Push the oar, don't fall out of the boat. Push the oar, don't fall out of the boat. I'm so busy repeating these mantras to myself that I almost miss it when my rowing instructor, Felix, says, "Venice is meant to be seen from the water." It's a simple statement, but one that hasn't occurred to me until now. I look around and realize just how true it is—many of the city's most ornate facades are impossible to see from land, and the best views of nearly all of Venice's 400 bridges are from its canals.

And what a view it is, standing at the front of this boat that looks like it's straight out of an 18th-century Canaletto painting. While there are plenty of ways to experience Venice at water level—from the black gondolas that crowd the canals around Piazza San Marco to the water taxis that ply the wide Grand Canal—a Venetian rowing lesson is perhaps the most unfiltered, the one most likely to leave you with sore hands and a visceral sense of what it means to navigate a city dominated by water.

I've found my way to these quiet back-canals with the help of Row Venice, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the traditions of rowing in Venice. The organization employs a team of passionate instructors who teach visitors the basics of the voga alla veneta. Using all-wood batela coda di gambero boats—which are more stable than the sleek black gondolas cruising the more congested canals of the city—Row Venice combines rowing lessons with a tour of the city's past and present.

Felix calls my attention back to the boat, and I remember that, at least for the next hour and a half, I am a vogatrice in training. I find my footing, shift my weight onto my front leg, and propel the oar back and the boat forward. This delicate interplay between balance, technique, strength, and endurance is something that can't be properly appreciated until you're doing it yourself, and as I try to remember to do the right things in the right order, I develop a new sort of admiration for everyone around me making this style of stand-up rowing look so effortless.

We continue south, toward the Grand Canal. We duck under bridges, slip past water taxis, and (with the expertise of Felix, who is doing all the steering) manage the tight turns in the long wooden boat. It's not easy, but it is incredibly fun. And in a city as dense with tourists as Venice, to be gliding quietly through it feels like a rare gift.

Venice was built to be beautiful from the water, and navigating it this way feels right. Suddenly the canals aren't simply a picturesque novelty, they're the very heart and lifeblood of Venice. I dip the oar and lean into the horizon.

To Book: The cost for two people is 80 euros for the 1.5-hour lesson. There are also options for a combination rowing lesson and cicchetti tasting, as well as a night lesson. Lessons can be booked in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Venetian. Book online at the Row Venice website.

(Photos: Jane Caporal and Christine Sarkis)

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Best of Venice: Row Like a Venetian.

Follow Christine Sarkis on Google+ or email her at editor@smartertravel.com.

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