Mary Novakovich learns about Venetian rowing (Photo: Adam Batterbee)

“Put your body in. You don’t need strong arms, it’s all in the wrists.”

I stand precariously on a flat-bottomed wooden Venetian boat, oar in both hands, trying to follow Nan McElroy’s instructions to steer this beautiful boat without falling into the canal. She stays behind and I sit in the middle, taking a crash course in ‘voga alla veneta’ – the traditional way of rowing in Venice, which has nothing to do with chattering gondoliers recruiting tourists.

I’m on a “batela coda di gambero” (shrimp tail boat) that has been cruising the Venetian waterways for centuries. But when outboard motors appeared, those beautiful wooden boats started to disappear. There are only seven replicas and four are used by the all-female Row Venice team to teach people how to navigate Venice’s quietest canals.

Row Venice founder Jane Caporal – a Bristol native who arrived in the city more than 20 years ago and has never left – is particularly keen to get Venetians back to rowing.

That’s why their company puts their profits into sponsoring children’s and women’s races – they keep this old tradition alive.

I try not to lose my balance. Venetian canals are usually only a few meters deep, but the water is icy. Nan shows me the position of the rudder—one foot wide and firm in front of the other—and how to gently turn the rudder to get propulsion. To my surprise, I quickly mastered it.

The instantly recognizable Grand Canal (Image: Getty)

And what a thrill. I see Venice like never before. We glide along a nearly empty canal in Cannaregio as the late afternoon light fades, enjoying a tranquility a world away from the madness of St. Mark’s Square.

My rowing lesson includes a tour of cicchetti bars with Nan, who is – appropriately – a sommelier. We head to Cantina Azienda Agricola in Rio Terà Farsetti for their fantastic selection of tapas style bites. Chunks of creamy cod, anchovies and Parma ham land on crostini and disappear in seconds, followed by tiny meatballs called polpette.

I’ll stick to a small glass of prosecco, because we’ve got one more bar to row to – and now’s not the time to be a tipsy tourist.

Cicchetti in the cantina

Cicchetti at Cantina Azienda Agricola (Photo: Adam Batterbee)

Fortunately, Vino Vero is a short drive away and right on the canal, where my rowing lesson ends – but not before another round of addictive cicchetti and some wonderful Venetian and Tuscan wines are served.

When Venetian pub crawls go, this deserves more, well, to be fashionable.