Po­etry in mo­tion

By barge in search of Lord By­ron in Italy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - LOUISE RODDON

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

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