Cruise Review: Uniworld’s Venice and the Gems of Northern Italy
For landlubbers yearning for tranquillity, Uniworld, voted ‘No. 1 River Cruise Line’ at Travel and Leisure’s 2018 World’s Best Awards, offers the ultimate retreat for lovers of art and architecture and for ardent food and wine connoisseurs.
My mother and I embarked on the sleek-lined River Countess to experience ‘Venice and the Gems of Northern Italy’. All dining, unlimited alcohol (excluding some premium brands), soft drinks and speciality hot beverages are included along with a choice of excursions hosted by English speaking guides, a ‘do as the locals do’ programme, Quietvox audio headset systems and the use of Nordik walking sticks. Nothing detracts from this first class river cruise experience.
Check-in procedures are swift and we received a warm welcome whilst admiring the opulent reception area adorned with a glittering chandelier and plush leopard print seats on swish marble floors. A charming escort led us to our sumptuous stateroom and we were provided with the utmost care for the duration of the cruise.
We later made our way to the Il Castillo lounge to attend Captain Roland Oost’s ‘welcome aboard reception’ and to meet our fellow passengers and together we marvelled at the spectacular views of Venice, known as the ‘city on the water’.
The River Countess is elegant and tastefully decorated and accommodations range in size from 4 suites, measuring 214 sq ft with balconies, to a choice of 61 staterooms measuring up to 151 sq ft. Our lavishly appointed stateroom featured handcrafted Savoir® of England beds swathed in crisp Egyptian cotton linens, and our plump pillows ensured a deep slumber, cosseted by the gentle movement of the shifting waters of the Venetian Lagoon.
Other stateroom features include spacious built-in closets, individual climate-controlled thermostats and en-suite marble bathrooms with fluffy towels, plush bathrobes, cosy slippers and a generous selection of L’Occitane en Provence products.
Up with the larks and following a yoga session on the gorgeous sun deck we indulged in the elaborate breakfast buffet in the Savoy Restaurant, the ship’s main dining venue. Afterwards, in the comfort of the Captain’s Lounge and Library, we planned our excursions, beginning with an escorted morning walk around the historic Castello district, where Venetian ships were once built, St Mark’s Piazza and the Doge’s Palace.
During the evening we attended an exclusive opening of St Mark’s Basilica, and, devoid of crowds, it was simply magical. St Mark’s Basilica features five Byzantine domes and the 24 carat gold leaf and glass mosaics glittered in the moonlight and demanded our appreciation. Guided into the dark interior we took our seats and one by one the treasures, including the ‘Pala d’oro’, within were illuminated and the stunning surroundings were revealed to an astonished audience.
Back on board, and the vessel sailed sedately around the Venetian Lagoon and we delighted in the sights of Venetian life and the stunning scenery, which, along with the excursions, were discussed at length during dinner. A dining experience on board the River Countess is outstanding and my choice of Chianina beef tenderloin accompanied by a glass of Valpolicella Classico Bonacosta Masi Veneto 2017 was unforgettable. We ended our evenings with a tipple in the Castillo Lounge and as I looked through the panoramic windows, sipping on a chilled glass of wine, I experienced a taste of ‘La Dolce Vita’.
Chioggia, our first port, is the southernmost island in the lagoon, and we joined the Padua Walking Discovery Tour. All around gazed in wonder at St. Anthony’s Basilica, one of only eight international shrines acknowledged by the Holy See. Construction is thought to have begun in 1232 and the elaborate exterior reflects Byzantine and Romanesque styles with Gothic influences.
During our tour, the River Countess crossed over part of the Adriatic Sea to reach Porto Viro where we re-embarked and sailed along the Po River docking in Polesella. We opted for the excursion to Ferrara, which was awarded Unesco World Heritage status due to the magnificent Este Castle, erected in 1385, the Diamanti Palace, which houses the National Picture Gallery, and the Romanesque St George’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1135.
The following day we sailed back to Chioggia. Once known as the Venetian pantry, Chioggia’s weekly market is one of Italy’s largest and we browsed along the colourful stalls and admired the elaborate displays of all kinds of merchandise.
Another of the many highlights of our cruise was the ‘Magical Islands of Venice’ excursion. We visited Torcello, which was founded before Venice and it is the site of an 11th century mosaic, which is housed within the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and depicts the Last Judgement.
Another island, Burano, is known for its brightly coloured fishermen’s cottages and local lace making. We also explored Mazzorbo, the location of a wine estate utilizing Dorona grapes, which produce a delicious golden wine. At the end of the tour we raised our glasses high and made a toast to the River Countess, a true Venetian gem.
For more information on the River Countess, visit uniworld.com or call 0808 271 5243
Stop-over in Venice
The NH Venezia Rio Novo Hotel, in the Dorsoduro district, is a short walk from the Grand Canal and offers a wide choice of air conditioned, contemporary accommodations, including a premium room with a view, which measures 19 sq metres and features include ultra comfortable beds, flat screen satellite TVs, and spacious bathrooms with refreshing rain-effect showers. Hotel amenities include complimentary Wi-Fi, access to the hotel’s gymnasium, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast is presented in the hotel’s restaurant.
And for a very special dining experience, head for the Ristorante Al Giardinetto da Severino, located on Sestiere Castello, and only a five minute stroll from St Mark’s Square. This property dates back to the 15th century and has been managed by the same family since 1949.
The main dining room, which features a vaulted ceiling, was once a chapel, and there is also a spacious courtyard where diners are seated under a vine covered canopy. I opted for the scrumptious fegato alla veneziana (Venetian style calves liver), and my glass of Ornellala Rosso Bolgheri 2014 complimented the flavours perfectly.
And those with a sweet tooth should make haste for Grom, the very best Italian gelateria, located on Campo San Barbara, a short walk from the NH Venezia Rio Novo. Choose from a selection of delicious gelato, shakes, sorbetti, biscuits and hot chocolate and all gluten free!
Top Tip – Venice Accommodation
For more information on the NH Venzia Rio Novo visit nh-hotels.com or call reservations on 0203 499 8271
Top tip – Venice tours and information
Isango.com is a specialist retailer of tours, experiences and attraction tickets and offers a reliable service with competitive rates for over 300 destinations including Venice. For more information visit localvenicetours.com and for information on the city of Venice including events visit veneziaunica.it
Top tip – Marco Polo Venice Airport + Port Transfers
For a reliable, punctual and private water taxi transfer service, which accommodates up to 6 passengers and 6 suitcases and provides a 45 minute crossing visit holidaytaxis.com