River cruising is one of the most immersive and relaxing ways to explore a destination, and the tranquil waterways of Europe offer a plethora of opportunities to enjoy this much-loved mode of slow travel. In Italy, the Po River flows 650km through the north of the country and provides the perfect setting from which to discover its landscape, people and history in the most delightful way.
One popular stop on Italian river cruises through the Veneto region is the lovely Villa Ca’Zen, a seventeenth-century villa in the Po Delta Nature Reserve, the country’s biggest regional park. The villa’s long and interesting history is inextricably linked to one of Britain’s greatest poets: Lord Byron.
In the early 1700s, many wealthy Venetian families established grand estates throughout the Po Delta region, using the area for shooting, fishing and crop cultivation. The Ca’Zen estate was built by the Zen family around that time, and is situated on the site of a small stone tabernacle that dates back to 1459 and is dedicated to Saint Margherita.
The original estate included the Venetian-style villa, along with a chapel, stables and a portico. The chapel has a beautiful aspect directly facing the River Po and contains two important statues (from the famous Bolognese School) that depict Mary and the Archangel Gabriel during the Annunciation. In the early 1800s, when the estate passed from the Zen family’s hands to the Marchesi Guiccioli of Ravenna, two extra wings were added to the villa, along with some outlying cottages and several large granary barns.
The history of the villa took on a romantic twist through its association with Lord Byron, perhaps the most romantic of all the great Romantic poets. Byron fell deeply in love with an Italian beauty, Contessa Teresa Gamba who, unfortunately, was already very spoken for as the wife of Alessandro Guiccioli.
Despite her marriage, the attraction was instant and mutual and they became lovers. Angered by their liaison, her husband sent her away to languish in the family estate (Ca’Zen) – which was far from the parties and social life of Venice – in an attempt to place distance between the poet and Teresa. Alas for Guiccioli, Byron instead pursued his passion and travelled secretly to the estate to be with Teresa. Whether it was due to his own amorous state or the inspiring landscape itself, it was from here that the poet penned some of his most celebrated and beautiful works, many of which were dedicated to his ladylove and the river.
In the ensuing years, the estate was taken over by the Casalicchio-Avanzo family, and it was the wife of Cavalier Pericle Avanzo, Elaine Avanzo Westropp Bennett, who suggested using part of the country house to rent out to visitors looking for some bucolic respite. Its location in the heart of the environmental reserve is ideal for a host of outdoor pursuits and, today, the villa is also very popular as a wedding venue.
Italian river cruises that take in the main branch of the River Po will often offer day excursions to explore the Nature Reserve and Villa Ca’Zen. The romance, history, culture and landscape of this relatively unspoilt region combine to create a truly memorable experience both on and off the water.