The Romance of Venice -- in Oakland? This Valentine’s Day, Take a Gondola

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Gondolier Zoltan DiBartolo rows across Lake Merritt. (Jim Ratcliffe/KQED)

With Valentine’s Day just a few days away, love may be in the air for some of us. There are the flowers and the chocolates. But what about being serenaded on a romantic gondola ride?

That pleasure isn’t just reserved for people in Venice, Italy. Since 1999, Gondola Servizio has been offering gondola tours -- complete with opera-singing gondoliers -- on Lake Merritt in Oakland.

Along with being a KQED reporter I'm also an incurable romantic, so champagne bottle in hand, I brought my boyfriend, Jim, along for the ride.

Jim Ratcliffe and Chloe Veltman toast to Valentine's Day aboard a gondola on Lake Merritt (Jim Ratcliffe/KQED)

We strolled toward the boathouse on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and met gondolier Zoltan DiBartolo, who helped us into the Venetian vessel.

As we pushed out onto the glassy water, DiBartolo told me he really loves his job.

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"I just couldn't be more happy to be out here on a boat. It's fresh air, it's exercise and it's singing, which is all my body really wants to do," DiBartolo said, before launching into the aria "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's "Elixir of Love."

Zoltan DiBartolo is a former lounge singer who fell in love with opera. He performs with companies around the Bay Area, when he's not serenading love birds on Oakland's Lake Merritt.
Zoltan DiBartolo is a former lounge singer who fell in love with opera. He performs with companies around the Bay Area, when he's not serenading lovebirds on Oakland's Lake Merritt. (Jim Ratcliffe/KQED)

This former lounge singer fell in love with opera.

He performs with companies around the Bay Area. He also has a special place in his heart for Lake Merritt -- even if paddling around the man-made lagoon in the center of Oakland isn’t quite the same as navigating the world-famous Italian canals.

I asked DiBartolo if thinks Lake Merritt has the romance and glamour of Venice.

"Maybe with enough champagne," he laughed, and as if on cue, my boyfriend Jim popped open the bottle we'd brought. The singing gondolier then let rip with another of his favorite romantic arias, "Quanto e Bella," also from Donizetti's "Elixir of Love."

My boyfriend and I share a toast, and a kiss.

"And that’s why I like my job," DiBartolo exclaimed. "I make the people kiss!

But sometimes DiBartolo’s customers are deaf to the tenor’s sensual serenade. Like the couple he ferried around recently who spent the whole ride glued to their cellphones.

"They just had their faces buried," DiBartolo recalled. "I sang them a few songs and at one point they looked up and said, 'Nice singing.' But pretty much, yeah, I ended up just starting to check my emails, too."

A view from the front of a Venetian gondola on Lake Merritt. (Jim Ratcliffe/KQED)

After we docked, I asked DiBartolo why he thinks gondola rides are so romantic.

"It's like you're being rocked," he said. "Like a babe in arms. ... And it makes people feel held and safe and perhaps more vulnerable."

His answer caught me off guard. As the sun sank in a blur of purples and pinks behind the downtown Oakland skyline, I thought about the fragility of the bond that lovers share.

Take a virtual 360-degree ride in a Lake Merritt gondola with KQED's Bay Curious: