Italy Country Profile
Veneto and the Po River - Italy
Ferrara and Parma, Emilia Romagna, Italy Photos Mantova and Desenzano di Garda, Lombardy, Italy Photos Padova, Verona and Valpolicella - VenetoFriuli, Italy Photos Venezia, Murano and Burano Photos
June 19, 2004
Early start to the day with a flight to Milano, then train connection to Padua (nice chat with a gentleman from Quebec and a teacher from New Orleans which made the hour and a half journey pass quickly) and a walk to the Hotel Pelligrino (small, clean room with a peek view of Il Santo). Once we had settled in, we decided to go out for a bite to eat a light lunch around 3:30 and found that restaurants stop serving at 3 and were either closed or closing. This left us the option of a sandwich and a glass of wine at a small corner bar and gelato place. Then across the street and into Il Santo (Basilica di Sant'Antonio) to see its really pretty frescoes, organ playing and people singing. There is a huge magnolia in the cloister and the entire complex is a fine example of the northern Italian church style. From there we wandered along browsing the eye candy in shops (excellent glass and metal products). There is an interesting mix of old an new architecture around town - some grand old palazzos (most in good repair) and old Roman walls. Everyone seems friendly, quick to help with directions, pleasant, good looking (they age well), nicely dressed (except the kids), fairly clean streets, few beggars. Our main event for the town was to see the magnificent Cappella degli Scrovegni built and frescoed in 1303-05. To get to the main site and prebook reservations go to - for a look at the background of this fabulous place and great photos of the frescoes go to The chapel is wonderful! The colors, textures and depictions (even of thematically unpleasant parts of Christ's life story told in the frescoes) create an intense experience of perhaps the finest work of Giotto di Bondone. We were very happy that we paid for the "doppio" admission and were allowed 30 minutes for viewing, it allowed us to fully appreciate the art and a subtle sense of humor that occured in several panels.

We left the chapel at 8 pm and walked towards the old town center where we stopped into Mandrilles (excellent fresh made pizzas), our cute waitress had visited Barcelona many times and loves it. After dining and a brief torrent, we returned to our walk about enjoying the Saturday night college town atmosphere with constant chatter, music and good humor.

June 20
We began our morning with espresso and a walk down to the Orto Botanico, a fine botanical garden dating from 1545 and one of the oldest in Europe, then on to the nearby street market where we browsed through wonderful antiques and furnishing along with the usual shoes, clothing and trinkets. As noon approached, we collected our luggage and continued on by train to Venezia, then by vaporetto to San Basilio to board the river boat (Uniglobe's Il Venezia) that was to be our home base for the next week. After unpacking and settling in, we had a light snack on board and went out for supplies (wine, brandy, snacks). Within an hour there was a torrential downpour that continued through dinner, so we decided on an early bedtime in order to rest up for the rigors of touring that began the next day.

June 21

After breakfast on board, we took off in a small launch to the northern lagoon area to visit Murano, home of Venetian glass blowing since 1291. Here we visited a factory and were able to observe a master craftsman at work as he demonstrated the process of making a vase and then a small horse. We saw the ovens and the tremendous variety of items produced on the island. From there we sailed to the charming and incredibly colorful fisherman's island of Burano. This little gem has a church tower that tilts at the same angle as the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, but its most striking characteristic is the brightly painted houses that line the canals. No house is the same color as its neighbor and there are wonderfully intense reds, blues, purples, greens and golds throught the narrow streets. It is densely populated with cheerful people, many are still fishermen, and has a main street that is lined with lace shops (the wives did fine lace work when their husbands were away) and trattorias. We sampled the local specialty of "Buranelli" shortbread cookies, tried to get lost by wandering dozens of small alley and crossing bridges (impossible to do), drank a glass of frissante tinto (pulled from a barrel tap), sampled refreshing gelati and granite, and basked in the warm clear weather. Nearby we saw Casanova's home and the conveniently located convent just across the canal which provided brothel services to the man and his guests, then we passed the Santo Spiritu convent where unfortunately unwanted daughters we essentially imprisoned with no possibility of ever leaving. A note on courtesans (the other option for women who would not enter convents) - during the census there were 10,000 women out of a total population of 120,000 who practiced their trade. These were the most highly educated women in Europe at the time (other women had no education except in home skills). They were well read in all areas such as politics, mathematics, geography and all the sciences and they were well respected, often serving as advisors to the top leaders in the community.

We met up with our ship in Torcello, an island community dating from the 5th and 6th centuries. It is known for its Byzantine cathedral, which is said to be worth a visit when you have the time, but the next item on our agenda was lunch and a sail from the lagoon onto the Adriatic to the Taglio di Po (elbow of the Po and beginning of the Po delta). Our tour host told us a little about each of the islands we passed. Lido is long and verdant, an old mental asylum on another is being renovated by Bennington for use as a "confined" conference hotel complex, some are deserted islands except for young couples who boat out for a picnic and relaxing afternoon. Of special interest is the Isola d'Armeni which has been home to the Armenians in the Veneto since they assisted the Venetians in their battle with the Turks back in the 1200's. They were given the island as a thank you and the Armenian friars have inhabited it from that time and even live there today. To the good fortune of the area and benefit of all, the friars were master linguists and devoted to transcribing books.

Before leaving the lagoon, we passed Pauvelia. It was used as a quarantine island for returning sailor until the middle of the 1700's. All ships had to stop there and anyone showing any signs of illness was isolated there until he recovered. Of course with the diseases, poor living conditions and lack of health care, few ever returned to their homes. We reached the lock to the Po just before dinner and had a low level exchange of about half a meter, then turned the corner to pull into our docking spot for the night. It was a fun process - two local men grabbed the mooring ropes and tied us to an olive tree with a split trunk and substantial girth that was within a meter of the river's edge. After that entertainment, we enjoyed a pleasant dinner followed by drinks on the top deck as we watched the new moon crescent over the Po.

June 22
After a light breakfast we joined the many people on the top deck who were basking in the sun and relaxing as we wound our way up the Po. The river was like glass and cruising was smooth. As we headed up the Po sandbars were noticeable and we sailed from one side to the other. We went to the lounge for a Veneto wine education talk and a couple of tastes before heading down to lunch. It was during lunch that we found we would not be able to sail as far up river as had been planned. The river had dropped by 3 meters over the past two weeks and was likely to become a sand trap for the ship, so we stopped. The negative impact of this was that tours from the ship would require longer bus rides.

After lunch, our excursion took us to Mantua, birthplace of Virgil, the setting for Verdi's opera "Rigoletto", and where Shakespeare sent Romeo into hiding. The journey was off the main highway and primarily through agricultural lands with few towns. It lasted about 2 hours. When we arrived in Mantua, our group proceeded to the Palazzo Ducale. My honest impression having seen several palaces in several countries in Europe and the Middle East is . . . the Gonzagas (affectionately known as the "Gazongas") were sort of the "hillbillies" of the area who got rich from mercenary activities (paid for by both sides, of course), then bought position and moved up the food chain to the power of doges for three centuries. This palace was more than 34,000 square meters, 500 rooms, surrounded by four manmade lakes, frescoed by some of the top artists of the day, and faux marbled like a child's first attempt to make paper look like marble. But to top that off, they bought enough "class" to have their own private "chapel" (read cathedral, ornate, gilt, frescoed and marbled). The best ceiling in the palace is in one of the bedrooms and has a celestial ceiling, another is the "hanging garden" room with its latticed ceilings and a fantastic view of one of the lakes where guests could view mock battles through a series of gothic arches. The best frescoes are Pisanello's "Arthurs Legends", best wall art is a Rubens of the family. A lot of areas have excellent trompe l´oeil ceilings and a lot of fantasy landscapes. It can be a fun game to see if you recognize which old Roman diety is included in any frescoe and why that is a complement to the host's personality - big egos here, but earned by a time honored profession that has recently come into vogue again. We were fortunate to have a local person guide us - she had a great sense of humor and good stories to tell all along the way. With an hour to spend in town at liberty, we went to the baptistry (very nice), the cathedral and saw some terrific towers while wandering with stops for an espresso and later a gelato. Then - back to the ship, dinner, early evening and rest.

June 23
Two hours to Verona by bus. We chose not to go with the guided tour since it would be visiting an old Roman amphitheater (arena), Piazza Erbe (the old herb market), and Juliet's balcony (a 13th century inn - the story is fiction). These places have a lot in common in that they are connected by old city central tourist shopping streets. Because our purchases are usually for something that catches our eye, is useful in the kitchen or as a small ornament, and will make us smile each time we glimpse it once we are home, we do not like to tour through shopping areas and prefer local markets that have a more interesting variety. There was no market day today, although we had the fun of seeing some of the props for idea being set up, so after an urgently needed double espresso, we began the walk to San Zeno. We´d read about it on the cities website on the net (if you want to find almost any city in Italy, type in the city name in lower case, then .it and it will get you there. Use google for translation if you need to and proceed, many sites have English translations for most information.

The Basilica of San Zeno is without a doubt one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Northern Italy. Zeno, born in Africa, was the 8th Bishop of Verona, considered to be one of the wisest men in their history and also the kindest. In 807 his remains were moved here and the basilica, chesia and cloister have been rebuilt from time to time ever since 963 - so for architecture buffs there is a lot to appreciate here. Aside from the 12th century reliefs, the Nicoló Porch, gothic main chapel, baroque altar and giant 2nd century poryphyry basin, there are the most amazing bronze reliefs on the entry doors which were assembled from doors of earlier periods - just amazing! The cloister courtyard is double columned, airy and pleasant. Most of the interior frescoes are of good to restored condition with stunningly strong colors. Interestingly, there's no record of any famous artists here, most were local craftsmen and apprentice types, so there are special senses in the individual works, very nice. We were happy to have our binoculars with us to enable us to closely admire the exquisite workmanship in the Mantegna altar piece. If you can spare an hour as you drive past this town, you must experience San Zeno.

Our walk back to the "pick up" spot took us past some pleasant residential areas, an active convent with cheery sisters, into San Benedicto's with its unusual organ pipes and back to the main plaza below the arena. We had time for another espresso before heading off to Vapolicella. We drove through vineyards as we climbed to the Tenuta Pule winery ( A beautiful place with generous hosts who took the group through a tour of the winery and cellars before serving a savory Wine Tasting Lunch. It included both ham selections and cheese selections, bruschetta with diced tomato and mozarella, a wonderful risotto made quite simply with their Amarone, and a fruity dessert that is typical with biscotti and a late harvest wine. The five wines we tasted were all of good quality, light and representative of the region.

Soon after we returned to ship, it was time for dinner. Our evening entertainment were a pair of local women who had been singing with the local opera company, had children to care for, retired and perform once a week to keep their voices in tune. Fun well known Italian music from popular to opera. Tomorrow we tour Parma.

June 24
Parma (in the province of Emilia Romagna) is known for Parma ham and Parmesan cheese (which there are two types). Reggiano-Parmagiano is from locally grazed cattle (grass only), it is partially skimmed and has a smooth texture that ages well. Parmagiano Grana is more common and less expensive to produce because the cattle grazes and is fed grain which results in a more granular texture. The hams are air cured and vary from very fatty (which is almost like butter in the mouth) to very deep red (strong flavor and aged longer) with a wide variety between the two.

Aside from staying a week and living the town life, the most significant thing to see is Duomo and Baptistry because they are adorned by the works of Correggio and his students. The Baptistry reliefs inside and outside that describe the months of the year are among the most important from their time (1196) in all of Italy, and San Giovanni Evangelista's dome is Correggio's fresco of the "Vision of St. John at Patmos". These buildings have some nice Parmigianino frescoes too. After all of the intensive art and architecture absorption with the tour, we were given time at liberty until lunch. We headed down one of the main streets near the square to simply wander around. This was the people's part of town more than the tourist shop area, so we were able to enjoy a leisurely stroll, look into shop windows, listen to the people, appreciate the area which we found to be very homey and comfortable. As we would pass a restaurant or trattoria we would browse the menu, we admired the high quality produce at a local stand, ducked into a bookstore, and to our good fortune found a little osteria with a nice selection of wines. The Tuscan Syrah caught my eye and Sal tried a local grape. As we stood at the counter and savored our treat, we watch the man behind the counter shave of slices of 5 or 6 hams and then create another plate of 5 or 6 cheeses which (with a bottle of wine) cost the table of 4 about 22 euros. This is a good town for food and fair prices.

As a coincidence, our tour lunch was in Tonic (one of those restaurants that looked pretty good earlier). It's a small place on a side street with brightly colored walls, a tiny kitchen, lots of noise and terrific food - all very fresh and prepared to order as they wash plates between courses. I said it was small. But they kept the wine flowing, brought out 5 courses and then coffee. The entire group thoroughly enjoyed it and had a good nap on the way back to the ship. The evening included a cheese and wine tasting and featured an especially nice all Italian dinner that was typical of modern and antique recipes from the region.

June 25
Well, if it's Friday this must be Ferrara. The tours have been very good and quite flexible in allowing liberty time but we're ready to stop with the morning bus trips. Today we journey was to the Castello Estense, home of the Este dynasty and one of the areas greatest walled towns. The medieval castle is austere on the exterior but with a pleasing simplicity and sense of strength and power. As to interiors, these people had a lot of class and good taste. All of this led to Ferrara being recognized as one of the finest Renaissance cities, despite the continuous "unexpected" deaths of family members (you've heard of Lucrezia Borgia). The court was so well considered that writers like Tasso, Aristo and Petrarch liked to hang out there, and a few artists made contributions (Titian, Bellini, Mantegna). The local Duomo is an interesting blend of Romanesque-Gothic, but the interior is too Baroque for our tastes.

We returned to the ship for lunch, a siesta, and the sail back to Venice. Ah, Venezia! There isn't a superlative for it that isn't trite but justifiable and in the evening when the tourists have gone back to their ships or on a night tour, gondola ride or whatever, it is indeed a magical place to simply be. After dinner and in the cool of the evening, we left the ship, crossed bridges, wandered the streets and took it all in. We walked along the Grand Canal to the Palazzo Ducal, around San Marco Plaza, up a street, around a corner, across another bridge, down an alley or whatever took our whim. Trying to get lost in it all. When we passed the Ponte de Sosperi (Bridge of Sighs) we stood and watched as a gondolier passed below. When we reached the Realto with its dozens of glittering restaurants and cafés the light made it glow with a pale aqua tone that contrasted beautifully with the dark blue and starlit evening. San Stefano, Gore Vidal's ancestors home, the Accademia bridge, through piazzas, a stop for wine, a gelato, cathedral bells, bands playing classics and jazz in San Marco, lovers kissing on bridges or in gondolas, scents of food as it was served in sidewalk cafés, lapping of the water. All of these things are the best part of being there. Three hours later, we returned to ship, had a brandy and went to be so we would be rested for our last tour.

June 26
The last morning tour took us to the Palazzo Ducale where we gathered in the courtyard and admired the incredible structure of it all. Our guide spoke of its history, the grand entry stair case, and the occupants. A tour of the interior was even more impressive (and expensive) with fabulous frescoes, wood working and gold, gold, gold everywhere as a decoration. The place is an incredible combination of Byzantine, Gothic and Rennaissance architecture which was home to the 120 doges who ruled Venezia from 697 until 1797. Many a grand artist wooed the court to embellish the rooms with paintings and sculpture. It is truly worth a visit. Our group crossed the Bridge of Sighs to one of the upper floors of the prison, learned of the conditions during its use (until the middle of the 1900's), stood in a cell and took in the ambience. From there we returned to the central courtyard and exited towards the Campanille (Bell Tower) which was rebuilt in 1902 to its original 98.5 meters, but with an elevator. It is known for the view from the top, and the bells still ring so you should avoid the top when it is close to the hour or you will not hear well for a time - it is loud.

Perhaps the first thing that stuns you is the Byzantine ceilings of the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's), there are millions of gold mosaic tiles! Beyond that there is marble and more marble, everywhere from floors, to columns to decorative signs. The original church was built in the 9th century and destroyed by fire, the second was razed to allow the construction of what we see today and from 1075 onward, every ship that returned from abroad was obliged by law to bring back some new adornment. The mosaics above the doorways are from 5 different epochs, the main portal is an excellent example of Romanesque carving, there are more that 4200 square meters (45,000 s.f.) of mosaics on the ceilings and arches, paintings and mosaic designs are by such notables as Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese. We visited the Tesoro (Treasury) room where there are splendid examples of Venetian crafts and a collection of relics filled with body parts. The Pala d'Oro altar piece is among the most impressive we've ever seen, not so much for its appearance but rather for the excess of wealth that was Venezia at the time. It is made of 250 gold panels created by 10th century goldsmiths and is studded with precious gems and enameled scenes. More visually appealing is the simple carved stone piece behind it. This incredible church was the private chapel of the Doge and no expense was spared in creating it.

This was the last of the tours, so we left the group as soon as our entrance was paid and we were inside to view the details at our leisure. A 15 minute tour pointing out the highlights just isn't adequate. After San Marco we were free at last! We wandered the streets again, through the piazza, stopped into the Musical Instrument Museum (free admission and with a nice collection of old instruments and costumes), over more bridges, crossing canals and turning whenever something around the bed looked interesting. This continued until we decided to stop for lunch at the Le Bistrot de Venise for an al fresco meal consisting of pasta with salmon, a frutti de mare risotto and a foie gras with carmelized onions and a drizzle of 50 year old balsamico. We had been drinking wines from the Veneto daily, and decided to go outside the province for an old favorite, Nebbiolo d'Alba which complemented our excellent (and very fairly priced) meal. They have an extensive wine list here with product from all over Italy that has been conscientously selected to provide everything from good table wine to the most exclusive bottlings, prices range from about 15 euros to 300 euros, with wines sold by the glass available too.

After lunch we caught the vaporetto over to Santa Maria de Salute for evening vespers. This was a special organ concert featuring some of the Goldberg Variations and Gloria in Excelsis, a pleasant treat (at no expense). This rather simple church has good acoustics and the organist was very capable. After the concert, we boarded the vaporetto again for a complete tour of the Grand Canal. The length of the canal takes about an hour and seeing it in the daylight for a minimal cost of 3.50 euros is well worth it. The night cruises and gondola tours are wonderful (and expensive), but if your interest is in the architecture, daylight lets you appreciate the details. Of course you can get on and off the vaporetto at any time within 90 minutes, so there are opportunities to get off and have a cup of espresso or gelato.

When we returned to our ship, we found an invitation to the captain's table for dinner. We shared a lovely meal with nice wines and the obligatory "bombe" for dessert. The captain is a charming Nederlander who was born on the water and has lived on land for less than two years of his life, we enjoyed pleasant table companions and good conversation through the entire dinner - a nice little treat. After dinner, we had another little walk about, had to have a last gelato, and then returned for bed.

June 27
Up, packed, bill paid and off for an espresso before taking the ferrovia to the train station and heading off to Lago di Garda. We arrived at Desenzano del Garda station without hotel reservations but had not considered that the information and assistance office would be closed on Sunday. So we headed out the doors and down the hill to the lake. It was a very easy walk of less than a mile and soon after we turned along the lakeside we spotted the Hotel Tripoli which had been recommended. We were given a nice room overlooking the lake, settled in a bit and went out to look for lunch. Surprise! most restaurants are closed from 3 to 7 p.m. but we managed a pizza, beer and espresso at a little sidewalk café that gave us a chance to sit back, relax and do some people watching. This is truly a touristic resort town with a lot of expensive boutiques, fancy hotels and many bored beach goers and boaters (at 4 p.m. it is too hot at the shore and there is little to do). We picked up some water, had gelatos and returned to our room to rest. Our unexpected nap took us to 8 p.m. when we dressed and went out for a walk along the shore and to see the sunset. Like all lakes, there are lots of flying creatures that bite and the heat and humidity quickly sent us inland to cool off a bit. We quickly found ourselves at the edges of a parade through town with a band, flag twirlers and "royalty" all dressed in old venetian style. We followed the parade to the town square where the doge made proclamations, the band played and the flag men competed with each other. Apparently the towns' team had recently become regional champions and were proudly sharing their skills with the gathering crowd.

Restaurants and bars began to fill around 9 and we roamed the streets above the square finding older architecture, the church and flowered balconies in a far more serene setting. We stopped in Bagatta alla Lepre for a light meal of some tasty bruschettas, wine and espresso which made for a fine last dinner on this trip to Italy. On returning to our room, we opened and enjoyed a good quality Amarone before a well-deserved good nights slumber. Tomorrow is the journey home.

June 28
Having slept very well, we dressed, ate a light breakfast and took the ferry over to Sirmione. A far more charming town than Desenzano, it is dominated by a medieval castle with a moat where white swans and ducks were swimming. The beaches are narrow, rocky strips, but the peninsula is green and has more variation in land form. At the edge of the castle, I stepped into the lake and found it icily cold. We spent some time walking around before taking a boat back to the mainland and hopping the train for Milano. We arrived at the airport early and had time for a snack. Unlike most airports with poor quality and overpriced junk food, the self-serve café has a good variety of freshly made regional specialties that are well made, and good bottles of table wine for 8-10 euros per 750 ml. From the airport the flight home is just an hour - we plan to do nothing much for the next few days.

Some notes on transportation:

Railways - the Cercanias in Spain to and from the airport, an older train with compartments on the way to Padua, a Eurostar to Venezia, a "bus" type on the way to Garda and Milano

Boats and Ships - vaporetti around Venezia, a launch to Murano and Burano, our 100 passenger river cruiser from Venezia up the Po River and back, a car ferry to Sirmione and a batello back to Desenzano

Buses for tours and transfer from Milano Centrale to Milano Linate airport, and one taxi ride.