ITALY: AFLOAT IN THE CITY OF DREAMS

A UNI­WORLD CRUISE ON THE PO RIVER AND VENE­TIAN LA­GOON JOUR­NEYS THROUGH ART, HIS­TORY AND WA­TERY RE­FLEC­TIONS.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY BRIAN JOHN­STON

A Uni­world cruise on the Po River and Vene­tian La­goon jour­neys through art, his­tory and wa­tery re­flec­tions.

Ev­ery­one ad­mires Venice from its prom­e­nades and pi­az­zas these days, only mo­men­tar­ily tak­ing to the wa­ter for a half-hour gon­dola ride or a trip down the Grand Canal in a jammed pub­lic ferry. But my el­e­gant, white-trimmed cruise ship River Count­ess has barely pulled away from the quay when Venice demon­strates how much this is a des­ti­na­tion that de­mands ad­mi­ra­tion from the wa­ter.

Af­ter all, this is a city built over dozens of is­lands in the Vene­tian La­goon and which, over the cen­turies, grew op­u­lent on sea trade. Its mer­chants and aris­to­crats wanted to im­press peo­ple trav­el­ling by wa­ter. From my ship’s deck, the im­prob­a­ble glory of this city floats by: mar­ble bridges and wave-washed palaces, bur­nished church domes glow­ing in the sun, bulging basil­i­cas and lop­sided man­sions.

I’m on a Uni­world cruise, and this is the best way to truly ad­mire Venice. I have a grand­stand seat from which to ogle the city, with­out be­ing hemmed in by nar­row al­leys and dank side canals. I don’t have to haul my suit­case over humped bridges and bat­tle the tourist crowds at in­ter­sec­tions. From the wa­ter, frus­trat­ing Venice is ef­fort­less and al­ways as the­atri­cal as a Canaletto paint­ing brought to life as River Count­ess drifts by the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Square and count­less other land­marks.

Even bet­ter, as I tuck into spaghetti alla von­gole stud­ded with lo­cal clams, River Count­ess demon­strates that it’s pos­si­ble to have a great meal in Venice. And each time we dock, the ship trans­forms into the Vene­tian ho­tel-with-a-view that most peo­ple only dream about. The ship is sprin­kled with lo­cal mo­tifs, from Mu­rano glass chan­de­liers to dec­o­ra­tive car­ni­val masks on the walls. Decks are also named for fa­mous Vene­tians: Marco Polo, Tin­toretto, Bellini and Casanova.

From our moor­ing at Riva Sette Mar­tiri, we’re sur­rounded by Castello, one of Venice’s less-vis­ited dis­tricts, where

I come across signs of lo­cal life: wash­ing flap­ping from win­dows; toma­toes gleam­ing on mar­ket stalls; and old men in cafes drink­ing espres­sos. It’s a 15-minute am­ble along one of the world’s most fab­u­lous prom­e­nades, past the Bridge of Sighs – across which Casanova was taken to prison – and on to St Mark’s Square. A Uni­world guide takes us through the Doge’s Palace, groan­ing with gilt and Tin­toretto paint­ings.

The best is saved for the evening’s pri­vate visit to

St Mark’s Basil­ica. We creep through the shad­ows and set­tle into pews, and then the guide clicks a switch and lights blaze onto mag­nif­i­cent mo­saics of an­gels and saints.

It’s an ut­terly mag­i­cal mo­ment in this an­cient mon­u­ment sat­u­rated with his­tory.

Sail­ing out of Venice pro­vides an­other great panorama be­fore we’re onto the misty Vene­tian La­goon. The is­land of Pallest­rina ap­pears in rows of jaunty or­ange and red houses and wob­bling re­flec­tions of church spires. By lunchtime we’re docked at the fish­ing town of Chiog­gia. This ‘Lit­tle Venice’ is a smaller, rougher, more lo­cal ver­sion of the fa­mous city just across the wa­ter. I join Uni­world’s walk­ing tour across its sev­eral in­ter­linked is­lands. Fish­er­men mend their nets on the har­bour front and the mar­ket is rau­cous with shop­pers.

This cruise isn’t for those with their eyes fixed on far hori­zons and de­ter­mined to sail great dis­tances. The Vene­tian La­goon is small and we’ll sail just 60 kilo­me­tres up the Po

River as far as Pole­sella from Chiog­gia. It isn’t a river of grand land­scapes ei­ther, rather just pass­ing swans and po­plar trees. How­ever, a shore ex­cur­sion takes us into Bologna, Europe’s old­est uni­ver­sity city. It has a lovely old town of red-brick tow­ers, colon­naded streets and Re­nais­sance squares yet, thanks to its large stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, also presents a pleas­ingly youth­ful, con­tem­po­rary vibe.

Bologna is the gourmet cap­i­tal of Italy, its del­i­catessens and mar­ket stalls fat with cu­latello ham, Parme­san cheese, bal­samic vine­gar and as­para­gus. We’re given a demon­stra­tion of pasta-mak­ing at a lo­cal cantina. The chef pulls rib­bons of fet­tucine and tagli­atelle from her dough like a ma­gi­cian. Bologna’s most fa­mous dish is tagli­atelle al ragù, which was trans­formed be­yond Italy into spaghetti Bolog­nese – though as our Uni­world guide Maria ex­plains, no self-respecting Ital­ian would ever serve ragù with spaghetti, rather than tagli­atelle.

Mov­ing on, we float back to­wards Chiog­gia, where an­other food-ori­ented ex­cur­sion takes us out into the la­goon to see lo­cal fish­er­men har­vest­ing mus­sels, which also fea­ture in the restau­rant that evening. River Count­ess has a pleas­ing em­pha­sis on lo­cal cui­sine, dish­ing up the likes of tortellini in chicken broth, Mi­lanese-style osso bucco and de­li­cious Pied­mont veal with truf­fles, as well as evening cheese plates high­light­ing gor­gonzola, ta­leg­gio (mild and semi-soft) and asi­ago (crumbly and nicely aged). I en­joy per­haps the best food I’ve had on any river cruise.

Next day, we’re sail­ing the la­goon and vis­it­ing the is­lands of Tor­cello, which has an 11th cen­tury church with stun­ning mo­saics, and Maz­zorbo, no­table for its golden-hued wine. Then it’s on to Bu­rano, fa­mous for its ex­quis­ite lace­mak­ing tra­di­tion, which has been car­ried out by lo­cal women for cen­turies, as we find out at a lace­mak­ing work­shop. The lo­cal fish­er­men live in the colour­ful houses that line Bu­rano’s canals and the clash­ing pink, blue, yel­low and red make for won­der­ful pho­tos.

Few vis­i­tors to Venice see much of the la­goon or its is­land, and this cruise has added a new layer of ap­pre­ci­a­tion on my third visit to the city. As we sail back to­wards Venice, I’m glued to the deck, cool drink in hand, to ad­mire the ap­proach to this fab­u­lous float­ing city, emerg­ing from the la­goon in a fan­tasy of Gothic spires and soar­ing cam­paniles. Next morn­ing we’re deep in the heart of Venice on a guided ‘Do As The Lo­cals do’ ex­cur­sion, in­spect­ing the fish and vegeta­bles at the Rialto Mar­ket by the Grand Canal be­fore fin­ish­ing at a wine bar.

Life is good, and Venice has never looked more beau­ti­ful. •

“The is­land of Pallest­rina ap­pears in rows of jaunty or­ange and red houses and wob­bling re­flec­tions of church spires.”

Open­ing im­age: Riva degli Schi­avoni in Venice.

Clock­wise from be­low left: River Count­ess sail­ing past the Church of San Gior­gio Mag­giore in the heart of Venice; Rack of lamb from the River Count­ess’ restau­rant; The lounge on River Count­ess.

Far right: River Count­ess sail­ing through the heart of Venice.

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