Cruise? Sort of. Gems of Italy? Definitely
We had a great time on Uniworld's Venice & Gems of Northern Italy cruise (booked by Alana), but it's fair to point out that it's not what everyone would call a cruise. The River Countess is based in Venice. It takes about nine hours to sail to Chioggia at the south of the lagoon, briefly into the Adriatic to the Po delta, then upriver to Polesella; and passengers have to disembark while it's at sea. Repeat the process to return, and that's maybe 12 hours actual cruising, boosted to 20 or so when the captain took us for a half-day spin round the shores of the lagoon. So if you want to spend a lot of time crossing water, maybe this isn't for you. Uniworld suggest you look at it instead as a remarkably inexpensive stay in Venice, in classy accommodation, with all food included, most drinks (a few really premium brands have to be paid for), most excursions (except for a couple of specialist art-history ones) and all tips. That does make it very good value. The ship itself looks brand new (it isn't, but you wouldn't know); the decor and furnishings are Regency-inspired but complemented by lots of wall mirrors to make them as bright as possible. Even our basement stateroom was light despite windows that looked out on concrete wharf walls much of the time. One welcome touch was the array of plug sockets, suitable for UK, USA, Europe and even Australia/New Zealand. Another was the 24/7 night light in the bathroom. The rooms are compact, but no more so than most; there's storage for cases under the beds, a safe, and even a jar of sweeties, regularly replenished. No towel folding, and no fridge – but cold drinks are free round the clock anyway. We found the lounge spacious and comfortable, perhaps because there were only about 75 passengers, half the maximum, so everyone was well attended and the hotel manager was addressing us by name on the second day. There was occasional live music, but on-board entertainment isn't really a feature of boutique cruises like this. The lounge was blessedly cool, considering the temperature outside was pushing 100 and the humidity was sweltering. But you could always sit under an awning on the sundeck (or even on a lounger in the sun, though few seemed to take this option) and make the most of the breeze off the lagoon. The excursions were excellent. From Polesella (which doesn't seem very interesting itself - it's a mooring, not a port) you could visit Bologna and have a pasta-making workshop, though we chose the pretty town of Ferrara instead – it closed for a siesta, but a shuttle bus took us back to the River Countess for lunch, then into town again in the afternoon. And rather than a seafood lunch in Chioggia, we elected to have a day in Ravenna, with its stunning early Christian mosaics – so early that Christ hasn't got a beard, and in one picture is even naked. (The sect that produced these images were soon declared heretics.) Other trips were to Padua – this mostly coincided with the siesta, and I'd have preferred another hour there – and Verona, "home" to the fictional Romeo and Juliet. It was jammed with people visiting Juliet's balcony (built in the 1930s) and the Roman arena. Unfortunately, no time to go to the opera there, they're staged in the cool of the evening, but fake Egyptian props for Aida are stacked up in the square outside. As for Venice itself, there are standard walking tours available, but also a morning trip to the Rialto food market in the company of the chef, to see where tonight's dinner is coming from, and an after-hours visit to St Mark's cathedral, covered in golden mosaics, which included a descent to the crypt, not normally open to visitors. And by chance, our last evening coincided with the Redentore celebrations marking the end of the plague in 1576. We walked across the once-a-year pontoon bridge over the Giudecca canal to the Palladian church, and returned to sit on the sundeck watching the half-hour fireworks celebration till after midnight. A great climax to a memorable "cruise". Just a couple of minor irritations: the food was good (and they even rustled up some Vegemite for an Australian couple) but there weren't enough non-seafood items on the menu, for my taste if not for those of fish-loving Venetians. And on departure day our bags were taken outside until we left. "Outside" meant sitting in blazing sun on the quay for six hours. Just as well we didn't pack chocolates in them.
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