Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gliding in a gondola

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"...the shadows of the sea, those azure, fathomless depths of crystal mystery, on which the swiftness of the poised gondola floats double, its black beak lifted like the crest of a dark ocean bird, its scarlet draperies flashed back from the kindling surface, and its bent oar breaking the radiant water into a dust of gold..." 

- John Ruskin, "Modern Painters," 1888

So romantic to think of gliding along the narrow canals in a gondola beneath a sunset sky, slipping beneath arched bridges where, in the shadows, we exchange a kiss.

Alas, it's a long way from Southern California to the fabled canals of Venezia.

But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy our own gondola ride.

Naples Island, in Alamitos Bay where the San Gabriel River meets the Pacific Ocean, is a man-made island. And just like its rival, Venice, California, Naples was a real-estate development. Conceived in 1903 by Arthur Parsons, it featured Mediterranean-style architecture, promenades, and winding canals plied by gondoliers giving rides to tourists. Naples Island is in the city of Long Beach, California.

Historic photo of gondolas on Alamitos, Los Angeles Public Library
 Those earlier gondoliers are long gone, but today Gondola Getaway is a great example of the way a quirky idea can turn into a successful small business. Begun in 1982 by a couple of high school buddies, they now have a fleet of custom-made gondolas, modeled after the boats in Italy, and offer tours of the canals of Naples and Los Alamitos Bay.  They also serve as consultants for other gondoliering tourist businesses.

"As the gondola brought us back along the Grand Canal,  we watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their pink flanks, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which one goes out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset."

Marcel Proust, "Remembrance of Things Past" Vol. II.

We arrived at the pier just before 5:00 pm on a January Saturday. The sun was setting and its rays beamed a golden light at the houses across the still water.  We packed a small picnic of cheese, fruit, and a bottle of Brut Rose sparkling wine.

Our gondolier was Micah.  He wore the traditional striped shirt and be-ribboned straw hat. A high school senior, he told us of his hopes to study oceanography or marine biology in college. He pointed out the sights as he rowed us through the narrow Rivo Alto Canal, and reminded us that it was good luck for couples to kiss as they rode beneath each bridge.

The boat was comfortable, with a padded couch for us to nestle close together on, and a raised place for our ice-bucket and snacks. A kerosene lantern was mounted in front, for visibility to other boaters.

As you might expect, such a unique and picturesque community is quite an affluent one, and the housing values are quite high.

"Past we glide, and past, and past!
Why's the Pucci Palace flaring
Like a beacon to the blast?"

- Robert Browning, "In a Gondola"

The houses here are a jumble of architectural styles, built so close together they seemed to rub shoulders. Much of the original 1903 Naples was destroyed in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, although a few older homes remained. Mock Spanish and Italian villas rise next to Cape Cod shingled cottages.

House with Moorish-style architecture
 Whispering palm trees lined the narrow canals. Duffy boats - electric powered passenger shuttles - were moored alongside larger pleasure craft at the walkways that descended from the houses.

The oldest house on Naples Island
Sometimes as we slipped silently along the canal we could hear the sounds of people gathered together on balconies and patios, enjoying the sunset. During the Christmas holidays, residents of Naples Island decorate their houses with elaborate lights, and visitors come to boat the canals and see the glittering displays reflected in the water.

As it got darker, the kerosene lantern on the front of our gondola glowed against the water.

Yes, it's a pirate statue on the upper left embankment
"Blue-black, the sky over Venice,
With a pricking of yellow stars.
There is no moon,
And the waves push darkly against the prow
Of the gondola...."

- Amy Lowell, 1777

We emerged from the narrow canal onto the placid water of the bay again, and back to the docks - and back to the real world.

This weekend is our 25th wedding anniversary. I surprised [The Man I Love] by booking this gondola ride. He didn't know where we were going until we arrived at the dock.

If you have a longing for a romantic interlude and you can't fly to Venezia - come ride the gondolas of Naples Island, Long Beach.


smalltownme said...

I'm so going to go there. Birthday. That's it!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Our gondolier was Micah. He wore the traditional striped shirt and be-ribboned straw hat. A high school senior, he told us of his hopes to study oceanography or marine biology in college

He sounds like a great kid. Sounds like a wonderful time.

Glennis said...

He was, actually. BBBB. It was really heartening to talk with a kid that age who seemed so smart and well-grounded.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Nice pictures!

You inspired me to look up a link.

Sheila said...

I've walked the canals hundreds of times over many years and cannot picture where that oldest house is located. Some things about it look familiar, but just can't place it. Maybe it's the perspective as I'm used to seeing the homes from street level.

Glennis said...

Sheila, it was your suggestion to visit Long Beach that made me remember Naples again - I worked in LB from '99 to 2004, and enjoyed exploring around there.

Anonymous said...

Amazing pictures of a wonderful time. When I hear Naples, I always think of Naples, FL, where my dad lived for about 10 years. There, too, you can find expensive houses built on canals... but to my knowledge, no gondolas or gondoliers.

M. Bouffant said...

Wow. 25 yrs.? Congrats! I could never do that.

Had no idea there were local gondoliers. One of these days I'll take the Blue Line to Long Beach & see what's up down there.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Beautiful photos and post. So serene. Happy Anniversary!

Sheila said...

Cool. I have only watched the gondoliers from the sidewalks gliding by in Long Beach. But I did give it a go in Venice. (Italy)