A cruise on the Po River is not like other European river cruises. Uniworld's new itinerary has fewer ports and more coach trips, and half the week is spent in one city. But when that one city is Venice, and you've got a room on the waterfront, who's complaining?
River Countess passengers also benefit from some very valuable perks, including queue-skipping and after-hours viewings of main attractions, private water-taxi transfers and scenic cruising around the Venetian Lagoon.
For the four excursions accessed by road, the driving time is only one to two hours and well worth the trip to see some wonderful inland destinations, such as Verona and Bologna. The lack of sailing days might even suit couples who can't agree whether to do Italy by boat or bus, or if one partner is not as fanatical about cruising.
Only a couple of other European companies (CroisiEurope and European Waterways) offer Po river cruises. Uniworld's offering is the most luxurious, and fares will become all-inclusive in 2014. Click on our slideshow to see what this unique river cruise experience is all about.
--By Louise Goldsbury, Cruise Critic Senior Editor
Photo: Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock
River Countess' lobby welcomes passengers with Uniworld's signature touches: a chandelier centerpiece and impeccable antique furniture (one piece, always, in leopard print). The splash of safari theme -- a nod to the owners' South African background -- adds a subtle sexiness to the elegant decor and suggests that an adventure lies ahead. Our game park? Venice and the Po River. And we're hunting the big five: pizza, pasta, wine, history and culture.
Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
With the ship staying overnight in Venice, we woke up to a delightful view shortly after sunrise, when the Venetian Lagoon was slowly coming to life. Vaporetti (public ferries), yachts and three superliners passed our window before breakfast. It was such a privilege to be based on this precious waterway, a few minutes' walk from the main sights. We were able to step off at any time to go find a cappuccino at a canalside cafe or enjoy an aperitif at a local bar at night. We also felt much less conspicuous on a small riverboat (carrying only 90 passengers on our May sailing) than on one of the massive ships that seem to overshadow this delicate city when they arrive and depart.
Photo: Wolfgang Zwanzger/Shutterstock
Divided into small groups, we were led by local guides through a maze of alleys in Venice's quieter districts, as well as the world-famous St. Mark's Square, Bridge of Sighs, Doge's Palace and the Rialto Bridge. On these walking tours, we didn't have to line up for anything, which allowed us plenty of time to savor the art and architecture of these historic attractions. At the end, private water taxis were waiting to whisk us back to the ship. Some people stayed in town for lunch or shopping, but most were happy to escape the crowds and return to the peaceful River Countess.
Photo: Lukasz Janyst/Shutterstock
One of the highlights of the itinerary was an exclusive evening at St. Mark's Basilica. After it had closed to the public, Uniworld passengers were invited to enter via a back door and see the church in the dark. The lights were gradually turned back on, illuminating the glittering mosaics and golden dome over the altar. A lecture by a local historian was followed by free time to explore the 11th-century crypt before a stroll back to the ship, during which we soaked up the unmistakeable magic of Venice at night.
Photo: Botond Horvath/Shutterstock
The ship then sailed to Chioggia, where passengers boarded a bus for a daytrip to Padua. The city is home to the Scrovegni Chapel, with 700-year-old frescoes painted by Giotti, regarded as the first great artist of the Italian Renaissance. Next we were taken to St. Anthony's Basilica, visited by more than 5 million pilgrims each year. Most people come to see the unusual display of the saint's preserved tongue, lower jawbone and vocal chords. The religious theme continued the next day for our shore excursion to Ravenna. There we stopped at the Basilica of San Vitale, one of the most significant examples of early Christian art and architecture in Western Europe. The mosaics are truly exceptional. Afterward, a "slow food" feast was held at a restaurant in town.
Of course, the first thing on your mind in Bologna is spaghetti bolognese, but the locals call their popular sauce "ragu" and never serve it with spaghetti. We learned this factoid at a pasta-making demonstration at a family-run cucina (restaurant). A three-course meal was then served for us to enjoy a taste of this authentic Italian cuisine. After a guided walk around the vibrant center, there was time to independently explore the city's charming back alleys, lined with shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, pasta and cured meats that hang from every inch of windows, walls and ceilings.
Photo: Alexander Tolstykh/Shutterstock
The fourth and final destination before returning to Venice was the similarly sensational Verona. As the setting of three Shakespearean plays, this city is pure romance and drama. While the river gushed strongly through the old stone bridge, we crossed the Ponte Pietra to Romeo's home and Juliet's balcony, an ancient Roman amphitheater and a 14th-century fountain at Piazza d'Erbe. With the afternoon at leisure, members of the group dispersed to find their own lunches at one of the charming trattorias. Basking in the sun with newfound friends, we ordered a cold Peroni and hot pepperoni pizza. Bliss!
Photo: Nando Machado/Shutterstock
Captain Richard Martin, from the Netherlands, welcomed everyone back to the ship after each excursion. Genuinely interested in his passengers' enjoyment, he was happy for anyone to visit the wheelhouse for a chat or to learn about the vessel's operations. That green carpet under his seat is the only original piece left from the River Countess before she was extensively remodelled earlier this year. He asked if he could save it as a souvenir.
Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Uniworld's Epicurean Adventurer itineraries focus on the region's food and wine. The welcome gala dinner introduced antipasti with prosciutto di Parma, salami fellino and stuffed eggplant; white bean cream soup with truffle foam; crayfish risotto; and a cheese plate of stracchino, asiago and taleggio. Veneto wines were showcased during meals, and a sommelier gave a talk during one of the sailing afternoons. The "Epicurean Adventurer" gala dinner (pairing gourmet food and fine wine) was also held halfway through the cruise, and, on the last day, a special lunch buffet focused on seafood.
Sailing back to Venice for the last two nights felt like coming home. Despite having spent four out of eight days there, nobody appeared to tire of the bewitching sights of Venetian buildings (in a mix of Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles), bridges, churches and islands, with hundreds of boats and gondolas competing for space. Scenic cruising around Venice Lagoon is a big part of the itinerary, and the River Countess' sun deck is the perfect place to sightsee or relax. While we might have headed out to see museums, art galleries, wineries and glass-blowing demonstrations, we were always drawn back to River Countess and its top-deck views of the city's beauty.