Venice won Best European Destination at the British Cruise Awards 2018. Here Gary Buchanan embarks on a luxurious tour of the Floating City and the Po river

Colorful houses at night in Burano, Venice

Known as La Serenissima, the most serene, Venice did for artistry what Greece did for democracy. With its surfeit of beauty, this is a truly special city and fascinating to explore. Ideally fused with its watery element, the implausible setting, with its Campanile and domes, colonnades and pinnacles, is an impressive sight and an architectural enthusiastʼs paradise.

For almost a thousand years this aquatic city of marble and stone at the northern tip of the Adriatic was the acknowledged mistress of the Mediterranean. Never once was it invaded or destroyed. The shallow lagoon that separates Venice from the mainland not only acted as protection, but was instrumental in establishing an enduring trading empire that was the envy of the civilised world.

Similarly, the merriment in the Castillo Lounge on board River Countess was the envy of curious tourists enjoying an evening passeggiata. This was the first of five nights I spent alongside either the San Basilio pier in the Dorsoduro district or at the Sette Martiri, a prestigious location in the Castello neighbourhood where superyachts tie up close to grandiose restaurants.

The first full day included a visit to the Doge’s Palace, and that evening we enjoyed an exclusive after-hours visit to the 11th-century Basilica di San Marco. A special lighting ceremony brought the profusion of luminous mosaics to life, as well as the stunning Byzantine altarpiece, which puts the Crown Jewels to shame. Free from the crowds, we headed to the crypt where the city’s patron saint is believed to rest thanks to a group of Venetian merchants who smuggled his body out of Alexandria in a barrel.

Being adept at touring Venice’s six neighbourhoods, I was au fait with the timeless piazzas and palazzos packed as compactly as chocolates in a box, but knew little of the lagoon and its 118 islands. The opportunity to explore beyond the baroque backcloth was one I couldn’t refuse – especially in the company of a contessa.

A perfect antidote to the bustle of the Grand Canal, Torcello, in the northern part of the lagoon, is surrounded by mud flats and marshes. This tranquil island was a haven nearly 500 years before Venice became an empire. After our private tour boat docked, I meandered along pavements lined by a cluster of rustic restaurants and faded pastel dwellings in this bucolic idyll unscathed by modernity.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta is the most conspicuous relic from Torcello’s past. Founded in the 7th and rebuilt in the 11th century, the lagoon’s oldest cathedral boasts Byzantine wood beams that separate brick archways supported by Corinthian columns. Our superb guide, Susan Steer, interpreted the remarkable mosaics including a stunning 12th-century Madonna and Child on a gold background, as well as a depiction of the Last Judgement, which includes serpents crawling through skulls.

Typical porches along the streets of Bologna

Crossing the cerulean lagoon we sailed past centuries-old glass furnaces on Murano – magnets for connoisseurs of kitsch. We reached the island of Mazzorbo and entered the walled vineyard of the Venissa Wine Estate. There’s only one hectare of Dorona di Venezia grapes left in the world and just 3,500 bottles are produced annually, so we felt privileged to enjoy a tasting of this rare wine, which costs €140 a bottle.

Our group strolled across the Ponte Longo from Mazzorbo into what appeared to be a living Cubist’s painting. Sealed within the azure prism of sea and sky, Burano offers a scene of such photogenic prettiness you could not invent it. I snapped brightly painted fishermen’s cottages in vibrant shades of vermilion, saffrons, pinks and purples. Around every corner vistas of sublime beauty were revealed. A couple of ladies were even on hand to demonstrate the island’s ancient craft of lace making. I joined fellow passengers for lunch at the lovely Trattoria al Gatto Nero where we savoured risotto alla buranella and tagliolini alla grancegola.

Another day, heading south, we hugged the sliver of land and sand that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic, past Pellestrina with its communities of fishermen living in tiny cottages painted in a kaleidoscope of colours, before arriving at Chioggia. Some passengers headed to medieval Padua to see Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, while I opted for a walking tour of this fishing port nicknamed ‘Little Venice’. A jaunt on board a traditional Bragozzo boat took us to see mussels being harvested before lunching on a fresh catch as well as spaghetti alle vongole.

While we feasted on the lagoon’s bounty, River Countess sailed to the Po River. Rejoining our floating palazzo at Polesella, the following day’s tours headed to either Bologna, Europe’s oldest university town or Ferrara where Castello Estense is a perfect fusion of medieval fortress and renaissance palace. After a night at Porto Viro, where the evening air was laced with a salty breeze from the Adriatic, we returned to Chioggia to find a street market in full swing. Our proficient crew of 39 welcomed us back on board as we set sail bound once again for the city that left Dickens lost for words: “I never saw the thing before that I should be so afraid to describe.”

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is a company that defies convention and the 130-passenger River Countess is no exception.

It’s also the only luxury vessel to offer such an itinerary. This seasonal resident of the Venetian Lagoon boasts opulent exuberance and refined living in equal measure. Venetian chandeliers and antique mirrors, with gold-leaf detailing and custom furniture in shades of turquoise, complemented by cream and taupe complete the scene.

The beautiful Savoy Restaurant on board River Countess, is very impressive, with the fresh Italian specialities offered at the lunch buffet and on the formal dinner menu.

I also greatly enjoyed the luxury of retiring to my comfortable Savoir bed, and I relished the evening entertainment. One night, Puccini arias were performed by an accomplished soprano and tenor duo. The powerful voice of Maria Dal Rovere abetted by her band rounded off another night, while a screening of film, The Tourist on deck was all the more poignant as a blood moon rose over the captivating city. It was a wonderful conclusion to a hugely enjoyable exploration of Venice and its unique and charming neighbouring islands.

St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

GETTING THERE

Uniworld’s eight-day Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy cruise from Venice to Venice is priced from £2,499pp, two sharing. Price includes accommodation in a riverview stateroom on board River Countess, all meals and beverages, all transfers on arrival and departure days, gratuities and port charges (uniworld.com / 0808 281 1125).

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