Slow on the Po: Cruising Italy’s Inland Waterways by Barge
Italy lovers, take heart. France may seem to have cornered the market when it comes to barge cruising, but you don’t have to leave Italy to take a slow-mo voyage on a waterway cutting through the countryside (barge cruises, as distinct from other forms of river cruising, generally take place on small ships that can navigate narrow and remote reaches their bigger brethren can’t).
The Po River and its many tributaries form Italy’s lone navigable inland waterway. A handful of river cruise lines ply the waters in small ships and barges. Cruises either begin or end in Venice, combining excursions in that city and its lagoon islands with an unhurried tour of the sights and scenery along the Po and the artificial waterways of its wide valley.
Pictured above: Mantua
Italy’s longest river originates from an Alpine spring near the French border and wends its way eastward on a roughly horizontal path more than 400 miles to the Adriatic Sea just south of the Venetian Lagoon. Historically, the Po has been one of the most important waterways in Europe, serving as the main source of irrigation and, later, hydroelectric power for the surrounding valley.
The river has dozens of tributaries, along with a network of locks and artificial canals used to control flooding and regulate agricultural irrigation. The river has always experienced dramatic seasonal changes in water levels, including devastating floods and long dry spells. But climate change and decades of overconsumption have drastically lowered water levels to the point that, in summer months, large sections are unnavigable, even by small ships, which have to shift to nearby canals.
We recently cruised the Po region on La Bella Vita, a 20-person barge offered through Barge Lady Cruises and European Waterways. The all-inclusive 6-night cruise visits the Venetian Lagoon, the Canal Bianco, Po tributaries, and, depending on water levels, the Po itself.
In addition to its 10 two-person cabins, the cozy barge is outfitted with a dining room, a piano lounge bar, and a sundeck. Bicycles are available for rides along the flat paths that follow most of the route. La Bella Vita is staffed by a small, friendly crew, including the captain and a chef, whose daily lunches and dinners focus on regional dishes and seasonal produce. All gourmet meals and drinks—with well-curated wine pairings—are covered in the fare, as are excursions.
Here’s what you can expect along the way.
La Bella Vita’s route runs from Venice to Mantua or vice versa. We started in Venice, meeting the boat in Mestre on the city’s landside. After settling into our compact and functional cabins, the barge cruised, quite gloriously, into Venice for our first night's mooring right near St. Mark’s Square.
The itinerary included a late afternoon private tour of the nearby Doge’s Palace, followed by a welcome dinner, with free time to wander Venice after dark. The next morning, we toured Venice’s less-visited Castello neighborhood (or sestiere) before taking a boat to Murano for a glass-blowing demonstration. As with similar tours in Murano, the demo is brief and all exits lead through the gift shop.
Departing Venice in the late afternoon, we sailed through the section of the lagoon known as the Canal of the Orphans, passing small, isolated islands that once housed leper colonies, monasteries, and, as the name suggests, orphanages. The ship moored in Pellestrina (pictured above), one of the skinny islands that protect and separate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.
In La Bella Vita tradition, ship captain Rudy led us all to a local bar, where an aperitivo spread of traditional lagoon-style cicchetti awaited us. Despite running through the rain to get there, this simple happy hour remained one of our favorite experiences of the week—a small, special moment in an unlikely location that many of us may never visit again.
The next day, we boarded a traditional bragozzo, the wooden fishing boat characteristic of the Venetian islands, for a cruise through the glasslike lagoon into the busy harbor at Chioggia. Similar to Pellestrina—and very distinct from touristy Venice—Chioggia is still a fishing village where residents make their livelihoods on the water. The town’s historic center is bisected by a wide canal that imparts some of the feel of Venice, but with a far stronger people-actually-live-here vibe.
Chioggia’s colorful seafood market reveals a dizzying variety of creatures with fins, shells, tentacles, and pinchers. Most of what’s for sale is harvested from the muddy lagoon bottom or the nearby Adriatic.
Back on La Bella Vita, we cruised through a marshy nature reserve to join the Po River at Taglio di Po, which sits near the regional border with Emilia-Romagna. We had time for a bike ride along the flat trail that runs along the river before our lone dinner off the ship—at a 17th-century estate close to the shores of the Po.
Composed of an imposing Venetian-style villa with outbuildings and acres of farmland, Tenuta Ca’ Zen (pictured above) is the longtime home of Irish-born Elaine Westropp Bennett, whose late husband was the heir to the place. While many nearby estates have stood empty for years, Countess Elaine maintains that “old houses like these must be lived in.” She and her daughter, Maria Adelaide Avanzo, run the villa as an agriturismo-type accommodation and host passengers of La Bella Vita for rather grand dinners.
From Taglio di Po, we left the Po River behind and entered the Canal Bianco, which follows both a natural and artificially carved path north of the main waterway. For centuries the canal served as the main trade route from Mantua to the Adriatic; today frequent canal locks regulate the traffic flow.
We moored at Adria, where a sizable archaeological museum reveals the modest city’s outsize history as a settlement and trading post for Villanovans, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans. From Adria, we transferred by coach to the formal Italian gardens of the Bagnoli Estate and the Villa Widmann Borletti (pictured above). Wine, rice, and staple grains have been produced here for more than 1,000 years. To this day, Il Dominio di Bagnoli produces prestigious red, white, and sparkling wines in 300-year-old cellars. After a requisite cellar tour and tasting, we met La Bella Vita at Zelo, our mooring for the night.
Our leisurely tour through centuries of Italian history continued at Ferrara, reached by coach transfer from Zelo. The entire historic center of Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to numerous and well-preserved Renaissance palaces and 9km (6 miles) of defensive walls.
Ferrara’s status as a Renaissance gem is largely due to one family, the House of Este, who for centuries ruled Ferrara and a wide swath of Emilia-Romagna. The Estes established Ferrara as a center for the arts, acting as patrons to many giants of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian. The family’s hand is evident pretty much everywhere in the old city, most imposingly at mighty Este Castle (pictured above), where a murky moat still deters marauders, and at the fresco-filled Palazzo Schifanoia.
Our last day of cruising was perhaps the most beautiful and dramatic, as we motored into the Mincio River and onward to Mantua. A major tributary of the Po with origins in Lake Garda, the Mincio is wider and more meandering than the Canal Bianco, making for more pleasant and varied scenery.
As we entered Lago Inferiore, one of the three 12th-century artificial lakes designed to protect the walled city, medieval and Renaissance Mantua spread out before us. Another World Heritage Site, Mantua owes its well-preserved historic core to the patronage of the powerful Gonzaga family, who ruled from the 14th to the 18th century. They left behind the enormous Ducal Palace, the Palazzo Te, and a city filled with grand churches and elegant arcades and piazzas (such as Piazza delle Erbe, pictured above).
The Po River, the Canal Bianco, and surrounding waterways have always been working rivers used for trade, transport, agriculture, and manufacturing. That utilitarian past is still visible along many stretches of the waterways—so if you’re hoping for all-bucolic-all-the-time scenery, you should prepare yourself for some swathes of post-industrial detritus.
Still, for every rusting warehouse or abandoned boatyard, you’ll spot a pretty farmhouse, a soccer field with kids playing, or flocks of squawking herons and elegant swans. Because some sections of the Po and its tributaries are no longer navigable, reaching Ferrara and other sights sometimes involves longish bus rides. That’s partly why the approaches to Venice and Mantua are so pleasurable—the barge can moor right in town.
La Bella Vita is the only commercial barge cruising the route between Venice and Mantua that caters to the English-speaking market and isn’t charter-only. Beyond the barge, river cruise operators CroisiEurope and Uniworld offer itineraries encompassing Venice and several other cities and attractions of the area, with Croisi’s Michelangelo river ship (pictured above) also reaching as far as Mantua.