Arriving in Venice by road or rail is unromantic. So are the cruise ships that blight the lagoon. This was a rare chance to see La Serenissima as past travellers would have done: by barge
Standing on the upper deck of La Bella Vita as we cruised across the lagoon to Venice, the early morning sun picking out the campanile of St Mark’s, I felt for just a moment like one of the Doges of the old Venetian Republic, who would take to the water in ceremonial barges of legendary magnificence.
I, too, was in a barge, but the deck beneath my feet was steel, not wood, and we were propelled by a prosaic diesel engine instead of 168 rowers. La Bella Vita had a humble previous life carrying sand up and down the river Po until it was converted into a hotel boat with 10 cabins. But no Doge could have had an entourage as attentive as our captain, Diego, and his crew, who outnumbered the passengers.
Five nights earlier, having been told for some unfathomable reason to rendezvous at a cavernous conference hotel in Mestre, Venice’s ugly mainland neighbour, we met our fellow voyagers, six old friends from Alabama who were bemused and curious to find an English couple in their midst. “Y’all are our entertainment,” one told us – a sentiment which became mutual, though their devout Republicanism and fondness for a magazine called Garden & Gun told us there were some topics best left alone.
La Bella Vita was waiting for us down the autostrada in Mantua. Each week the vessel cruises the Canale Bianco, parallel to the Po, between Mantua and Venice, undertaking the reverse journey the following week. I decided our direction was better, not least because our voyage ended with a stately arrival in Venice rather than an anticlimactic minibus transfer.
Arriving on Sunday afternoon in Mantua for a Monday morning departure, our only chance to see the interior of the vast Palazzo Ducale would have been if we had put down our bags and rushed straight off, but the temptation of a welcoming glass of prosecco proved too much. Starting in Venice, though, we would have had the same problem with the Doge’s palace. But we found time at least to cycle past the looming walls of the palace, the setting for Verdi’s Rigoletto, as the moon rose.
Next day, we began life on the water. The Canale Bianco runs between the Po and Adige rivers, through a region known as the Polesine, much of which is a national park. Flat, fertile, and full of birdlife, it seems curtained off from the busy life of the north Italian plain. One reason is that the canal no longer plays any economic role: though the locks we passed through could accommodate far bigger vessels, we did not meet a single other boat of any size. Instead, we chugged between reed banks, with only egrets, swans and doves for company.
With all food and drink included, it was easy to drift in a semi-trance between the top deck, and, when the early autumn sun became too hot, the air-conditioned saloon, or take a siesta below in the compact but well-equipped cabins, also air-conditioned. (The boat has two larger suites on the main deck.) It would not be long before Maria, our chef, was producing more miracles of Italian regional cuisine from her galley somewhere in the depths of the vessel, and Aurelio, our steward, Jeeves-like in his discreet attention to detail, was standing by with more examples of the best Italian wines.
To avoid being pampered into complete torpor, we needed our excursions to historic Ferrara, to the Bagnoli estate at Bagnoli di Sopra, where we tasted an extraordinary range of wines made with the local Friularo grape, and Ca’Zen, a genteelly decaying example of the mainland villas once built by rich Venetians (an errant wife was banished here for dallying with Lord Byron).
By the time we reached the fish market at Chioggia, at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon – where the Alabamans were dismayed to see squid still immersed in its own ink, having never learnt where calamari comes from – we felt like we had been embraced into an Italian family, albeit an occasionally over-protective one. When we took to the barge’s bicycles to ride the length of Pellestrina, one of the pencil-shaped islands that shelters the Venetian lagoon, there was a fuss because we did not all take the same route.
And then Venice, where our mooring was held up by a delivery boat. We watched in admiration as the pilot, using a miniature crane, unloaded pallets of provisions from his wildly lurching craft as coolly as if he had been on dry land. Much of the turbulence was caused by cliff-sized cruise ships sliding by to disgorge day-trippers in their thousands, engulfing the city and, we were told, increasingly driving out local people. Yet the magic of Venice survives: as we gazed at Titian’s Assumption in the church of the Frari, a small choir practising for a wedding sang Mozart’s Laudate Dominum to perfection in the late afternoon glow.
Parting from our shipmates after our final night on board, a thought occurred to me. If I were Doge of Venice, I would ban any vessel bigger than La Bella Vita from calling there. Unfair? Certainly, but at least everyone who made it would experience, as I had, some of the luxury for which the city has always been famed.