the sporty type

Forget the image you have of Venice with its couples in gondolas, and tender kisses on St Mark’s Square. Venice is a city for true sportspeople, one that makes demands of you and trains you up like no other. Admittedly, you’ll find no big sports facilities here, but if you want to work out, Venice itself is one huge sports field. Its 423 bridges, 1,198 alleys and 142 fountains form a huge and magnificent running track. And there’s perhaps no more beautiful city in the world to jog in than Venice. There’s something for everyone’s taste here.

For example, I prefer my running routes not to be labyrinths, and so I feel most at home on the Zattere quay. The run is straight, and there are only a few bridges to cross. The quay on the Isola della Giudecca has its own quite particular charm. There’s comparatively little going on there and in the darker months of the year and the area almost has the intimate atmosphere of a 1970s Italian film.

Then there’s the quayside leading from St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) to the gardens (giardini), although this is often very busy, apart from in the evening or early morning hours. To lose yourself in the lagoon’s thousands of little alleys is also great fun for a jogger.

Swimming pool in the Sant'Alvise sports centre, Cannaregio district
Parco delle Rimembranze, isola di Sant'Elena
Sacca Fisola, Giudecca island

Then, of course, there are the 177 canals, from narrow to wide. But they’re quite unsuited to swimming – for that, any Venetian would advise you to travel to the Lido di Venezia. Alternatively, pack your swimming outfit (not forgetting your swimming cap and bath robe) and try out one of Venice’s two public swimming pools. One in the north of Canareggio, near to the Chiesa di Sant’Alvise church, the second on the artificial island of Sacca Fisola, part of the Giudecca peninsula.

At the Centro Sportivo Canareggio, situated in the north, you might at first think there’s just a swimming pool there – but you’d be wrong. Just turn around, and there’s a bocce court and a climbing wall. The building itself is a converted former warehouse. Swimming there is a unique experience, especially at sunset. Warm light floods through one of the big windows onto the lagoon, and causes me to stop swimming for a short while. If you come here, soak up the gentle evening light and listen to the sounds of the sea and the seagulls.

The other swimming pool is on the artificially created island of Sacca Fisola. Here you find a hidden Venice, well away from the tourists, known only to the Venetians, with its 1960s buildings, businesses and offices. The sports facility itself is equipped with every conceivable comfort. Here you can exercise to your heart’s content – from table football through to tennis, a boxing gym and open-air lane swimming.

All you have to do is book or register for one of the courses. In recent years, Christmas Day has also been celebrated here, with participants all wearing bathing costumes and Santa Claus hats.

But back to the canals. Hardly anyone is aware that you’re entirely at liberty to move around on Venice’s waters by boat. Perhaps you have your own small boat? Wonderful, then you can easily set off into the canals. All you need to do is follow the water transport regulations. Or rent a boat: the range of providers is enormous and taking a boat is a great way to explore the city from a fresh perspective, and to travel as people here have done for centuries. But watch out – the canals aren’t entirely without risk for the inexperienced due to the many watercraft, and sometimes the high waves and breakers the big ships cause.

So, my tip would be to favour the off-season (late autumn to spring is an ideal time, for example, although you should avoid the Carnival). I would also tend to stay around the city periphery, just to enjoy Venice and its canals in peace and tranquillity. You could also take one of the many guided trips on offer: these are a real experience, especially during the evening.

A brief historical interlude: Venice was a maritime republic and seagoing has long characterised life in the Lagoon City. And today, too, many people still keep these old traditions alive. Here I’m thinking particularly of the Venetian rowers, the Canottieri della Giudecca, whose pride is greater than ever today. By contrast with the English rowing style (which you’ve probably seen on TV), here you row standing up on the boat and facing straight ahead. The oars are not drawn through the water, but the rowing motion involves a combination of pushing, pulling and turning the oar instead. This technique became pre-eminent in Venice, as it not only makes fishing easier but also makes the canals simpler to navigate.

Imagine that iconic image you have in your head of the gondolieri and you’ll see what I mean. Members can go out to sea in the Canottieri boats, wearing their red sailor’s jerseys. So, why are you just standing there? Sign up!

The Reale Società Canottieri Bucintoro is the oldest Cannottieri society in the whole of Italy , dating back to 1882. It has its headquarters in the old salt warehouses of the former customs duty station, the Punta della Dogana, which have existed more than 600 years. In this extraordinary boathouse, you can experience live the thousand-year-old seafaring culture and the multitude of boat types that have resulted from it: between a puparìn, a caorlina, a dinghy, a mascareta boat, you’ll also come across three gondolini and a ballottina.

And if you’re lucky, you might find one or two other rarities tucked away here, such as Venice’s most beautiful historic gondola dating back to the early 20th century. This masterpiece was constructed in the workshop of the famous master of the craft Giubboni. It’s easy to organise a rowing session with one or more of the teachers from the Società Bucintoro. Then, sailing behind Giudecca Island, you’ll find sports groups fleeing Venice’s cramped conditions, where there is little respite among all the houses and churches.

Parco delle Rimembranze, isola di Sant'Elena
Boats arriving at Parco delle Rimembranze park

After a few days, it’s noticeable that Venice lacks parks and wide-open spaces. Some do exist, however: on Venice’s only green island, Sant’Elena, behind the Giardini della Biennale. In the Parco delle Rimembranze you can exercise on the sports equipment and sports fields.

A little further on there’s a skate park. Venice’s football stadium is also based on this island (Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo) should you suddenly decide you’d like to watch a game.

Isola della Giudecca. Venezia 2017
Giardini della Biennale gardens

You don’t have your bike with you? Or maybe you think a bike tour of Venice might prove difficult? No problem! Just head to the Lido di Venezia to pick up a bicycle. Hop on the ferry and you’re soon there. You don’t have to bring your own bicycle, simply use the city rental bikes, as bike-sharing is a big thing here.

After a few metres, I understand why the local government provides bicycles. The ten-kilometre-long and up to 700-metre-wide island is a cyclists’ paradise. You can either cycle the length of the island and back or head to the southernmost tip of the island and take your bike onto the ferry to the neighbouring island of Pellestrina. Pellestrina’s wild landscape will captivate you. With its long, tree-filled avenues, the Lido is also particularly suited to jogging. You can easily reach the sea and its interior is very well tended. A small tip: visit the south of the Lido near the golf course.

There you’ll find the Oasi degli Alberoni nature conservation area. Entry is free of charge and its dunes – created by bora fall wind – reward you for your efforts. Just watch out for nesting tortoises. Not tired yet? Then press on directly to the Parco di San Giuliano. First you have to cross the four-kilometre-long Ponte della Libertà bridge: a great experience for all cycling enthusiasts – on your right-hand side, trains and cars speeding by, and on your left a view to the sea and the Marghera skyline. A little caution is advised after the bridge.

To reach the park by bike (or on foot), you first have to wind your way through streets and zebra crossings, but at the end the wonderfully fresh air of the park fills your lungs. As well as official jogging, cycling, skating and walking routes, there’s also a traffic practice area with asphalt streets, traffic lights and street signs for children. If you think about it, it’s quite a quirky initiative for a city where a driving licence is of little value.

di Paolo Ermano

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