Venice: Afloat in the City of Dreams
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. •
Photography by Brian Johnston and Uniworld River Cruises, Inc.
Emirates flies to Dubai with onward connections to Venice: emirates.com/au
When to go
Cruises run between March and November. It is best to avoid the heat and crowds of July and August.
Tourismo Venezia: en.turismovenezia.it