It’s got an air of mystery when it passes you: a lone gondola gliding through the waterways of City Park. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of it at Big Lake; other times, you can see it going through the sculpture museum.
You think you know a place, especially City Park, until you’ve seen it from the seat of an authentic Italian gondola.
Robert Dula, who’s been guiding the gondola through the park for the last nine years, talked about being the only gondolier in the Gulf South and the interesting way he saved his boat from two hurricanes:
Are you from New Orleans?
“I grew up in Lafayette.”
Can you tell me about your boat, Bella Mae, and how you started?
“She was hand built in Venice, and I’ve been doing this almost 16 years. I started out originally in Pensacola in 2004, and five months later Hurricane Issac hit. I lost my home, lost my place of business, and saved Bella Mae by sinking her. I took everything out, filled her full of cement blocks, and sank her underwater. She sat underwater for about 24 hours until the storm passed. I dove down, took the blocks out, and up she rose.
“I moved here in March 2005, and six months later Hurricane Katrina hit. I sank her behind the New Orleans Museum of Art, and she sat underwater for a month. When I finally got to come back home, a friend of mine had a trailer and he helped me get her. We transported her back to Lafayette and fixed her up.
“After that, I moved back to Florida and set up in Sandestin, spent a year at the resort there. Left there and moved up to Huntsville, Alabama, to a swanky outdoor mall with an Italian there and stayed there for three years. That didn’t work out so I called up the park one day and asked if I could bring the boat back here. That was almost nine years ago. Ever since then, I’ve been rowing merrily down the stream.”
What keeps you here in City Park?
“Its a wonderland, I often refer to it as the hidden gem of the city. You’ve got the lagoons, you’ve got the wildlife, the art. A combination of all those things just makes it a really magical place.
“From the water, it’s completely different. The passengers sit back on very comfortable Italian leather seats and sip on their wine, champagne or grape juice. I do all the work and you just kick back. I have some music playing in the background, usually. I’ve got some Andrea Botticelli or I mix it up with some Aaron Neville cause I’m a Louisiana boy. The ride is almost an hour long and there’s nothing quite like it.”
What made you want to be a gondolier?
“It’s more of a calling, not a job. I became fascinated with gondolas as a teenager after I saw Roger Moore’s James Bond in the movie ‘Moonraker,’ zipping through Venice is a souped-up, high-performance gondola. I told my mom that one day I was to get a boat like the one 007 had. My mom thought I was a little nuts. Many years later, I made the dream come true, and this is what I was put on the big rock to do.”
You’ve had almost 600 proposals on board the gondola, can you tell me about a unique one?
“They’re all unique! Sometimes I still get goosebumps. I had a young couple from Missouri, and their proposal happened in the sculpture garden. She was surprised and crying. A few minutes later, a two-pound bass jumped out of the water and hit him smack in the face. It was flopping around in his lap. Come to find out he’s a big-time bass fisherman so he said that was the best sign he could have gotten.”