'See Venice and die', the saying goes, but when I visited last summer I thought I'd die in the crush . Not eager to repeat the experience, this summer I joined a cruise on an ancient grain barge converted to luxury vessel that would carry me from Mantova on the hem of Lombardy region to the heart of the glorious Veneto district - without those madding crowds.
Staring out of the picture frame window of my spacious cabin at a flock of swans swimming in the domed shadow of Mantova’s St George castle I sighed with relief. After battling with the Italian traffic to get here, La Bella Vita, the eight-berth luxury vessel that was to be my home for the next five days, was a haven of peace. That evening the ten of us on board – six Americans, one New Zealander and three Brits – got to know each other over dinner of sapid shrimp Gamberetti all’Ollio antipasto, followed by tender veal Stinco and a silky chestnut and chocolate Monte Bianco dessert.
Setting out on bikes to burn off those calories, the next day we swooped along the banks of this city that was classed as UNESCO world heritage site four years ago. When the throngs of capuccino-sipping crowds became too dense, we continued on foot through a tangle of cobbled alleys to discover Mantova’s architectural wonders centred around the eye-catching Renaissance Palazzo Te created by Raphael student Giulio Romano.
On day two, after a lazy breakfast on deck, we chugged through the Mincio Natural Park watching swans and egrets plunging from vast carpets of waterlilies to paddle in our sluggish wake. Climbing lock after lock along the narrow, Bianco canal we finally entered the Veneto and had our first sun drenched panorama of Venice’s spectacularly diverse hinterland, which stretches from the soaring Dolomite mountain peaks to the indigo Adriatic sea beneath.
La Bella Vita Cruise
Leaving La Bella Vita moored outside the market town of Taglio de Po, we drove along roads fringed with wheat-stubble fields to Ferrara, an atmospheric city thronging with cyclists that was once home to some of the greatest intellects of the Italian Renaissance. After exploring the towers, moats and drawbridges of 14th century Este castle, we strolled back to our bus, via the narrow, shop-lined alleys of the city’s mediaeval Jewish Ghetto, stopping to buy thick wedges of local speciality Sbrisolona, then eating the crumbly polenta cake studded with nuggets of almond and lemon peel during the ride back to the boat.
By mid-morning the following day we were crossing the Po Delta, a vast wetland formed of lagoons, rivers and marshes that empties into the Adriatic near Venice. Slow and stately, we cruised across this vast grey-brown waterscape dotted with emerald algae and spotted with clumps of russet reeds that parted to reveal Casoni fishing huts perched on stilts and inundated fields where most of Italy’s creamy, short-grained Arborio risotto rice is grown.
That afternoon, as stark August sunlight shimmered like lead on the pink-tinged wings of flamingoes, we ducked into the cool, vaulted cellars of Dominio di Bagnoli and sampled the cherry fragrant Friularo and peachy bubbly Spumante wines of this rambling 17th century estate surrounded by carefully manicured Renaissance gardens. Tying up at Chioggia, that evening we enjoyed a moonlit wander through the streets of this seaside town that locals nicknamed Little Venice because of it’s canals and humpbacked bridges.
One of the region’s busiest fishing ports, British travel writer Jan Morris, who came here in the 1960’s, described Chioggia in her book Venice as "a place of horny and homely instincts.". Inspired by Morris’ description I set out the next day to find the islands risqué side, but only discovered bobbing lines of fishing boats, groups of fishermen mending their nets and a twine of back alleys dotted with bakeries, Osterias and sweetshops.
That evening we chugged past San Servolo, once a hospital for the Crusaders; past Poveglia, the spooky island that featured in the film Death in Venice, and moored just a stones throw from St Mark’s cathedral.
The following morning I climbed up on deck to watch the light morning mist curl away from the lagoon to reveal Italy’s legendary city, bathed in the mythical lumière which inspired Canaletto’s vedute.
I’d had a wonderful time discovering the cultural delights, gastronomical wonders and beautiful scenery of the Veneto, but now I was dying to see Venice.
Prices for a 6 night cruise aboard hotel barge La Bella Vita are from $3,840pp/£2,390pp/€2,740pp in a twin/double cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full boat charters also available. European Waterways: Tel: +44 (0) 1753 598555 or visit www.gobarging.com.