Uniworld's river cruise "Gems of Little Italy" did not disappoint. The tantalizing itinerary promised a little bit of everything: big-city excitement, art history, charming villages, extraordinary wine, and unending culinary adventures.
We arrived, jet-lagged, early one morning at Milan Malpensa International Airport, but a quick nap at the city’s Starhotels Rosa Grand was all that was needed to incite curiosity about our new location. Milan is tremendously walkable, and we took meandered, delighted to be within a stone’s throw of Duomo Square, elegant shopping, and endless restaurants. Ten thousand steps or so later (according to one traveler’s Fitbit) we decided on an outdoor table at a cafe near the hotel and collapsed into chairs at about 6:30 p.m. Mind you, it was somewhere in the wee hours our time, but we had inadvertently labeled ourselves hopeless Americans. After several minutes, the proprietor ambled out of the back of the restaurant where he and his staff were enjoying their dinner before the official opening of the restaurant which would not come for some time. He took pity on us, however, and poured a round of Prosecco for us to enjoy while he finished his own supper. We were finishing up our meal when the first locals arrived. Takeaways from the excellent dinner: proper dinnertime is closer to 8 p.m. and Italians never (never!) sprinkle Parmesan cheese on fish dishes, something I was told in no uncertain terms when I requested some for spaghetti and clam sauce.
The next day began with a special tour of il Duomo, the fifth largest Christian church in the world which took 600 years to build. Not surprising, when one considers the mind-boggling details contained within its walls. For example, a minute opening high up in the ceiling is perfectly engineered to allow a tiny beam of light in each day to produce a line on the marble floor that traces the winter and summer solstices.
The scale of Duomo is otherworldly—the cathedral seats 40,000—and was a breathtaking preamble to our visit to the nearby small church where da Vinci’s renowned Last Supper is displayed in a setting that is both intimate and accessible. The refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the 15th-century masterpiece is housed, was appropriately hushed on the day we visited, as we absorbed the guide’s insightful interpretation of the painting’s depiction of the 12 apostles with Jesus and the meanings behind their positioning and expression.
Dinner that evening found us in the historic Biffi Ristorante, located in the famed Galleria, an emporium of designer shops. We opted for a table outside the restaurant, which facilitated world-class people-watching, from families pushing strollers and eating gelato to young lovers window shopping Prada and its displays of leather accessories.
The next day our itinerary called for a road trip via Mercedes bus to Venice, with two side trips to Verona and a famed Valpolicella wine estate. The day happened to be a holiday celebrating workers, so Verona was teeming with people who flooded the street markets and especially the famed balcony where Juliet was purported to have awaited her Romeo.
The winery at Valpolicella, however, provided a peaceful counterpoint to the Verona craziness and we disembarked happily at the owner’s 800-year-old home for a sublime luncheon. Think creamy risotto, veal shank with a side of rich layered potato slices, followed by a strawberry mousse with chocolate and almond nougat. Then pair each offering with bespoke wines, and you’ll know why more than a few travelers napped on the last leg of the journey to Venice.
Ah, Venice! The first thing that struck us was that this picturesque city is composed of 118 different islands. Is it any wonder that Venice is known for its canals and bridges? A walking tour on our first morning there took us up and down, over and under many of them on our way to the Doge’s Palace where we met one of Venice’s real gems.
Her name is Susan Ruth Steer, and she is an art historian from England who fell in love with Venice during her education. A resident of the city for more than 20 years, she wrote her thesis and dissertation on medieval art, architecture, and Venetian altar paintings. But even better, she’s wonderfully accessible and conversational, and you feel as if you’re strolling through the world’s masterpieces with an old friend.
The Doge Palace, of course, was the seat of Venice’s sophisticated republican government and the residence of the “doge” (Italian for top dog) more than 800 years ago. But it is also an extraordinary art gallery with jaw-dropping works by Tintoretto, Titian, Bosch, and so many others. It also provides a fascinating peek into early Venetian justice, as the prison is located here, within view of the famed “Bridge of Sighs” which the accused passed under on their way to judgment. (After touring the grim jail, we can only assume they sighed with deep remorse.)
The afternoon was spent on our riverboat, the River Countess, cruising the beautiful lagoons, before meeting up with Susan Steer once again, this time for a private visit to St. Mark’s Basilica, after hours and far from the maddening crowds.
We arrived by valporetto water taxi (“like George Clooney!”our cruise director assured us) and were ushered into the quiet elegance of the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Venice. We could have stood in the entry passageway for hours following the chronological stories of the Bible on the ceiling, but there was so much else to see. The pala d’oro, for example, is a breathtaking enameled altarpiece made up of gemstones and gold, much of which, like many treasures in the cathedral, had been plumaged during early Turkish conquests. The crypt downstairs once housed the remains of St. Mark, but due to flooding concerns, the apostle has been relocated upstairs beneath the altar.
For a change of pace, our guides took us the following day to Chioggia, a working fishing village on the Venetian lagoon. An orientation walk was offered, although the heartier travelers opted to ride bikes, and we all convened at a local restaurant for an outdoor demonstration of the harvesting of mussels. A family-style lunch of steamed mussels, pasta with clams and eggplant parmesan followed, complemented by local wines served from carafes. Chioggia is also known for its weekly market, which is more like a traveling department store. Locals can purchase everything from dresses, shoes, and underwear to pet food and local produce. The morning scene was vibrant and noisy.
It’s impossible to know Italy without knowing the food, so another side trip, this time to Bologna, featured a pasta making lesson. Bologna is a foodie’s delight, known for its exquisite bolognese sauce which is wonderful paired with fresh egg pasta or incorporated in the area’s traditional lasagna made with green lasagne noodles and a rich bechamel sauce. But Bologna is also famed for its, well, bologna. Also known as mortadella, bologna is made of finely hashed pork, mixed with a few small cubes of pork fat and flavored with spices, olives, myrtle berries, and pistachios.
Bologna, as it turns out, is also known for its exceptional medieval architecture, such as the University’s famed Anatomical Theatre and the National Gallery of Art. But be forewarned: pushing oneself away from the local tortellini or tagliatelle is not easy, no matter the cultural offerings!
Seeing Venice from a small riverboat brought home again the realization that the city is really a collection of islands. Thanks to Uniworld, these islands seemed to have been carefully culled, as the ones we visited were each extraordinary in their own right.
Take Mazzorbo, for example. Mazzorbo is the home of the “last of the golden vines” from which the Venissa vineyards produce its famous wine. A stop at the famed winery, which was resurrected in 2005 when the elusive vines were re-discovered, allowed us to sample the rich, amber colored wine, which is produced like a red wine with the skins remaining on the grapes.
Or, Burano, home of the ancient art of lace-making. It is said that lacemakers learn one stitch, and one stitch only, so that every piece produced passes through a number of dedicated hands. The table linens, clothing, and charming accessories like bookmarks are understandably temptations for visitors. But Burano itself is a feast for the eyes, as the homes along the water are all painted different bright colors. Legend has it that sailors would be gone for long periods, arrive home in the fog, and occasionally stumble into the wrong home. Knowing that they lived in the bright orange house, or the sunny yellow house, presumably made their homecomings smoother.
Finally, no trip to Venice would be complete without checking out a Murano glass factory. We visited a very special one on the Isle of Giudecca, where our tour began with a stunning glass blowing demonstration during which an artisan very calmly blew hot liquid silica into a figure of a high stepping horse. The showroom offered infinite examples of this art for sale, from charming necklaces and pendants to ballroom-scale Murano chandeliers that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most evenings, after a full day of touring, we returned to our riverboat for dinner, always a treat on the Uniworld line. The company buys daily in the local markets, and the result is a magazine-worthy presentation of fresh and creative offerings to suit all palates. At breakfast, guests find traditional American omelet stations beside cutting boards laden with olive bread and pain du chocolat, tray after tray of fresh fruits, smoked salmon and capers, and punch bowls of smoothies. The lunch buffet is equally tantalizing, featuring a pasta of the day along with eye-popping salad, sandwich offerings, and the ever-popular gelato bar. Dinner follows a cocktail time in the lounge and features three choices of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. A recent addition to some of the cruises is a pizza oven, located on the upper deck, for those nights when travelers prefer a casual dinner. Every evening ends with featured entertainment—and sometimes dancing. It makes a wonderful day.
Perhaps a cruise is not for everyone wanting to explore Italy, but for those seeking a meticulously curated itinerary, served up with excellent food and wine, Uniworld’s “Gems of Little Italy” is hard to beat. Veterans now of four excellent European river cruises, we have become fierce advocates of this style of travel. The only question remaining is “where next?” •