If I start this month’s musings with the words “canals, bridges and St. Mark’s,” I feel sure Venice will leap into your mind. Hopefully along with images of gondoliers, grand piazzas, elegant palaces and beautiful basilicas.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have visited the city, but I never tire of losing myself in the maze of alleyways that line the canals, discovering authentic little restaurants that only the locals know, sitting in one of the piazzas with a glass of something cold and watching the world go by. It’s an extraordinary city, comprising 118 islands connected by more than 400 bridges and built on wooden piles brought from forests in Slovenia. It claims to have been the first place in the world to have a public casino (that was in 1638) and was a rich and powerful republic for many centuries until Napoleon Bonaparte came along and remodelled Europe.
It’s home to an annual carnival, which explains all those street stalls selling masks and one of the narrowest streets in the world (breathe in because it’s just 53cm wide!) It was also the birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo, the painter Canaletto and the notorious adventurer Casanova, who was not only the most famous guest of the prisons beneath the Doge’s Palace but managed to escape by flitting over roofs.
There are so many things to see in the city; St. Mark’s Basilica, the view from the top of the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, the Basilica di Santa Maria guarding the entrance to the Grand Canal, the Doge’s Palace itself, where the rulers of Venice lived when the city was a republic - that you need at least three days to do it justice.
Cue Uniworld River Cruises, which offers exactly that on a one-week boutique cruise that pairs Venice with the Po River. It’s not a new cruise as such, River Countess has been sailing the Po for several years, but it is a rehashed itinerary now on La Venezia, which is the same ship but with a whole new look following a bow to stern makeover and a far more fitting name. Uniworld is keeping the new look under wraps, saying only that it has been inspired by Venetian culture and hinting at ‘world-renowned fashion and famed cuisine,’ but as La Venezia takes on the title Super Ship, I am sure it will be spectacular so I can’t wait to see her.
The new itinerary is brilliant with included tours of all the must-see sights in Venice (a morning city tour, the Doge’s Palace, a private after-hours visit of St. Mark’s Basilica) and plenty of other treats as well. A tour of the Accademia Gallery with an art historian, shopping with the ship’s chef in Rialto Market, a chance to taste the Dorona wine grown exclusively in the lagoon on the island of Mazzorbo and a visit to Burano’s night market. All that is included in the cruise price, as well as flights, drinks and tips - phew! I’ll raise a glass to that. And also to the fact that this is an incredibly cost-effective way to see Venice, where paying for a hotel of the same quality as La Venezia, and as many wonderful meals as you’ll get on board, would severely dent the budget.
This is an unusual river cruise, not only because of the time La Venezia stays in Venice but because Italian maritime laws ban river boats from sailing from the lagoon into the mouth of the Po River with passengers on board (it’s all to do with that portion of water being designated open sea) so everyone has to get off in Chioggia, join an excursion and get back on in Porto Viro.
There are plenty of excursions to choose from - a bike tour of Chioggia, a boat trip out to mussel beds and lunch back ashore (mussels, of course!), while Shakespeare fans can join an excursion to Padua, the setting for Bard’s play The Taming of the Shrew.
From Porto Viro, La Venezia sails the Po to Polesella, from where there are excursions to Bologna or Ferrara. It’s a tough call which to do as both cities are lovely but I went for Bologna because, well, who can pass up on visiting the city that invented the Brits’ favourite Italian meat sauce (except here they call it ragu and serve it with tagliatelli?) The city beats Pisa by having two leaning towers and its miles of porticos are splendid (you can even reach a basilica on a hill out of town by walking along a near 2.5-mile long portico but a little train from the main square is much easier) but eating is never far from your thoughts in Bologna, which proudly calls itself the home of Italian food. How fitting then that Uniworld’s city tour visits markets and includes a pasta-making workshop and a Bolognese lunch in one of the city’s many restaurants.
From Polesella, La Venezia sails back towards Venice and this time everyone has to get off in Porto Viro, join a tour to Chioggia’s bustling Thursday market, which is packed with vendors selling everything from freshly-caught fish and fruit to clothes and shoes and then rejoin the ship for the cruise back to Venice.
Top tip: Make sure you’re on the sun deck with a fully charged camera because the views of the city from the lagoon are just wonderful. Happy snapping!