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Long eclipsed by France and Portugal, Italy has some amazing river cruising of its own, discovers Jeannine Williamson.

As La Bella Vita nudges into the narrow navigation channel leading into the city that has inspired generations of artists, I feel as if I’ve been transported straight onto a canvas created by Canaletto, Venice’s most famous 18th century view-painter. Classic boats, with the sun glinting off their varnished wooden hulls, cut an elegant path across our bow; ahead lies the unmistakable sight of St Mark’s Square, moored gondolas bobbing gently on the shimmering water.

La Bella Vita, Venice

A gondolier steers his passengers through the water around Venice

At this point, large cruise ships have to peel away to dock at the cruise terminal on the Venetian outskirts, but our skipper Roger Pagnin holds his course towards the waterfront that has changed little since being depicted in intricate detail by Canaletto. Measuring just 147 feet, the vessel can tie up in prime position and we moor beside a couple of swanky yachts.

La Bella Vita – which translates to “the beautiful life” – was built in the 1950s as the working barge used to transport sand along the River Po. Transformed into a hotel boat, it now transports 20 passengers in style, and the past is only hinted at in the shape of the hull and the former name Mery on the side, which is down to nautical superstition about completely changing a ship’s original name.

To the uninitiated, barge holidays might conjure up images of cramped and basic boats, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. La Bella Vita has snug, well-equipped cabins, an elegant dining room and cosy bar, plus a large sun deck. With 11 cheerful young crew members to look after us, the service couldn’t be more personal and by day two they know our names and our favourite drinks.

Ducal Palace, Mantua

Frescos in the Ducal Palace

The 100-mile journey begins in the moated city of Mantua, lyrically called La Bella Addormentata, or the Sleeping Beauty, as it is encircled by wetlands and has hardly changed since the Middle Ages. We stand beneath a shady arch beside the grand sun-baked main square, Piazza Sordello, as our guide tells us the sprawling Ducal Palace has more than 950 rooms. A town within a city, it’s the second largest Italian residence after the Vatican.

Sailing through tranquil countryside, this part of Italy is a quiet, undiscovered area.

We are momentarily distracted by a line-up of gleaming Fiat Topolinos, brought to the square by their proud owners. One of the world’s smallest cars when first manufactured in 1937, they’re dwarfed by the imposing surroundings. The scene is one of many enduring memories from our six days meandering through the regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and on to Vento.

Afterwards we visit a few of the palace’s rooms and introduced to the first of many frescoes. They include the extraordinary Camera Picta, or Painted Chamber, created by illusionist artist Andrea Mantegna to chart the achievements of the powerful ruling Gonzagas. We crane our necks upwards to see the impression of a trompe l’oeil hole in the ceiling that reveals a three-dimensional landscape with rather smug Gonzaga family members and cute chubby cherubs looking down and scrutinising us.

Wine on La Bella Vita

Free-flowing wines at mealtimes on La Bella Vita.

La Bella Vita only sails during daylight hours, sometimes moving to the next spot while we are on excursions. Each day brings something new, with shore trips interspersed with sailing through tranquil countryside. Compared with Europe’s more popular river cruising routes, such as Germany and Austria, this part of Italy is a quiet, undiscovered area.

During our time in the Po Delta we see only one other hotel boat, a handful of working barges – one of them stranded in shallow water waiting patiently for water levels to rise – and a few pleasure craft. Most of the time we are surrounded by nature; including vast swamps, rice farms, tidal flats and estuaries. We mainly sail along the Bianco Canal, running virtually parallel to the Po. Some cruises will navigate part of the river, but this is subject to water levels.

A geological highlight is the UNESCO-listed Po Delta, which is home to more than 350 species of birds. As we pass at little more than a walking pace there’s plenty of time to return the gaze of watchful herons perched on branches and scanning the riverscape, while moorhens dart in and out of the reeds. We spot a large flock of pelicans and then have the totally unexpected sight of numerous nimble goats, including kids and a large head-butting Billy Goat Gruff lookalike, running down the bank. Unbeknown to us, La Bella Vita’s weekly arrival is eagerly anticipated by the herd and our chef Andrea Chin brings up a sack of stale rolls which we throw ashore.

We spend the afternoon wandering through the red-bricked Renaissance city of Ferrara. Mostly surrounded by elegantly dressed locals, it has the feeling of another lesser-known Italian gem. As we stroll across the square we are surprised to learn it is used to host an ancient annual palio, a version of the fiercely contested bareback horse race usually associated with Siena. Dating back to 1279, and the oldest of its kind in the world, Ferrara’s event involves eight contrade, or neighbourhoods, which are illustrated on shields lining the square.

A twin single cabin on La Bella Vita

After a refreshing gelato at one of the many family-run ice cream shops, we finish our tour at Schifanoia Palace, built as a 15th century hunting lodge for the ruling Duke Borso d’Este. Again famous for frescoes, the most extraordinary can be found in the Salone dei Mesi, or Room of the Months. Resembling a giant storybook and calendar spread over four walls, the 12 lower scenes portray the duke and some of his triumphs with intricate and often cheeky little details, such as a rather intimate couple, that need to be pointed out by the guide. Above are signs of the zodiac and on the top level, paintings depicting mythological scenes for every month.

Back on board our time mainly revolves around mealtimes, relaxing in the lounge or out on the sun deck, often with a glass of Aperol Spritz, the refreshing Italian cocktail, in hand.

Buffet breakfast makes way for a four-course or buffet lunch, followed by an equally expansive dinner. Set menus are chalked up daily on a board and lyrically introduced by Andrea, who focuses on showcasing fresh ingredients from the various regions we visit.

Each mealtime brings a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as he announces dishes such as guinea fowl with black truffle, sea bass risotto and – to a round of applause – the classic Italian dessert tiramisu made with creamy mascarpone cheese and espresso soaked sponge fingers. The two large shared dining tables create a sociable atmosphere that’s conducive to getting to know our fellow shipmates; Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and Brits. With a choice of free-flowing Italian wines included at every meal, and an open bar throughout the day, it’s no wonder everyone is always so happy.

All too soon it is time to toast passengers and crew with a final Prosecco at the farewell dinner. It also includes a light-hearted competition to guess the number of bottles of wine consumed during the week, with the prize of a lovely ornament from the famous glass-making island of Murano, near Venice. It would be imprudent to reveal the answer, but suffice to say, dear reader, I won it!

La Bella Vita, ChioggiaThe Verdict

Highs: Sailing directly into Venice and mooring on the waterfront, cruising through quiet areas off the beaten track, friendly crew, fantastic freshly-made food and complimentary regional wines.

Low: Venice is overcrowded at peak times, particularly in the tourist hot spots of St Mark’s Square and Grand Canal. Walking tours can be tiring so comfortable shoes and clothes that can be layered in changeable weather are a must.

Best suited to: Food lovers and mature culture vultures that are interested in music, history, art and architecture. A reasonable degree of fitness is required for the excursions.

FACT FILE

VESSEL: La Bella Vita

STAR RATING: N/A

PASSENGER CAPACITY: 20

TOTAL CREW: 11

PASSENGER DECKS: 2

ENTERED SERVICE: 2010

LENGTH: 45m

FACILITIES: 8 private cabins and 2 suites ensuite facilities, sun deck, dining room, lounge bar and sun deck.

BOOKINGS: 6-night all-inclusive cruise on La Bella Vita on the Bianco Canal, River Po and Venetian Lagoon is priced from $5120 per person twin share or $96,400 for a whole boat charter. europeanwaterways.com