Rialto check from a hotel afloat

The best thing about cruising Italy's Po River, writes Louise Goldsbury, is just going with the flow.

As though ripping open the wrapping paper of a birthday present, I tear back the curtains to reveal the gift of the Grand Canal. Opposite, a brick bell tower beams like bronze in the sunrise light, a vaporetto pulls into the pier, and I smile at an Italian man sailing his yacht past my window.

Only 45 people on this cruise have woken on this absolute waterfront position. Another 45, sleeping on the other side of the vessel, are almost pressed against the main promenade of Venice.

Water laps against the walls of our floating hotel for the week, the River Countess.

When I first read the Po River itinerary, launched in April, I wondered whether four nights out of seven was too much time in Venice. There seemed to be too little cruising and too many coach trips to nearby small towns with unfamiliar names.

But my concerns are puffed away by the Venetian breeze on this first morning. What was I thinking? I get to wake up in this dreamland again tomorrow - at a different dock with a different view. The ship moves to several locations - all within walking distance of the city - then it takes us to Bologna and Verona (or close enough) without having to change accommodation, pack and unpack, or find our own way there. All we have to do is a few one-hour road trips.

Everyone arrived last night - interestingly, 33 of the 90 guests are solo travellers. Uniworld waives the single supplement on a lot of European river cruises, and Italy is popular, especially with women.

Divided into small groups, we start the day with a stroll led by a local guide. After exploring the Castello and San Marco districts, we emerge at St Mark's Square. One of the beauties of cruise-ship shore excursions is skipping the queues, so we're swiftly escorted inside the opulent Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) - the city's judicial and political hub until 1797.

After that, it's time to coil our way through bustling lanes to the famous Rialto Bridge. Ten minutes later, speedboats (functioning as water taxis) turn up and we're whisked back to the ship through narrow canals.

That evening we attend an after-hours opening of St Mark's Basilica. The Byzantine-style cathedral is dark and empty. Welcomed by a lecturer, we file into rows of seats facing the altar, which is said to contain St Mark's relics. Gradually the lights are switched on; first illuminating the golden dome ceiling, then the glittering mosaics on the walls.

The next day, the first (optional) coach trip is to Scrovegni chapel in Padua to see 700-year-old frescoes by Renaissance artist Giotto. Viewing the tiny chapel is controlled, with a limited number of tickets sold and only short viewings.

We are also guided around St Anthony's Basilica. It is said that when the coffin of the "patron saint of lost things" was transferred to the church in 1263 - more than 30 years after his death - the friars opened it and found his tongue intact. The tongue, larynx and jawbone were placed in a reliquary, which is on display in the basilica.

Captain Richard Martin greets everyone as they return to the ship, before setting sail for Chioggia, 25 kilometres south. Only two other ships offer holidays along the unpredictable Po, which is prone to extreme tidal fluctuations.

Another challenge is a new ban on river vessels taking passengers between Chioggia and the mouth of the Po, which leads to the Adriatic Sea. Since the Costa Concordia ran aground last year, Italian authorities now require all ships to have certification to sail this short section of open water.

The River Countess is certified for those few kilometres, but under the new rules, passengers must disembark for shore excursions instead of staying on board to enjoy the sailing.

On the excursion to Ravenna, we visit the Basilica of San Vitale, a significant example of early Christian art and architecture in western Europe.

The next morning, we head to Bologna, walking through the city's historic centre and food markets. Lanes are lined with shops selling cured meats and osterias serving pasta with the city's signature ragu.

Back on the river, Captain Martin is assessing the rising water level, and when we return at 4pm, he apologises that we need to turn around.

If we stay the night, the ship probably won't fit under the Po's lowest bridge on the next tide, so he finds a safer place downriver.

Our last destination is Verona, the setting of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. We take a guided walking tour before a free afternoon.

In the evening, the ship sets sail for two more days in Venice, where it feels like coming home. Passengers go shopping, bar-hopping, take gondola rides, or simply enjoy the chance to relax on the River Countess.

Louise Goldsbury was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.



Emirates has a fare to Venice for about $2125 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Venice (6hr 45min); phone 1300 303 777, see emirates.com. This fare allows you to fly via another Asian city and to fly back from another European city.


Uniworld Boutique River Cruises' new eight-day Venice & the Po River is priced from $3664 a person, twin share, including all meals on board with wine, beer and soft drinks during lunch and dinner, all tips and gratuities, six guided excursions, and transfers on arrival and departure days. The single supplement is waived on several sailings.

Departures are available until November 10, 2013, and recommence on April 6, 2014.


Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworldcruises.com.au