Keeping up with the Doges in Venice

Raymond Whitaker finds a new boat trip rekindles the stately opulence of the old city republic – if only briefly

Standing on the upper deck of La Bella Vita as we cruised across the lagoon to Venice, the early morning sun picking out the campanile of St Mark's, I felt for just a moment like one of the Doges of the old Venetian Republic, who would take to the water in ceremonial barges of legendary magnificence.

I, too, was in a barge, but the deck beneath my feet was steel, not wood, and we were propelled by an unromantic diesel engine instead of 168 rowers. La Bella Vita had a humble previous life carrying sand up and down the river Po until it was converted last year into a hotel boat with 10 cabins. But no Doge could have had an entourage as attentive as our captain, Diego, and his crew, who outnumbered the passengers.

Five nights earlier, having been told for some unfathomable reason to rendezvous at a cavernous conference hotel in Mestre, Venice's ugly mainland neighbour, we met our fellow voyagers, six old friends from Alabama who were bemused and curious to find an English couple in their midst. "Y'all are our entertainment," one told us – a sentiment which became mutual, though their devout Republicanism and fondness for a magazine called Garden & Gun told us there were some topics best left alone.

La Bella Vita was waiting for us down the autostrada in Mantua. Each week the vessel cruises the Canale Bianco, parallel to the Po, between Mantua and Venice, undertaking the reverse journey the following week. I decided our direction was better, not least because our voyage ended with a stately arrival in Venice rather than an anticlimactic minibus transfer.

Arriving on Sunday afternoon in Mantua for a Monday morning departure, our only chance to see the interior of the vast Palazzo Ducale would have been if we had put down our bags and rushed straight off, but the temptation of a welcoming glass of prosecco proved too much. (Starting in Venice, though, we would have had the same problem with the Doge's palace.) But we found time at least to cycle past the looming walls of the palace, the setting for Verdi's Rigoletto, as the moon rose.

Next day, we began life on the water. The Canale Bianco runs between the Po and Adige rivers, through a region known as the Polesine, much of which is a national park. Flat, fertile, and full of birdlife, it seems curtained off from the busy life of the north Italian plain. One reason is that the canal no longer plays any economic role: though the locks we passed through could accommodate far bigger vessels, we did not meet a single other boat of any size. Instead, we chugged between reed banks, with only egrets, swans and doves for company.

With all food and drink included, it was easy to drift in a semi-trance between the top deck, and, when the early autumn sun became too hot, the air-conditioned saloon, or take a siesta below in the compact but well-equipped cabins, also air-conditioned. (The boat has two larger suites on the main deck.) It would not be long before Maria, our chef, was producing more miracles of Italian regional cuisine from her galley somewhere in the depths of the vessel, and Aurelio, our steward, Jeeves-like in his discreet attention to detail, was standing by with more examples of the best Italian wines.

To avoid being pampered into complete torpor, we needed our excursions to historic Ferrara, to the Bagnoli estate at Bagnoli di Sopra, where we tasted an extraordinary range of wines made with the local Friularo grape, and Ca'Zen, a genteelly decaying example of the mainland villas once built by rich Venetians (an errant wife was banished here for dallying with Lord Byron).

By the time we reached the fish market at Chioggia, at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon – where the Alabamans were dismayed to see squid still immersed in its own ink, having never learnt where calamari came from – we felt like we had been embraced into an Italian family, albeit an occasionally over-protective one. When we took to the barge's bicycles to ride the length of Pellestrina, one of the pencil-shaped islands that shelters the Venetian lagoon, there was a fuss because we did not all take the same route.

And then Venice, where our mooring was held up by a delivery boat. We watched in admiration as the pilot, using a miniature crane, unloaded pallets of provisions from his wildly lurching craft as coolly as if he had been on dry land. Much of the turbulence was caused by cliff-sized cruise ships sliding by to disgorge day-trippers in their thousands, engulfing the city and, we were told, increasingly driving out local people. Yet the magic of Venice survives: as we gazed at Titian's Assumption in the church of the Frari, a small choir practising for a wedding sang Mozart's Laudate Dominum to perfection in the late afternoon glow.

Parting from our shipmates after our final night on board, a thought occurred to me. If I were Doge of Venice, I would ban any vessel bigger than La Bella Vita from calling there. Unfair? Certainly, but at least everyone who made it would experience, as I had, some of the luxury for which the city has always been famed.

Compact Facts

How to get there

European Waterways (01753 598555; offers a six-night cruise aboard La Bella Vita from £2,390 per person, based on two sharing, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions and local transfers. Full boat charters available from £39,400. Raymond Whitaker flew to Venice from Gatwick with easyJet (0843 104 5000;, which offers flights from £25 each way.

sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all