With is many arched bridges, Venice cannot claim to be among the world's most wheelchair-friendly cities. But a pair of gondoliers is challenging that image.

A new private-public project, dubbed gondolas4all, on Friday unveiled the first access point for wheelchair users to board one of Venice's storied black-lacquered gondolas.

Gondolier Alessandro Dalla Pieta said that over 20 years he had seen "people in wheelchairs dozens of times looking at us as if we were the last Coca Cola in the desert. It tugged at my heart."

The service, from car-accessible Piazzale Roma, will begin in about six weeks, after gondoliers are trained in operating the lift. Visitors can book a ride at the usual tariffs, set by the city, at the website www.gondolas4all.com.