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Venice, Italy: Tales of the River Po
Like thousands of passengers on so many ships before us we stood on deck as River Cloud sailed down the Giudecca Canal, past the puffed up dome of Santa Maria della Salute, and the entrance to the Grand Canal. In the busy basin of the lagoon, one of Venice’s most memorable views slipped by - the Campanile of San Marco poking up through the higgledy-piggledy, skyline of palazzos, followed by a tantalising glimpse of the five domes of the nearby basilica and the lace-like arcades of the Doge’s Palace. But, unlike the gigantic cruise ships that sneak into this waterway and hideously invade the priceless views, our gleaming river barge of forty four cabins was barely noticed as we turned south for the fishing port of Chioggia heading for the River Po and a week of cruising into the Veneto.
Over lunch it was time to meet our fellow passengers, although the barge, or ship as the Captain liked to call it, was far from full. Only thirty of us graced the tables in the exquisite dining room instead of a possible eighty eight! Some had come from Germany where they had snapped up bargain fares, the rest, made up of British, Americans and a couple from South Africa had not been so lucky and had paid the going rate.
River Cloud herself was a picture. Built only four years ago to sail up and down the River Po out of Venice she cost around 25 million Euros (or 30 million in US dollars) and is a sister ship to the first River Cloud built nearly ten years ago for the Danube and Rhine. Our cabin on the lowest of three decks (above us were the more expensive Panorama Cabins with a sitting area and arched, full length windows for the best views) had two brass portholes just above the surface of the water which gave the impression, when under way, of looking through a periscope. There was nowhere to sit but it was beautifully fitted out with wood panelling, a comfortable bed with duvets, enough wardrobe and drawer space for our clothes, a bathroom with a marble sink and gold plated taps, an excellent shower, air conditioning, mini bar, television, bathrobes and a welcome aboard bottle of champagne.
On the spotless, top deck you could lie out in the sun on wooden lounge chairs or sit up at tables under umbrellas. There was shuffleboard and chess to play and an open bridge policy meant that Captain Bassani was always on hand if you had some questions or you just wanted to watch him driving this 338 foot long beauty effortlessly through the water. Most of the time he seemed to be able to steer it with his little finger, sometimes calling on the two diesel engines for a little more power here and there but always keeping a keen eye on the depth of the river which at times dropped away to little more than the vessel’s five foot draft. “It is a difficult river to sail,” Bassani tells us. “The depth changes so quickly and there are very few proper facilities here for our ship. Mooring at night is quite a problem and sometimes we have to tie up to trees. The Italian officials don’t seem bothered whether we are here or not.”
There is another disadvantage from a scenic point of view - the height of the Po’s banks. They are built up to protect the flat land from flooding so there was little to see of the riverside villages and towns as we went deeper into the Veneto. We passed a shipyard and one or two ugly chimneys belonging to factories and dozens of anglers catching little silver fish in square nets suspended on a line over a pulley on a long rod. And then, tantalisingly, we caught far away glimpses of what we had come to see - a church with its campanile pointing into the sky. Even on the top deck the views were limited to the wide river and its sand-banks and huge stands of poplars. But there were plenty of birds to watch and listen to with groups of mallard dabbling about, little egrets fishing in the still pools of the river and grey herons flapping over us, sometimes chased by angry hooded crows like spitfires attacking Wankel bombers. A good pair of binoculars is a must. They will add an extra dimension to your trip. We always carry Zeiss pocket binoculars 8x30 Victory Compact. Waterproof and so light you won’t know you’ve got them round your neck. Celestron models are also worth considering.
Best of all though, because River Cloud was so quiet, you could snooze in a chair listening to cuckoos calling and Italian nightingales, with a touch of Caruso about them, serenading us from the trees as we passed upstream.
Sailing the river at night was off limits so we had to drop anchor and tie up. The next morning a coach would arrive to take us on a trip. Mara, the Cruise Director, had tried to whet our appetites the previous day with a few slides of such places as Mantua, Padua, Bologna and Verona. Apart from Verona they were half day visits leaving at 8.30 in the morning and taking less than an hour to get there but everything turned out to be a bit rushed. It was the old story, a quick look round a church, a castle, and a piazza with a local guide and then an hour or so of “free time” for some shopping. “But the shops were all closed,” complained Sheila from Cape Town. “And then it was time to get back on the coach!” The ship cried out for a dedicated lecturer someone who would bring the Veneto alive and allow us to delve into its secrets. (River Cloud does carry lecturers on some cruises). So at lunch, back on the barge, we urged Sheila and her husband Des to do their own thing. Liz and Catherine from Connecticut were worried about getting lost, but eventually they plucked up courage and struck out on their own and they seemed to enjoy it. In Verona, a city we know quite well, we made a bee line for the Giusti Gardens, staying clear of the guided tour.
It was mid morning as we entered the gates to the garden and the busy streets of Verona simply melted away. This green oasis was on the itinerary of travellers who took the Grand Tour during the eighteenth century and incredibly we had it all to ourselves. Those early tourists saw the same avenue of cypresses and marvelled at their age and size just as we did. These beautiful, healthy trees are at least 500 years old and some are a lot older. They were planted long before Agostino Giusti, a wealthy mill owner, created his garden in about 1570. At the end of the avenue is a series of steps which lead to a grotto which is surmounted by a fierce mascherone (mask), which once threw tongues of flame from its mouth. As a result it is supposed to represent the Mouth of Hell. The rest of the garden drips with neat box hedges, a maze, parterre, stone statues and the most gorgeous water fountain. It was raining a little when we were there but it didn’t matter. The only thing we didn’t do was make it to the top of the mask where there is a belvedere that not only looks over this amazing garden but takes in a view of Verona and, on a sunny day, Mantua, Parma and the Alps.
With our healthy appetites it was time to make for one of our all time favourite places to eat in Verona - the Bottega del Vino. With his incredible wine cellar and his flare for cooking superb regional food Severino Barzan’s bar and restaurant hides away on a street off the Via Mazzini, the main shopping street in Verona. Step inside and he will greet you like a long lost friend and serve up a most memorable meal. We had polenta with gorgonzola and superb risotto cooked in red, Amarone wine.
Back on River Cloud our week was slipping away. Before we knew it the Captain was at his table for the Farewell Dinner of duck liver parfait with figs and brioche followed by tomato guinea fowl consommé with herb dumplings and then baked scallops with a herb sauce. The main course was fillet of beef wrapped in Parma ham. And for pudding a sort of chocolate trifle which was brought to the table with a firework in it. It was all quite delightful. However, there was a problem. Liz, from Connecticut, didn’t fancy the duck liver parfait and didn’t eat red meat. Plus, as a recovering chocoholic, she couldn’t face chocolate of any sort!
So a green salad was offered and a piece of fish cooked for her main course. As for the pudding she decided not to bother. Dinner and lunch times were rigidly set. The ships’ bell was rung promptly at 7.30 and you’d better not be late! Lunch was the same – bang on time. Much better to have had the choice of dining, say between 7.30 and 8.30. After all, the kitchen was only coping with thirty guests! Breakfast was the most leisurely meal, served between 8a.m. and 9.30.
To add to the rigidity, one of the waiters was particularly annoying and overbearing. He sweated profusely and with every plate he placed before us he issued the same patronising instruction. “Enjoy your starter!” And when he collected your usually empty plate he would ask, “Did you enjoy your starter?” in the same meaningless fashion. Add to that a form of synchronised waiting at table so that he and his colleague put every plate down together and would not remove them until they were both in the exact position for another simultaneous pick up, it was like an episode of that screamingly funny British television series Fawlty Towers. On the other hand Florian, the bar and lounge waiter, was perfectly behaved and most attentive. His manner was pleasing and absolutely nothing was a problem for him.
Somehow all this escaped the attention of Boris the hotel manager, but please don’t think we didn’t enjoy this lovely ship because we did. With our niggles put right (it was generally agreed that the pianist who played in the evenings and at afternoon tea could have been better and much more sociable and we should not have had to concern ourselves with the embarrassing business of gratuities, which every quality cruise ship at sea has now dispensed with) River Cloud would have been perfect in every way. The food was of a very high standard. The head chef was German and ably assisted by a pastry chef making lovely bread as well as mouth-watering cakes and pastries for breakfast and afternoon tea. The ambience of the ship was exceptional and one night, after dinner, three highly entertaining Italian singers came on board complete with their own pianist for an operatic evening to remember. It was superb and exactly right for the ship.
As for the old man himself, Captain Bassani was most welcoming and utterly devoted to his ship. So, do take the opportunity to sail away from Venice on this remarkable vessel, but make it quick, for this, we discovered from the skipper himself, is River Cloud’s last season in Venice sailing up the Po. In October she will be sent to the Danube to join her sister, “cruising a river,” in the words of Captain Bassani, “much more suited to our ship and we will be welcomed with open arms.”
More Information on Sea Cloud Cruises
Contact American Booking Agents: 32-40 North Dean Street, Englewood, New Jersey 07631. Toll Free 888 sea-cloud or 888-732-2568. Regular number 201-227-9404 www.seacloud.com
Fly directly to either Venice or Milan or go via London to pick up connecting flights to Venice or Milan.
Next to arriving by sea, arriving in Venice by train is spectacular. You step out of the railway station straight on to the Grand Canal. The train journey from Milan to Venice takes about three hours. Or you could travel to Venice by train with Eurostar from London through the Channel Tunnel to Paris and then on to Venice. Book with Rail Europe. www.raileurope.co.uk
Bottega del Vino restaurant, Via Scudo di Francia Verona. Tel: 045 8004535. www.bottegavini.it
What to take
Smart casual is the order of the day, although a jacket and tie or suit will not look out of place on board this very smart vessel. Casual cotton or linen clothes for daytime but take a warm sweater in case of chilly nights. Remember to take comfortable shoes for walking and a light waterproof jacket. Umbrellas are provided by the ship.
A good pair of binoculars is a must. They will add an extra dimension to your trip. We always carry Zeiss pocket binoculars 8x30 Victory Compact. Waterproof and so light you won’t know you’ve got them round your neck.
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Venice and the Veneto
by Christopher Catling & Susie Boulton
published by Dorling Kindersley
Husband and wife, Keith Allan and Lynne Gray are travel writers and photographers based in Berwick upon Tweed on the English/Scottish border. They have worked for The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, House and Garden, Scotland onSunday and The Herald. For more than twenty years they have worked as freelance producers and reporters for BBC Radio, working from their own independent studio for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 and Radio Scotland as well as the BBC’s World Service.