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Gondolas have long played a part in the Venetian tourist experience. But as tourism has grown and the local population has declined, everyday gondolas called traghetti have all but disappeared. Above, a group of tourists poses on a canal, circa 1900.
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Even if you haven't been to Venice, you're probably familiar with the city's famous tourist gondolas: With baroque silver ornaments, shiny black lacquer, and sumptuous red seat cushions, they're unabashedly fancy, not to mention ubiquitous. A ride with a gondolier costs at least 80 euros (about $105), rain or shine (and it's 110 — $144 — more to be serenaded).
But there's another kind of gondola — a much simpler breed called a traghetto. There's no fancy ornamentation, no soundtrack, and instead of one gondolier, there are two. They're typically used to get locals from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, and they cost just 70 cents.
Nicolo Zen, director of Traditional Boat Museum of Venice, launched a crowd funding project to save one of the last traghetto gondolas — everyday boats used by the city's locals.
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, director of a local boat museum, decided to do something about it. "We bought an old gondola," Zen says. "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."
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, going to work, or maybe a pleasure cruise.
It's clear there's still a lot of work to do on Zen's fixer-upper, 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.
"I think it epitomizes the issue for Venice: 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?" da Mosto asks. "Having the traghettos saved on a pedestal is one thing, but being able to get that traghetto working again, ferrying people back and forth, will have much greater significance."
The traghetto that Zen and his team are restoring is already working, but Zen says they still have a way to go on their crowd funding campaign.
"We're more than halfway to our goal of 2,500 euros," Zen says. "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."
Just recently, a woman from Spain donated 200 euros toward 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.