|River Po // Photo by Elizabeth Buie via Flickr|
Paul Miles, The Daily Telegraph, February 23, 2015
'Get down! No one stand up! Watch your heads!”
The commands from Capt Richard Martin were coming thick and fast. The River Po, swollen with snow melt, was five metres higher than usual and we were about to sail under a low bridge in the tallest river ship on the waterway.
Our Dutch captain slowly manoeuvred the 110 metre-long River Countess under the bridge, backwards. We crouched low while steel girders passed darkly above. A crew member measured the gap: 22cm. As we squeezed under the span, lorry drivers hooted. Such excitement is rare on ocean-going cruises. Safely through, there was cheering and applause and Alessandro, one of the attentive staff, reappeared from the bar below to refill our glasses.
The ship’s height above water (“air-draft”) can present the captain with a few hairy moments but, while others on board had opted for the safety of a view from the ship’s lounge, a handful of passengers, myself included, who had been on deck since we set sail that afternoon, were allowed to watch the wheelhouse and other structures being lowered, hydraulically, at the touch of a button.
River Countess cruises in Venice, Bologna and Verona – offering its 134 passengers a slow and more immersive way of touring the ever-popular Veneto. Over the course of our seven-day trip we sailed mostly in the Venetian Lagoon, with a small foray along the Po river. Snaking across north-east Italy from the Alps to its delta south of the lagoon, the Po is a relative newcomer to river-cruise itineraries, including those of Titan, which has a stronghold on many of Europe’s rivers.
Compared with the ocean-going behemoths that passed us when we were moored in Venice at the start (and end) of the cruise, our ship is a tiddler, however. The sight of an 11-deck-high cruise ship, its upper decks wreathed in morning mist, being slowly and quietly towed through the Giudecca Canal near the centre of Venice, was like attending the funeral of a hubristic skyscraper. The ship dwarfed both its procession route, of timeless buildings growing organically like coral from the sea, and our elegant river cruiser – a minnow next to a whale. Those vast ships could never explore the shallow lagoon and river like we would.
Although billed as a “cruise”, we never sailed far in terms of distance. For five nights our ship moored in the 200sq-m lagoon; four of those in Venice itself. It felt more like a floating hotel that occasionally relocated than a cruise, but it was the perfect way to experience La Serenissima.
Unsure it could match up to its reputation, and despite living on a narrow boat and spending much of my time exploring Britain’s waterways, I’d never visited Venice. I chose to travel by train from London (a 15-hour daytime journey) and from the moment I walked out of Santa Lucia train station in time to see a moon rising behind San Simeone Piccolo church, I was captivated.
Fearing the inevitable crowds, I was pleasantly surprised to find quiet spots in the city, including church piazzas where older folk sat and grass sprouted between paving stones. A private evening visit to St Mark’s Basilica was included in our cruise, leaving us free to admire its two acres of gold tiles and altar screen of thousands of gems, undisturbed. And we were moored just a short stroll away, at Giardini della Biennale.
When, after two nights, we cruised for four hours through the lagoon – the largest in the Mediterranean as I learnt in one of two on-board lectures – the monastery islands, vegetable gardens and mussel farms on stilts enthralled. The engine purred quietly enough for us to hear children playing and cockerels crowing on nearby islands and blackbirds singing in trees at the river’s edge.
Five hundred metres wide in places, the Po Delta, a Unesco World Heritage listed expanse of marshland and lagoons, is visited by more than 300 bird species. A couple from Dorset spotted a flock of colourful bee-eaters and a marsh harrier swooping above wetlands. “We’ve only seen these in Africa,” said one, of the bee-eaters.
We spent two nights on the Po, a waterway that in the early 17th century was transformed into several wide channels and flat land for agriculture. An occasional bell tower poked up from behind tree-lined banks.
Located south of the lagoon, River Countess had to make a two-hour passage outside the protected barrier islands before it could enter the Po proper.
For this exciting coastal Adriatic transit we were forced to part company with the vessel. Government regulations, which came into effect following the Costa Concordia disaster in 2012, meant that on both the outward and return sailings (two days in total) the Countess cruised without passengers, rendezvousing with us in a new location after that day’s coach excursion.
Over the course of four days we visited Padua, Ravenna, Bologna and Verona by coach, travelling for between two and four hours a day. “It’s a perfect way to explore this part of Italy without having to pack and unpack,” said a millionaire shoe entrepreneur from Australia, who was part way through an extended tour of Europe.
In Padua we admired exquisite 14th-century frescoes by Giotto, whose name is still given to an artists’ blue (lapis lazuli) and in Ravenna it was churches resplendent with sparkling Byzantine mosaics in gold and silver. Our guides communicated to our earpieces via radio microphones, negating the need to huddle close. I wandered off but was still able to hear a disembodied voice talking of how authorities in Bologna considered fashioning a pair of bronze shorts for their naked Neptune, or how the tongue of 13th-century St Anthony is preserved in the basilica in Padua. Sadly, Ferrara, just half an hour from where we were moored on the Po, and acclaimed as a Renaissance jewel, was not on our itinerary, but has since been added.
This being Italy, food and wine was a focus of each day’s excursion. Bologna, capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, home to Parmesan and Balsamic vinegar, is nicknamed La Grassa, the fat one. During a wander through its narrow streets, brimming with artisan food shops, I saw a butcher’s shop displaying a skinned goat wearing a lettuce headdress, in the window. We learnt how to make pasta before sitting down to the famed Bolognese ragout, “But never spaghetti Bolognese, no!” reprimanded our guide. “Spaghetti is from Naples. Bolognese sauce should be served with tagliatelle.”
Padua has a medieval covered market with stalls selling horse meat and mountains of cheese. While friends tried a coffee-flavoured tagliatelle I snacked on dainty sandwiches of asparagus and egg washed down with a glass of local white wine – just £4 at a market bar.
Excursions are included in the fare but in Verona some of us splashed out on an optional excursion – a visit to a vineyard owned by a direct descendant of Dante Alighieri, with lunch that included the sweet wine vin santo, in which we dunked almond biscotti. La dolce vita indeed.
Back on board, dining was fairly informal, with the freedom to choose a table and time for each meal. Spaghetti served with (sustainably caught) lagoon mussels and clams and other local dishes were incorporated into executive chef Roberto Bettolini’s menus. On board I noted reusable water bottles and cooled drinking water on tap. L’Occitane bathroom products were provided via pump dispensers.
It belied first impressions.
Despite the €25 million cost of building, I had our Countess down as more of a fake-tan kind of gal than a caring idealist – not least because the reception area is all leopard print and chandeliers with acres of glass and marble. It wasn’t to my liking but there’s no accounting for taste.
“Everything is so elegant,” said an American veteran of Uniworld, while sipping a Bellini in the Castillo lounge as on-board musician, Zoltan, played keyboards and a couple shuffled on the tiny dance floor. There was more bustle around the tea and coffee station and laundry room than there was in the lounge-bar.
In the cabins the American owner’s taste runs to Toile de Jouy (a classic French print) headboards and marble shower rooms. The beds are supremely comfortable and, music to most cruisers’ ears, there was free Wi-Fi and in-cabin films on demand and a (not very busy) dance-floor.
But you don’t choose this cruise for interiors or nightlife. For the last two nights we were moored again in Venice, with intimate views of handsome buildings. We took a short morning cruise through the lagoon to Burano. I sat on the top deck, shaded from the sun, and drank it all in. Our sparkling Countess was back with her true love and I raised a glass to river cruisers that don’t really go anywhere.
Titan in partnership with Uniworld (0800 988 5867; titantravel.co.uk ) offers an eight-day Venice and the Gems of Northern Italy cruise from £1,979 per person departing on April 5. Includes return flight, transfers, excursions, complimentary alcoholic and soft drinks, gratuities, Wi-Fi and Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service. Train fares to Venice from London start at £212 return per person, which includes accommodation in a six-berth couchette on the overnight service from Paris to Venice.
To book contact Voyages-SNCF ( voyages-sncf.com/en ; 0844 848 4070).
This article was written by Paul Miles from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.