ballooned. And as locals leave, the commuter gondolas have been going out of business. Now, there are only about five left.

So, Nicolo Zen decided to do something about it. He's the director of a local boat museum.

NICOLO ZEN: (Through translator) We bought an old gondola. We wanted to put it back in the water, get it up and running again by giving it to normal people to use. We couldn't afford to do it on our own, so we looked to Buona Causa.

LIVESAY: Buona Causa is like Kickstarter, a simple website where donors from all over the world can contribute. Zen won't charge for rides. He just wants locals to use it for stuff like buying groceries and going to work. Or maybe just a pleasure cruise. As he and a few volunteers step inside their fixer-upper, it becomes clear there's still a lot of work to do.

ZEN: (Through translator) Don't be alarmed if water starts to ooze in around your ankles, she's an old boat.


LIVESAY: But despite its cracking paint and worrisome leaks, there's an elegance to this boat's simplicity. It rests on the surface of the water like a giant banana leaf; the perfect boat for Venice's shallow green canals. And it shouldn't become a museum artifact, says Jane da Mosto, an environmental scientist with a heritage group called Venice in Peril.

JANE DA MOSTO: I think it epitomizes the issue for Venice of, you know, is Venice going to be able to maintain itself as a living, thriving city? Or is it slowly going to fade into a theme-park-type place. And so having the traghettos saved on a pedestal is one thing. But being able to get that traghetto working again, ferrying people back and forth, would have much greater significance.

LIVESAY: The traghetto that Nicolo Zen and his team are restoring is already working in between repair stops in the workshop.


LIVESAY: Zen says they still have a way to go on their crowdfunding campaign.

ZEN: (Through translator) We're more than halfway to our goal of 2,500 euros. There's a lot to do, but we've been so encouraged to see people give a few euros here and there. They're realizing the importance of saving this boat, and keeping Venetian culture alive.

LIVESAY: Just recently, a woman from Spain donated 200 euros towards the project. Now, all Zen needs is a few more gifts like that. They're not just fixing up a boat, he says, they're saving the heart of the city.


LIVESAY: For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay.



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