Venice spreads before me like a dream, conjuring up images of the watery realm from another time, its beauty immortalized by poets over the centuries. I could only imagine how it looked to intrepid seafarers returning from faraway lands to their beloved floating city long ago.
I had a prime spot on the top deck of the barge, a glass of prosecco in my hand. As the vessel cut through the translucent green waters of the Giudecca Canal, I breathed in the lagoon air deeply, feeling the stress of travel melt away.
My husband Dave and I were on La Bella Vita, a converted flat-bottom iron barge. In its previous life, it hauled sand and gravel along the canals and Po Valley rivers. Today, it’s a luxury floating hotel with a stylish, modern Italian interior.
This trip was the ultimate no-stress, slow-travel experience—a six-night adventure, experiencing the romance of ancient Italy around the lagoons of Venice. (The La Bella Vita is one of several barge experiences offered by European Waterways. See: europeanwaterways.com). We meandered along stunning waterways, taking the less-traveled path and slowly soaking it all in. Though it was a journey of fewer than 50 miles, it was a world away from our day-to-day life at home in Texas.
With only 13 passengers and 10 crew members, it felt like we were having a week-long, private party on our own floating hotel. The amiable and able crew anticipated our every want, pampering us with morning cappuccinos, multi-course gourmet meals, and excursions to beautiful historical sites.
Just What is Barge Cruising?
In today’s hectic world, a growing number of travelers are choosing tranquil, intimate, historic canal barges as a way to see the world. Barging is slower than river cruising, and takes passengers to smaller locales that are inaccessible to larger vessels. The slow-moving boats mimic boutique hotels and place a premium on amenities and experience. The barge leisurely glides through canals and small inland waterways at speeds averaging no more than four or five miles an hour. We often moored in the late afternoon, a perfect time to get out bicycles and ride along an island’s seawall or on pastoral country roads.
This is an ideal vacation for anyone who enjoys discovering those out-of-the-way gems.
Why Barge in Italy?
Though Venice itself is one of those “must-visit” cities of the world, this part of Italy has a lot more to offer beyond canals and gondolas. And our barging adventure allowed us to experience the region in a way that most people don’t…by water. We took a deep dive into Italy’s past as we discovered the many Roman, Etruscan, Byzantine, and Renaissance cultures that have influenced the region over the centuries.
Our Italian cruise traversed two significant waterways. The Venetian Lagoon—a tranquil bay in the Adriatic Sea and the largest wetland in the Mediterranean—and the Canal Bianco, which leads to the protected nature reserve of the Po Delta (a paradise for nature lovers and bird watchers). The captivating waterways took us on a meandering journey from bustling Venice to the must-see city of Mantua.
We started our adventure in Venice with a guided tour of the historic center and the Pavilion of Gondolas before we left the tourist crowds behind and took to the water. We cruised along the Canal of the Orphans through the Venetian Lagoon and our first stop was the island of Pellestrina, where we moored for the night. The island is the home of fishermen and lacemakers, with colorful houses and an 18th-century Istrian seawall. Cycling along the seawall, we stopped at a local bar for cicchetti and a spritz while admiring the fiery orange sun settling into the lagoon.
Next up was the charming fishing port of Chioggia at the southern edge of the Venetian Lagoon. It’s a mini version of Venice…but without the crowds. The canals and characteristic narrow streets lead to an impressive cathedral and the Piazzetta Vigo, which overlooks the lagoon. It has one of the largest fish markets in Italy, where we shopped with the on-board chef, Andrea, for seafood for our evening meal.
A visit to the stately home of Tenuta Ca’ Zen, was a highlight of our trip. The estate itself dates back to the early 17th century when it was a shooting lodge belonging to the Zen, a Venetian aristocratic family. But the origins of the house go even further back. You can see the wonderfully pre-served 14th-century tabernacle, housed in the still-standing chapel that was dedicated to Santa Margherita.
The home also played a prominent role in literary history. Lord Byron courted Countess Guiccioli here and carried on an intense love affair, writing some of his best poetry at the villa. Over a candlelit dinner, we dined on local specialties of the Po River Valley. Fagioli di Lamon soup starter followed by delicious entree choices of seafood risotto or savory osso buco with polenta. Our dessert was a spirit-soaked Tiramisu. As we ate, the current Countess regaled us with stories of the historic property—a truly extraordinary evening.
You can’t visit the Veneto region without sampling the wine. A private tasting of the Bagnoli Estate’s famous estate-grown vintage wines was a delicious treat (see: ildominiodibagnoli.it). The 150-acre vineyard has been producing wines since the 16th century. We strolled through the beautiful grounds of the estate, owned by the Borletti family for the last 100 years (the estate itself dates back another 1,000 years) and admired the beautiful medieval monastery garden. We also toured the wine cellar, a thick-walled vaulted-ceilinged underground barrel room that had wine aromas wafting around the large wooden barrels.
Bagnoli’s wine production centers around the local Friularo, a tight-bunched, late-ripening variety particularly well suited to the sandy soils of the estate. We experienced a wine tasting at the cellar and tried five of their estate-grown wines, including the world-famous Friularo wine. They also grow Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and a Raboso Veronese which go into making their red, white, rosé, sparkling, and fortified wines.
The Renaissance Experience
Another highlight of this trip was our stop in Ferrara. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ferrara is a great walking city—atmospheric and beautiful. A model of town planning in the day, the ancient city was initially surrounded by imposing stone walls, including the six miles of 15th-century walls that are still standing today.
In the center of town, the Castle Estense is an imposing medieval structure anchored by four massive corner towers. Crossing the drawbridge over the moat, I expected to hear the sound of hooves and see a knight in shining armor approach.
The Cathedral of Ferrara dominates the main square with its splendid Romanesque and Gothic marble facade. The imposing pink and white marble bell tower is an unfinished work attributed to Leon Batista Alberti. (Note: It’s currently closed for ongoing structural repair work.)
We ended our barge journey by sailing into the imposing capital of Lombardy, Mantua. Approaching Mantua from the water, the city’s fairy-tale skyline greeted us, seemingly afloat on its watery foundations. The town was originally an island surrounded by four lakes, created during the 12th century to serve as the city’s defense system.
Crossing the San Giorgio bridge into the city, we came upon three interlinked picturesque squares, the hub of local life. The main square, Piazza Sordello, with its cobblestone center, dates back to 1330 and the Bishop’s Palace, Duomo, and the Ducale Palace encircle the square. Umbrella-covered tables spill out around the edges, the perfect place to relax with a late morning coffee and watch Mantua come to life.
One of the centerpieces of this city is the Palazzo Ducale, once home of the wealthy and powerful Gonzaga family, whose influence made Mantua one of the most significant artistic, cultural, and musical hubs of Northern Italy. The Ducal Palace (see: mantovaducale.beniculturali.it) is so grand and complete that it’s like a town in itself, containing over 500 rooms—many covered in frescoes—plus a courtyard and gardens worth wandering. Mantua—a city I’d never even heard of before our trip—was well worth the visit. And just another benefit of floating slowly through Northern Italy.
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