Last Updated on 08/21/23 by quiltripping
There is a reason that a European Waterways barge cruise has become one of my favorite travel experiences – actually, it’s a lot of reasons. A week long cruise always includes incredibly attentive service, fantastic food, exceptional local wines, and specially curated excursions. And all this is provided in an intimate, small group setting. What’s not to love about that!
After experiencing two other barge cruises with European Waterways – the La Belle Epoque on the Burgundy Canal and the Renaissance on the Canal de Briare – I was really looking forward to cruising the unique Italian version on the La Belle Vita barge.
Of its 17 barge fleet, the La Belle Vita is European Waterway’s only luxury hotel barge in Italy and it offers two itineraries. One itinerary takes passengers around the Venetian lagoon, exploring the many islands and sights beyond Venice.
My itinerary was a one way cruise from Venice to Mantua that allowed us to discover major sights and off the beaten path gems along the way. Since the cruise started (or ended) in Venice, this was also a chance to visit this fabled city either before or after the cruise.
My La Bella Vita Cruise Review
Sunday – Day 1 on the La Bella Vita – Venice and Burano
Our pre cruise instructions told us to meet our group at 2 PM at the Venice Mestre Hotel Bologna which was conveniently located across the street from the Venice Mestre train station. This meant I only had to roll my luggage a short distance once I got off the train, a convenient bonus in the mid June heat.
Travel Tip: The Venice Mestre train station is the next to last station before the final stop at Venice Santa Lucia train station.
We didn’t have to wait long before our guide, cruise director Flavio, introduced himself to our group of 12 guests. As we made introductions the hotels staff brought us cool drinks and snacks, the first refreshments of many more to come over the next week.
A quick 15 minute drive in an air conditioned van took us to the spot where the La Bella Vita was temporarily docked. On the way, it was interesting to pass the Fincantieri shipyards and to get a peek at the newest Princess Cruise ship docked there.
As I have come to expect on a European Waterways cruise, we were met on board with more refreshing drinks (the first of many Aperol spritzes) and yummy nibbles made by the onboard chef. Now it was the staff’s turn to introduce themselves. We would have 11 crew to take care of 12 guests for a week – not bad!
As everyone got settled into their stateroom and the crew started getting ready to cast off, I explored my new surroundings. Unlike the other European Waterways hotel barges I had cruised with, the La Bella Vita was slightly larger and had three levels with a total of 10 cabins that could host a total of 20 passengers (though as I said, my cruise only had 12).
Inside the La Bella Vita luxury hotel barge
Two junior suites (130 sq. ft.) were located on the main deck. My husband and I had one of the eight standard cabins on the lower deck. At 105 sq. ft. the cabin was definitely on the cosi side, but with its large windows it was bright and cheery and provided everything we needed. Most important, my 6’7″ tall husband did not hit his head on the ceiling which made him quite happy.
The beds were very comfortable with down pillows and a light duvet. Each nightstand had drawers, a lamp and a convenient outlet for charging all those electronic gadgets I can no longer travel without. The closet had plenty of hanging space and hangers, along with two large drawers, and a safe. We had ample room to neatly stow away all our “stuff” and then store the empty suitcases under the bed.
Admittedly, the bathroom was tight, but I have had similarly sized bathrooms on large cruise ships. I was just glad to have en suite facilities for those middle of the night nature calls.
Best of all, the cabin was air-conditioned with an individual thermostat that we could set per our personal comfort levels. I didn’t spend much time in our cabin other than showering, changing, and sleeping, and for those tasks it was just fine.
The public spaces on the La Bella Vita were roomy and were spread out over the main deck and the sun deck. On the main deck, the living room had five comfy leather couches, a piano, and the all important bar and espresso machine.
Adjoining the living room was the dining space which was large enough to seat 20 comfortably, but on this cruise the tables were set up for our smaller group of 12. In one corner, a blackboard provided the daily lunch and dinner menus.
This room also had a large fridge with a variety of drinks that we could grab as desired. The price of the cruise included all drinks (top shelf alcohol, sodas, water, coffees, etc), meals, and excursions, so there was no surprise bill waiting at the end of the trip.
The whole upper deck was open and was a great spot for watching the scenery go by as we cruised along the lagoon or canals. Two large tables were covered by awnings which provided plenty of shade. This was a popular spot for our group as we sailed, sipped drinks, and chatted.
The top deck also stored the bicycles that were available for all our use.
Captain Rudy and the crew wasted no time and we were quickly underway. Our first day’s cruise took us down the Giudecca Canal and into the Venetian Lagoon. I was enjoying the views from the top deck, Aperol spritz in hand, a cool breeze ruffling my hair, and a huge smile I my face.
My special European Waterways holiday had begun!
We cruised through the Venetian Lagoon for a few hours till we reached the lovely little island of Burano. I love Burano and I actually like it better than Venice. In fact, my website header photo was taken on Burano.
Burano is quite small and like Venice, is made up of a few small islands separated by canals. What makes Burano unique are the colorful house facades which give the island a happy and very photogenic vibe.
Our guide Flavio took us on an easy tour, describing the history, the lifestyle, and the lacemaking art for which Burano was once famous. We also had a demo of how handmade lace has traditionally been made on Burano. Sadly, like many such crafts, this skill is fading as cheaper imports have taken over.
We had plenty of time to discover this little gem of an island before dinner. The best part was that by this time of the day, most of the day tripper were leaving so the island was not particularly crowded.
The day ended with our first dinner on board as the sun set over the lagoon. For our first meal, Chef Andrea put together a wonderful four course meal that set the culinary tone for the rest of our week. Before we ate, our hostesses Isabella and Francesca used a large map of Italy to describe which region our wines and cheeses came from.
Whipped monkfish with rice crackers
Seabream fillet with carrots and zucchini crust, potatoes puree, basil, and aubergines
Cheeses: Asiago (fresco, mezzano and vecchio)
Wines: Brolettino, Nebbiolo
Monday – Day 2 on the La Bella Vita – Burano, Venice, Murano, and Pellestrina
Our first full day on the La Bella Vita turned out to be quite a busy one. I got up very early on my first morning so that I could see the sun come up over the lagoon.
As I walked around Burano just after sunrise, I had the island all to myself – even the locals were not out and about yet. The ferries were not running and the island was tourist free, other than me. Such a special treat!
One of my favorite activities on this cruise was the opportunity to easily visit Burano in the early morning without any crowds. Walking along the canals and the colorful houses before the Island woke up was absolutely magical. I was in my happy place!
I did have one companion though. A beautiful swan followed me as I strolled along the canals. I think it was hoping for some food, but I had none to share.
I got back to our boat just as breakfast was starting. Each morning we were offered a selection of pastries, breads, cereals, fruit, juice, meats and cheeses, along with made to order eggs and bacon if we wanted. I am not a big breakfast eater and was quite satisfied with a hot cappuccino and some fresh pastries.
Excursion to the Doge Palace in Venice
This morning we cruised back across the lagoon to dock in the heart of Venice. Today’s excursion started with a guided tour of the lanes around St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. Our local guide was excellent and provided a lot of background information about life in Venice, both now in in the past.
There was a long line to enter the Doge’s Palace, but because we were on a pre arranged tour, we did not wait long and quickly walked in at our designated time. The first impressive sight was the Golden Stairway. It certainly provided an overwhelming first impression.
The many elaborately decorated rooms of the palace were stunning. Each one had a different story and was used for a different function. Going through each room with our guide really helped us to understand the importance of what we were seeing.
Our tour of the Doge Palace was not complete without going across the Bridge of Sighs. Supposedly, this was the last view of the outside world that convicts had before being take to the dark prisons below.
Those in our group that did not want to walk as much chose to go to the Naval and Maritime History Museum since the La Bella Vita was docked nearby.
After a busy (and hot) morning of sightseeing, it was a pleasure to get back on board to be met with a cool drink and to look forward to a delicious lunch.
Gallina in Savor
Bassamo asparagus risotto with Parmigiano reggiano zabaione
Cheese: Bastardo del Grappa, Capriccio Nero
Wine: Merlot, Rosa dei Frati
This is a good time to mention that the Chef went out of his way to satisfy all guests’ dietary needs and tastes. My husband does not like asparagus so the chef quickly prepared a different pasta dish for him. Another guest had a dairy allergy and the menu was easily adjusted for her each day with equally delicious and visually appealing alternatives.
Excursion to Murano
After lunch we had the option to go on another excursion to see a glass blowing demonstration on the Island of Murano. The talented craftsmen on Murano have been making beautiful glass sculptures since the 13th century.
We were treated to a private glass making demo just for our group after which we had time to shop or explore the island for a little while.
Back on the La Bella Vita we had a pleasant afternoon of gentle cruising along the Venetian Lagoon to the barrier island of Pellestrina. The lagoon side of Pellestrina had harbors with lots of fishing boats and colorful houses while the Adriatic side was one long sandy beach.
After docking in the small harbor, we had some time to explore Pellestrina on our own. My husband chose to take one of the bikes and ride along the harbor. I decided to put on my swimsuit and take a cool plunge in the sea. I think I made the better choice. The beach was long and shallow and the water was very refreshing and extremely clear.
Before dinner, our guide surprised us with a small outing to one of the nearby beach bars. We shared drinks and snacks with the locals as the sun set over the lagoon behind us. This perfect day ended with another wonderful meal.
Quiche endive with taleggio cheese, walnuts, pesto, fennel and orange salad
Marinated salmon with charred sous side octopus, caponata and chickpea puree
Chioggia cake with radicchio and Sangue morlacco liquor cream
Wines: Pino grigio, cabernet
Tuesday – Day 3 on the La Bella Vita – Chioggia and Taglio di Po
Our third day on the La Bella Vita started with a short cruise on a colorful, traditionally built boat which took us to the nearby island of Chioggia. Located at the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon, Chioggia has been called “Little Venice” or “Venice’s Little Sister”
With its canals and colorful buildings, to me it felt like a combination of the best of Venice and Burano. We explored Chioggia first by boat as it took us up and down the canals and then by walking from one end to the other.
Barely a kilometer (1/2 mile) long, we ambled slowly down the main street, taking in the sights and the feel of this town. Our first stop was the fresh fish market where local fishermen displayed that day’s catch. Chioggia’s primary industry is fishing and the extensive variety of fresh seafood for purchase was impressive.
The other important sight in Chioggia was the Church of St. Andrea with its bell tower and museum. On the outside, we could see one of the oldest clocks in the world, dating to 1386.
We finished with a quick visit to the Chioggia Cathedral. While Chioggia was not big on sights, it was big on atmosphere. It was not overrun by tourists, though there were a few others besides us. It was a pleasure to experience the town as the locals did: shopping for that day’s meal, getting a drink at a cafe with friends or just sitting in the shade and people watching.
At the end of our tour of Chioggia, vans waited to take us back to the La Bella Vita and another delicious lunch.
Radicchio di Chioggia, tiger shrimp and green apple salad
White asparagus carbonara
Cheese: Taleggio, caciocavallo affumicato, stracchino
Wines, Soave, Valpolicella classico
The afternoon was relaxing as the boat cruised gently through the Po Delta Nature Reserve along the Po River toward the town of Taglio di Po. The Po Delta is the largest park in Italy and one of the largest wetlands in Europe. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Throughout the afternoon, our lovely hostesses Isabella and Francesca, made sure we had plenty of drinks and snacks as we glided quietly through this protected green space.
Dinner excursion to Villa Ca’Zen
This evening’s dinner was a special excursion to the Villa Ca’Zen, a short van ride from our docking spot for the night. This classic country estate was built in the early 18th century for the Zen family, though it is better known for its romantic connection to the famous poet Lord Byron in the early 19th century.
In the 1820’s, the young and beautiful Contessa Teresa Guiccioli fell in love with the dashing poet. Despite the fact that her (much older) husband banished his young wife from the Venice social scene to the rural countryside, the lyason thrived as Byron continued to visit his lady love in secret at Ca’Zen. The setting ans his amour inspired Byron to write some of his loveliest poems here.
Our charming hostess, current owner Maria Adelaide Avanzo, greeted us warmly and proudly showed us around her home, while recounting the property’s interesting past. Today, this historic setting acts as a B&B and as a special events venue.
Our evening started as Maria and her team offered us Prosecco and appetisers. Our group then moved indoors for a delicious dinner in the large timbered dining hall. We lingered around the long table, chatting and sipping wine, and enjoyed the meal as only Italians can.
Risotto with basil, pest, and Stracciatella
Meat fillet with roasted potatoes, grilled radicchio
Wines: Pinot grigio, Borgoluce
Wednesday – Day 4 on the La Bella Vita – In Adria and the Dominio di Bagnoli Winery
The morning started with a short cruise on the Po Canal toward the town of Adria. It was a perfect morning to enjoy breakfast al fresco on the sun deck before docking in Adria.
The National Archeological Museum of Adria
The town of Adria has a long history, much of it tied to its function as an important port in antiquity. Greeks, Romans, Etruscan, and even Celts once populated this area and they all left their mark.
The National Archeological Museum in Adria did a great job presenting the history of this region in a lot of detail which was illustrated with many locally discovered artifacts. A nice touch were the descriptions written in both Italian and English.
One of the prettiest museum displays I have ever seen was the colorful collection of old Roman period glass.
After exploring the museum, we walked around the town of Adria for a bit, getting a feel for the modern day version. It was very hot and I was happy to get back on the boat for cool drinks and more really good food.
Scarola salad saltata and buffalo mozzarella and sardins pomodori confit
Turkey salad, Romana lettuce and smoked eye-round beef
Cheese: Provolone dolce and picante
Wines: Chianti, Prio
After lunch there was time for a siesta as we continued a relaxing sail through the Italian countryside on the Po Canal.
Wine tasting at Dominio Di Bagnoli
Our day’s activities were not yet over though. Once we reached our dock for the night, we were off to tour the Dominio Di Bagnoli estate and winery. Starting as a monastery in the 10th century, the property has a rich 1000 year old history.
In the mid 1600’s Ludovicio Widmann bought the land and built an extensive complex which ended up being the “go to” spot for artists and creative types in the Veneto region.
Today, the huge property is a working agritourism destination with a working farm, vineyard, winery, accomodations, and an events venue. They even have an airfield where you can land your private plane.
Our visit started with a private tour of the classically designed Italian gardens, the vineyard, and the working farm. The collection of weathered statues in the formal garden are original to the estate, and were made by Antonio Bonazza, one of Ludovico Widmann’s many artsy guests.
The final stop was the winery’s cellars where we had a private tasing of four of the Dominio Di Bagnoli vintages. With huge fermentation barrels as a backdrop, the atmospheric cellar was a perfect setting for experiencing the varied vintages made on site. I especially liked the white sparkling wine which they make in the traditional way with a second yeast fermentation in the bottle.
Back on board the barge, it was time for yet another fine dinner.
Parmigiana di melamzane
Guinea fowl rolle, endive, polenta with crimini mushrooms
Cheese: Roccaruja, Marzolino
Apple and blueberries strudel
Wines: Rosso riserva, Scaia
Thursday – Day 5 on the La Bella Vita – A Visit to Ferrara
As the barge continued cruising down the Po canal, our guide Flavio took our group to the nearby town of Ferrara. Recognizing its significant contributions to Renaissance art and culture, UNESCO added Ferrara to the World Heritage list in 1995.
For about 350 years, from 1240 to 1597, the Este family ruled and dominated Ferrara and the surrounding region. Through their continued artistic patronage, Ferrara became a great example of Renaissance art and architecture, much of which is still visible today.
We explored the lanes in the older section of town with a local guide as we learned about the historic buildings and the notable people of Ferrara. And because it was a very hot day, we also stopped at K2 Gelateria where I tasted the best gelato I have ever had (and I have had many)!
Despite the ice cream, I still had room for the wonderful lunch chef Andrea prepared for us again once we were back aboard the La Bella Vita barge.
Smoked Swordfish, grapefruit, and spinach
Pork fillet, green beans, charred romanesco, and parsnip puree
Cheese: Robiola (Bosina Alta Langa), ricotta, and tricotta al limone
Wines: Gewurztraminer, Ripassa
The rest of the afternoon was spent leisurely cruising along the Po canal toward our final destination, Mantua. I loved the quiet solitude and the brief feeling of retreating from the outside world.
For those that were interested, Chef Andrea gave a cooking demonstration that taught us how to make Lasagne Bolognese completely from scratch. He explained how he made the Bolognese sauce which took 6 hours to cook to the right consistency and flavor.
Then the chef showed us how he prepared the lasagna noodles and also the béchamel sauce. He carefully composed all the layers together, but we had to wait till dinner to taste his creation.
Chef Andrea’s lasagna was definitely the best I’ve ever tasted! I think all the other guests agreed because just about everyone asked for seconds. Hours of work on Chef Andrea’s part and we made it all disappear in under 15 minutes!
Lasagne alla Bolognese
Wines: Sauvignon, Pinot Nero, Recioto di Soave
After dinner the crew surprised us with a super fun, special event – which I won’t divulge here. You’ll just have to take the cruise to see what is was.
Friday – Day 6 on the La Bella Vita – Exploring Mantua
The final full day started with a short cruise into Lago Inferiore in Mantua where we had extensive views of the Ducal Palace. Once we docked, we were just a short 10 minute walk into the heart of the city center.
Like Ferrara, the renaissance city of Mantua was ruled by one family for over 350 years, in this case the Gonzagas. This city also became an important Renaissance cultural center for which it was recognised by UNESCO in 2008.
Our day in Mantua
We had the morning free to explore Mantua on our own, and I chose to see the Te Palace, or Palazzo Te. Built outside the original city walls of Mantua, I learned that the villa was commissioned by Federico Gonzaga as a place of leisure where he could spend time with his mistress.
The palace is well know for the extensive and elaborate frescoes and sculptured motifs that decorate the many rooms. Each chamber had a different theme, with the most famous one depicting giants wreaking havoc.
Back on the boat, our last lunch was a wonderful buffet of meats, cheeses, salads, and breads, paired with another delicious wine.
Buffet lunch of Italian charcuterie and other gastronomic delights
Orzotto radicchio and luganega
Wines: Lambrusco, Chardonnay
We spent the afternoon learning more about the Gonzaga legacy as a local tour guide took us around the historic core of Mantua. The Ducal Palace was the highlight of the tour. With about 500 rooms, the complex of buildings was lived in and expanded by generations of Gonzaga’s for almost 400 years. This is where Federico Gonzaga spent time with his family, and his wife.
Our last evening on board ended with hor devours, drinks and convivial conversation on the sun deck, followed by the captain’s farewell dinner. Hostesses Isabella and Francesca outdid themselves yet again with the table decorations and the service.
Captain’s farewell dinner
Tortelli alla mantovana
Duck breast, celeriac pure, asparagus, borretana onions, spinach
Cheese: Gorgonzola dulce DOP
Wines Prosecco Col Vettoraz and Bellini, Romchedone, Brunello di Montalcino, Franciacorta Rose
Saturday – Day 7 on the La Bella Vita – Disembark
Sadly, all good things come to an end, and we had to say goodbye to the beautiful La Bella Vita and her fantastic crew. Once again, European waterways delivered an unforgettable barge cruising experience.
This cruise had many of the distinctive European Waterways elements that I experienced on my barge cruises in France, yet it was also distinctly Italian. The food, the wine, the staff – they all provided a sense of “La Dolce Vita”- the sweet life for which Italy is famous and which I happily indulged in for a week.
Please note that I was hosted on this cruise by European Waterways. All content and opinions are my own.
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