Poetry in motion
By barge in search of Lord Byron in Italy
I am sitting in late-afternoon sunshine on the top deck of a converted Venetian sand barge and dreaming of Lord Byron. No, I don’t often do this, but when you find yourself chugging along a canal off the Venetian lagoon — at the exact spot where the poet went a-wooing — it becomes inevitable.
We’re a quarter of the way through a six-day trundle from Venice to Mantua aboard the aptly named La Bella Vita. Behind us are the slivered lagoon islands of Pellestrina and Chioggia. And here, just outside the rather dull town of Taglio di Po, are the bird-stuffed wetlands of the Po Delta, where Lord Byron met and fell in love with the 19-year-old Countess Guiccioli. The poet, grown stout from good living, was in his 30s. His love interest, married to the crotchety ageing count, lived at Ca’ Zen, a rambling Palladian-style country house where we have moored for the evening. Romance blossomed for lucky Byron, but we are lucky, too, because tonight we are having dinner with the owners.
Pleasing diversions such as this become a regular feature of our hotel barge cruise. It is easy enough on a vessel with eight other guests, but they add to the sense of intimacy that is soon the hallmark of our week. There is no mooring alongside cruise ship behemoths for us during our two days in Venice (we drop anchor beside the tranquil public gardens), nor crowd-heavy excursions following a raised red umbrella. Instead, think of a floating house party of like-minded cruisers. Most are retired professionals (I’m the youngest, not that it matters) and all appreciate the perks of private wine tastings at an offradar winery, an on-board cookery lesson and expert-led museum tours.
Yet let me return to Byron, because now we are meeting Elaine Westropp Bennett, the owner of Ca’ Zen, and her charming daughter, Maria. Over prosecco they recount further snippets about the poet’s love affair but, says Elaine, “This house is not a museum. It’s a home first and foremost, and a working farm and B&B. Some visitors seem disappointed by that.”
Not our group. We like the ancestral clutter, the bedroom views on to a riverbank where the moon gives the canal a silver sheen. It is easy enough to picture Byron walking here, steadily composing love verses for his Stanzas to the Po. Easy, too, to imagine him dining where we do, in a grand candlelit room.
Back on board, our journey continues along the Canal Bianco, a waterway that runs parallel to the sinuous Po. Moorhens squabble among the reeds, flamingos graze among pale grassy pools, and farther along the bank purple herons with question-mark heads scan the ripples for fish. This is the backdrop for alfresco lunches cooked with skill in a tiny galley by the talented Andrea. Our barge is a compact vessel, and although initially we envisaged cabin fever when we saw the size of our small stateroom, it proves to be well thought-out for storage space. There’s no need, either, to opt for one of the two “suites”; they are only marginally bigger, although they do have full-length opening windows.
Not that we spend time in the cabin. There’s a clubby bar, albeit with rather naff decor, a sizeable dining room and that shaded sun deck, with bicycles available for whizzing along riverbanks. It’s not a cheap cruise but all drinks, food and excursions are included. The only niggle for me is the lack of daily maps charting our journey.
What makes this trip super-special is the young Italian crew, ever keen to offer cheery smiles, our favourite drinks always remembered and with insider knowledge on the excellent regional wines that accompany our meals. The itinerary is also appealingly different from standard river cruises. There are the odd blips — Adria, for example, where the only redeeming feature among faceless apartments, neurotically yapping dogs and a market that sells plastic roses, is its archeological museum. It is a sad state for the town with an ancient harbour that gave its name to the Adriatic.
Yet we have already had delightful excursions, such as the colourful fishermen’s homes at Chioggia; skinny Pellestrina’s villages set between lagoon and sea; and now we are sailing through Emilia-Romagna flatlands where old bell towers and moss-green poplars provide rare vertical relief.
At Ferrara we find sturdy walls and pleasant red-brick Renaissance buildings, crowned by the Este family castle. Outside is a statue of the prophetic Dominican monk Savonarola, who was born in Ferrara, hair wild and arms spread, as if captured in full rhetoric.
Palazzo Schifanoia — the Este family’s summer bolthole, which features in Ali Smith’s book How to Be Both — is the highlight. The author drew inspiration from its 15th-century frescoes, and one of our group gazes up with fascination, clearly lost in remembering the novel. For me, however, it is our last stop in Mantua that imprints most vividly. The milky-green lakes filled with swans and ducks, narrow sunlit lanes busy with cyclists, its crenellated Ducal Palace, where Andrea Mantegna exquisitely captured in fresco chubby putti and the imperious face of the town’s ruler, Ludovico III Gonzaga.
It is our last night, and back on board Andrea has cooked a farewell dinner of artichoke soup, Mantuan tortelli, guinea fowl with wild mushrooms and an exquisite caramelised hazelnut parfait.
It is the sort of feast, come to think of it, that Lord Byron would have heartily enjoyed.
THE TIMES Louise Roddon was a guest of European Waterways.
Colourful houses of Chioggia, top; Lord Byron; country estate Ca’ Zen, above left; frescoes at Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, above right; La Bella Vita in Mantua, below