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(2013 - Winter Issue)


 “Where is the Po River?” I wonder as my husband enthuses about a river cruise.

"We’ll start in the northeast part of Italy, departing Venice through the lagoon and continue along the Po River, a little south and westward before returning to Venice. This itinerary will enable us to visit some inland cities we’d never usually see such as Verona, for example!” my husband adds.

Ah, Shakespeare’s Verona, and magical Venice! Images of Italy float through my mind and I feel I’m already on board.

But it is months later when we first spy Uniworld’s River Countess docked in Venice. An elongated, low ship stands before us, so different from the vertical, huge cruise ships that ply the oceans. Simple, white and checkered with windows, the exterior doesn’t reveal much, which further piques our curiosity about the interior. We don’t have long to wait. Boarding the ship is seamless and easy; we are warmly greeted, photos snatched, key cards presented and in minutes we are escorted to our cabin.

“Royal” Touches

We are immediately struck by how bright, airy and elegant the cabin seems. Tranquil colours, rich patterns and white antiqued furniture create a light, serene space. In front of the French balcony’s sliding doors, we spot a fruit plate, wine and bottled water, thoughtfully placed on the table. And our luggage already rests atop a large bed, enveloped in crisp Egyptian cotton sheets topped with a cosy European duvet. Surprisingly, we find oodles of room for storage in the built-in closet that neatly tucks away from view once the doors are shut.

But it’s the fine details we appreciate: delicately trimmed and monogrammed pillow covers as well as monogrammed fluffy towels, classic silver edging along the carved headboard and even a red tasselled tiny “pillow” signalling “Do Not Disturb.” In the bathroom, all sleek and gleaming with grey and white marble and a glassed-in shower, we marvel at the ingenious use of space incorporating such luxury.

Less is More

A ship that cruises the rivers must be small and low. But “less is more,” we think. 

Wherever we venture, we feel a sense of spaciousness, light and style. Stepping out into bright hallways we reach the reception area, suffused with sunlight spilling in through the skylights and further reflected by the crystal chandelier.

We haven’t vast choices of lounges and public areas, however what we do have functions beautifully and efficiently. The Castillo Lounge in vibrant turquoise hues, replete with comfy yet classy velvet-tufted banquettes, a huge bar and gorgeous large windows, becomes a meeting place, lecture hall, entertainment venue and the refined site for afternoon teas. Next door we peek into the intimate Captain’s Lounge. Books line its charming bookcases; comfy leather lounge chairs, tables and expansive windows set the tone for a library, a games area, a quieter space for individuals or for small group gatherings. Opposite and down the hall, the Savoy Restaurant’s refined palette of soft taupe and whites, with stylish furnishings form the perfect backdrop for a classic full-service dinner, a casual breakfast or a buffet lunch. And other public spaces such as the boutique, spa, state-of-the-art fitness room and wonderful exterior deck areas further round out the possibilities.

Warm, Informal and Carefree

What we love is the casual and warm “character” of the ship. With a capacity for 132 guests repeated encounters are likely. Open seating for meals further encourages mixing and mingling. And happily there are no formal nights. Savouring the ultimate informality, one late afternoon we enjoy cruising the Venetian lagoon so much that as the hours dwindle a large group of us remain on deck in our touring clothes; we forgo showers and move to the deck’s Osteria Siena (alternate dining option) to dine on pizza and salads, beneath the heavenly, star-studded sky. 

Enhancing the warm ambience is the outstanding service, a perfect blend of friendliness and attentiveness, particularly in the Savoy Restaurant where the food manager Tihomir checks in with guests to ensure special requests and dietary needs are being met. Using local, fresh ingredients the meals are varied, delicious and often absolutely exquisite in taste and presentation, such as the butterfish that simply melts in our mouths.

We feel carefree and totally relaxed. Everything is included in the price: all meals, beverages, wine and beer in the dining room, and what we truly appreciate, the fascinating tours in each destination. We don’t have to plan a thing!

Sometimes on a river cruise the waters may be too high or too low for the ships to navigate and the latter is our case; we cannot travel as far as planned on the Po River, but the crew does all it can and makes sure we reach each destination with slightly longer busing times than originally intended.

 Bella Italia

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and our gateway, enchants us with its shimmering canals, gorgeous old buildings and magical skyline of domes and towers. It was the Doge who held sway here and the Doge’s Palace embodies the great artistic talents, wealth and power of the times. Adjacent to the palace, St. Mark’s Basilica (always lined with waiting tourists) is opened exclusively for us one night. The lights are turned on to reveal an astonishing ceiling, magnificent domes filled with gold mosaic backgrounds, on which biblical scenes and intricate patterns glow with a life of their own.

Padua, a picturesque city filled with arcaded streets, houses the second-oldest university in Italy. When we visit, it is actually graduation day and we witness the graduates in the streets being hazed, which is apparently an old tradition. We enjoy strolling through the huge square Prato della Valle, lined with 78 statues of famous citizens. But for us, the Scrovegni Chapel as explained and shown by our skillful guide proves to be the highlight. Built to offer penitence and help Enrico Scrovegni and his father “reach eternal heaven,” the chapel houses incredible frescoes of Mary and Jesus’ life cycles. Completed in 1305 by Giotto, the artwork is way ahead of its time, presaging the Renaissance in its use of perspective, realism and emotion. We can feel the tenderness of Anne and Joachim’s kiss, Mary seems human and a crucified Christ is represented with realistic positioning.

Ravenna is a charming city and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The exquisite, old mosaic work from the sixth century visible in the Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is exceptional. Brilliant in hue and intricacy, the individually coloured glass cubes cover the ceilings and continue onto the walls in magnificent expression. The mausoleum with its vivid exploration of death and eternal life was reputed to have inspired Cole Porter to write Night and Day.

Our next destination is the largest city in northern Italy. Bologna has three common nicknames: la dotta, the learned, stands for the oldest university in Europe, founded here in 1088; la grassa, the fat one, refers to its legendary cuisine; and la rossa, the red one, represents the city’s socialist leanings. With a large, rich historic area, beautiful and extensive covered porticoes, a fascinating old university, two iconic leaning towers and a grand Piazza Maggiore where tantalizing food markets abound, we simply wish we might stay longer. We savour the signature pasta bolognese and tagliatelle with ragu sauce and drink in the lively, bustling atmosphere.

Steeped with Roman, Medieval and Renaissance structures, our final stop is lovely Verona, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Adige River beautifully runs through it in a loop. This walled city was at an important military crossroads. We see some of the remaining gates, walk along the Roman Stone Bridge, noting the theatre ruins on a hill and soon we venture to the great Amphitheatre. Bypassing lines, we enter immediately with our guide. The amazing two-tiered structure can seat about 30,000 and is still used today to hold spectacular concerts and operas. Of course Juliette’s famed balcony and Romeo’s supposed home draw romantics of every kind to these somewhat crowded sites. We find the lively Piazza delle Erbe perfect for our last-minute snacking and shopping.

As we return to Venice there is one more surprise for us. Because this happens to be a very significant holiday marking the anniversary of the end of the Black Death, we dock a second time that evening, so we may view the firework celebrations from our ship. As the vibrant colours explode, sparkling in the sky, we wistfully say our goodbyes, our dreams of a future Uniworld river voyage already taking shape.

Travel Planner

For more information, check Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection at uniworld.com. For more information on Italy, visit italia.it.

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