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Saturday August 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday August 24, 2013 MYT 8:56:41 AM
by heidi fuller-love
This is how you do it: Discovering Venice’s ageless charms in a gondola.
‘See Venice and die’, the saying goes, but when the writer visited last summer she thought she’d die in the crush. Not eager to repeat the experience, this summer she joined a cruise on an ancient grain barge converted to a luxury vessel that would carry her from Mantova on the hem of the Lombardy region to the heart of the glorious Veneto district — without those madding crowds.
STARING out of the picture-frame window of my spacious cabin at a flock of swans swimming in the domed shadow of Mantova’s St George castle, I sighed with relief. After battling with the crazy festival Italian traffic to get here, the La Bella Vita (the eight-berth luxury vessel that was to be my home for the next five days) was a haven of peace.
That evening, the 10 of us on board – six Americans, one New Zealander and three Brits – got to know one another over dinner of sapid shrimp Gamberetti all’Ollio antipasto, followed by tender veal Stinco and a silky chestnut and chocolate Monte Bianco dessert. Supping on these traditional Venetian dishes, prepared by our Italian chef, was an ideal way to start our trip.
Setting out on bikes the next day, we burned off all those calories as we swooped along the banks of this city that was classed an Unesco World Heritage site four years ago. The cultural and artistic heart of northern Italy during the Renaissance period, Mantua, as it’s known in English, is packed with beautiful buildings.
When the throngs of capuccino-sipping crowds became too dense, we continued on foot through a tangle of cobbled alleys to discover Mantova’s architectural wonders centred around the eye-catching Renaissance Palazzo Te created by Raphael’s student, Giulio Romano.
On day two, after a lazy breakfast on deck, we chugged through the Mincio natural park, a vast green area studded with cycle paths and charming waterside restaurants surrounding three lakes, which was named for the Mincio river.
All morning, we puttered across the tranquil lake, watching swans and egrets plunging from vast carpets of waterlilies to paddle in our sluggish wake.
By early afternoon, we were climbing lock after lock along the narrow, Bianco canal, which crosses the province of Rovigo and links Mantova to the sea.
That evening, we finally entered the Veneto region and had our first sun-drenched panorama of Venice’s spectacularly diverse hinterland, which stretches from the soaring Dolomite mountain peaks to the indigo Adriatic sea beneath.
Leaving La Bella Vita moored outside the market town of Taglio de Po, we headed for Agriturismos Ca’Lattis, a farm-restaurant surrounded by fields and pastures, where we ate Sardee en Soar sardines served with pinenuts and raisins, and a juicy dish of clams dressed with lemon and pepper called aparossoi a scota deo.
Later that day, we drove along roads fringed with wheat-stubbled fields to Ferrara, an atmospheric city thronging with cyclists that was once home to some of the greatest intellects of the Italian Renaissance. After exploring the towers, moats and drawbridges of 14th century Este castle, we strolled back to our bus, via the narrow, shop-lined alleys of the city’s mediaeval Jewish Ghetto, stopping to buy thick wedges of local speciality Sbrisolona, then eating the crumbly polenta cake studded with nuggets of almond and lemon peel during the ride back to the boat.
By mid-morning the following day, we were crossing the Po Delta, a vast wetland formed of lagoons, rivers and marshes that empties into the Adriatic near Venice. Slow and stately, we cruised across this vast grey-brown waterscape dotted with emerald algae and spotted with clumps of russet reeds that parted to reveal Casoni fishing huts perched on stilts and inundated fields where most of Italy’s creamy, short-grained Arborio risotto rice is grown.
That afternoon, as stark August sunlight shimmered like lead on the pink-tinged wings of flamingoes, we ducked into the cool, vaulted cellars of Dominio di Bagnoli, and sampled the cherry fragrant Friularo and peachy bubbly Spumante wines of this rambling 17th century estate surrounded by carefully manicured Renaissance gardens.
Tying up at Chioggia that evening, we enjoyed a moonlit wander through the streets of this seaside resort that locals nicknamed Little Venice because of its canals and hump-backed bridges.
One of the region’s busiest fishing ports, in her book Venice, British travel writer Jan Morris who came here in the 1960’s described Chioggia as “a place of homely instincts”.
Inspired by Morris’ description, I set out the next day to explore this un-touristy town on the tip of a small island, which is only a stone’s throw from the crowds and bustle of better-known Venice. It was as peaceful as a large village, with bobbing lines of fishing boats, groups of fishermen mending their nets and a twine of back-alleys dotted with bakeries, Osterias and sweetshops.
That evening, we paused to take pictures of San Sevolo, an island that was once a hospital for the Knight Crusaders.
Gliding past Poveglia – the spooky island featured in the film Death In Venice, based on the novel by German author Thomas Mann – we moored just a stone’s throw from St Mark’s cathedral.
The following morning, I climbed up on deck to watch a light morning mist curl away from the lagoon to reveal Italy’s legendary city, bathed in the mythical lumière which inspired Canaletto’s Vedute.
And although I’d had a wonderful time discovering the cultural delights, gastronomical wonders and beautiful scenery of the Veneto, I was dying to see Venice.
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