A view of Mantua with the Mincio river and on the sundown
THERE’S an previous saying that “when in Rome, do because the Romans do”. And when meandering alongside the River Po by means of Italy’s magnificent Bassa Padana area, I’ve found it’s finest to make like a Venetian. Which is why – regardless of rising competitors from newer, larger and glitzier river boats – I’ve taken relatively a shine to a small transformed sand barge referred to as La Bella Vita.
Owned and run by an area household, this little boat has room for simply 20 passengers and, with its darkish, jewel-coloured partitions and old style art work, lacks the glamour of extra “worldwide” vessels. You gained’t discover floor-to-ceiling home windows, state-of-the-art cabins or Hollywood-style lounges right here, and if ultra-luxury is your factor, you is perhaps disillusioned by its homely decor.
But in the event you’re a “actual” traveller in search of an genuine Italian expertise, La Bella Vita, which spends each summer season crusing the backwaters between Venice and Mantua, can’t be bettered. Not least as a result of, being small, it’s capable of attain the components of the Po bigger vessels can’t.
Italy’s longest river, the Po spans greater than 400 miles, slicing like a sassy garter throughout the nation’s “thigh”, from the Alps within the west to Venice and the Adriatic within the east.
Wealthy in historical past and legend, it’s stated to have been on the route taken by Jason and the Argonauts, and its banks even gave Italy its identify – a derivation of Vitelieu (“Land of Calves”), which is what early settlers referred to as the inexperienced river banks the place they discovered wealthy grazing for his or her cattle.
The Po nonetheless offers a lot to the Italians, greater than 16 million of whom inhabit Bassa Padana. Sadly, its bounty has been exploited, its banks plundered for timber and its mattress for sand and gravel, to the extent that the destabilised river now repeatedly floods within the winter months.
St Andrews bridge over the canal in Chioggia
On our summer season cruise from Mantua to Venice, although, we discovered the Po in a a lot gentler temper and – armed with binoculars – spent a lot time on the highest deck, watching the glowing waters mess around pale seashores, sun-dappled islands and the huge salt marshes of the Po Delta, that are wealthy in flamingo, heron, tern, black-necked grebe and different spectacular hen life.
On journeys ashore, we found that over the centuries the locals have given again to the river as a lot as they’ve taken, within the form of verdant vineyards, pear, peach and apple orchards, elegant nation homes and a succession of superb cities and cities – Venice, Cremona, Piacenza, Ferrara and Mantua – which chart the nation’s historical past and the course of the Italian Renaissance.
Cremona Cathedral, for instance, is known for its Renaissance arcade and octagonal baptistry, whereas Piacenza’s Piazza Cavalli is residence to an impressive Gothic palace.
Higher nonetheless, for a foodie like me, Bassa Padana is as well-known for its delicacies as it’s for its structure. Balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Parma ham all come from right here and native retailers are filled with goodies corresponding to Langhirano ham, Mantovan garlic salami and pastel-tinted pasta.
Nevertheless to my pleasure, the most effective grub was on La Bella Vita. Chef Andrea proved a dab hand at his native delicacies, dishing up a parade of regional delights: borlotti bean stew, baccalà mantecato (salted Atlantic codfish) and sarde in saor (fried sardines served with raisins and pine nuts).
Italy’s longest river, the Po spans greater than 400 miles
For pud, there have been butter-soft almond truffles, lavish trifles and pungent native cheeses, all washed down with native wines.
We labored off the meals and wine with cycle journeys and walks ashore, having fun with guided excursions of Mantua – an unspoilt “mini Florence” with its domed and turreted skyline and Ducal palace – and medieval Ferrera, which mixes hanging Renaissance structure with offbeat retailers and bars.
Our little boat took us to extra off-track locations too, like the gorgeous fishing village of San Pietro in Volta and Villa Ca’ Zen, a 17th-century mansion which lies on the coronary heart of the Po Delta Nature Reserve and was the setting for the poet Byron’s scandalous affair with the gorgeous – and married – Contessa Teresa Guiccioli.
Consuming within the romance of the place over a candlelit dinner, we agreed that the primary benefit of a small boat cruise was that we had been sufficiently few to take pleasure in such intimate treats. One other spotlight was a night of opera on board, whereas one of the vital memorable shore-side experiences was our go to to Dominio di Bagnoli, a wine property with splendid gardens, the place life-size statues of characters from Italy’s commedia dell’arte peep out from an avenue of acacia timber. Speaking of which…
Not many individuals know that the wisteria-like blossoms which dangle from acacias are scrumptious deep-fried in a light-weight tempura batter. Add salt and herbs for uncommon fritters, whereas somewhat spiced sugar transforms them right into a dessert, finest served sizzling with vanilla ice cream and honey.
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I found this on a heavenly day when, on the highest deck, we basked within the Italian sunshine, sipped Prosecco and tucked into the savoury model of acacia fritters because the boat nosed her means again to Venice from Chioggia, a seaside city which, with a wealthy historical past, a well-stocked fish market and its personal community of bridged canals, offers its celebrated neighbour a run for its cash.
Lunch included sensational contemporary Adriatic cod and cuttlefish deep-fried in batter. But these acacia blossoms had been the actual showstopper.
And, in the event you’d wish to strive them, I do know simply the place to assemble your acacias. whereas ye might…
European Waterways provides a six-night cruise aboard La Bella Vita in 2019 for £2,750pp based mostly on double occupancy and contains all connoisseur meals, nice wines, open bar, each day guided excursions, admissions and chauffeured transfers. Flights to Italy not included. europeanwaterways.com, 01753 598555.