If you haven’t travelled to Italy yet, I’m sure it is near the top of your bucket list. It’s a country that everyone needs to experience in their lifetime at least once. The history, the culture, the food, the beauty…Italy is a magical and unforgettable destination.
While my partner, Justin and I have explored Italy in the past (travelling by train and by foot), taking an Italian river cruise was a more relaxed approach. We embraced slow travel, which seems to be more in line with the Italian way of life. If you are looking to delve deeper into history, taste authentic Italian cuisine, and visit quieter places that aren’t in every guidebook, river cruises of Italy are exactly what you need.
On our luxury barge cruise aboard La Bella Vita, we had the opportunity to visit famous destinations and unfamiliar territory. We started our trip in Venice with a healthy balance of guided activities and free time to explore. On our first day, an extremely knowledgeable tour guide gave us a private tour of the Doge’s Palace where we strolled across the Bridge of Sighs and learned more about the history of Venice.
After spending the night on the barge, we spent the following morning on the nearby island of Murano, witnessing a master glassblower create stunning works before our eyes. With our free afternoon in Venice, the two of us wandered around the Castello district where La Bella Vita was docked. We escaped the crowds to nearby parks, gardens, and canals, which was a fantastic alternative to the hustle and bustle surrounding St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge.
La Bella Vita departed Venice and we visited Pellestrina, a little known island of the Venetian Lagoon. There were virtually no tourists there, so it was a little slice of paradise that we had all to ourselves. There are always bicycles available on board La Bella Vita, so we went cycling on a lengthy waterfront path, after tasting some scoops of gelato from a local shop.
Some other interesting places of interest that we visited on our cruise included the seaside town of Chioggia, Adria, Ferrara, and Manuta. I adored walking around these beautiful Italian towns. There’s so much incredible Renaissance architecture to discover and intriguing stories to uncover. Our cruise director, Ilaria, accompanied us on many tours and was a wealth of knowledge.
It was also such a treat to spend an evening at the Villa Ca’Zen, a magnificent Italian estate. This is a very authentic experience that we likely wouldn’t have had on any other trip. Our small group dined with the estate owners and learned about the history of the villa, their family and the region.
We spent another afternoon at the Bagnoli Estate Winery. Justin and I toured the Renaissance gardens and property of this former monastery, and sampled the wine of the 17th century Villa Widmann Borletti. This winery has supplied wine to the Venetian society for centuries, so it was such a treat to taste it for ourselves.
Another reason to book your Italian river cruise is for all of the delicious food. Gourmet food and wine is a major component of barge cruising. It’s fine dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner with high quality meals prepared by a talented chef. There’s a huge emphasis on local and fresh ingredients gathered from local markets. Chef Andrea often prepared meals based on the local cuisine of the towns and regions we were visiting that day.
After hours of adventures in the various villages and towns, it’s always such a treat to return to delicious multi-course meals at lunch and dinner. Before dinner, we always enjoyed an aperitivo (a pre-dinner drink and snacks) with Maitre Francesca, recounting the activities of the day.
Francesca went into great detail about the red and white wines served at lunch and dinner, including some interesting facts and where the grapes were grown. Chef Andrea and Francesca also told us a few fun facts about each dish. If you have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, that is not a problem. I follow a vegan diet and one of our fellow passengers had a few food allergies. In my case, Chef Andrea created imaginative plant-based dishes, many of which mirrored the omnivore meals so I didn’t feel left out. There’s always a cheese course before dessert, and I enjoyed many plant-based cheeses – some that Chef Andrea prepared from scratch himself!
A Relaxing Way to Travel
There’s no rushing from place to place or cramming yourself into a bus full of tourists. Italian barge cruising is all about relaxing and savouring each moment. The La Bella Vita barge can visit many off the beaten path spots around Venice and Northern Italy. Many other cruises and ships simply cannot travel to Venice any longer due to restrictions. La Bella Vita is a smaller barge, meaning that we can navigate down waterways that other cruises cannot visit. We sailed from Venice down to the Bianco Canal, a quiet waterway beside the River Po.
It’s also very relaxing to unpack once, spend the night in a comfortable stateroom, and wake up in new towns each day. La Bella Vita is a very comfortable and cozy place to call home. The staterooms had everything we needed, and the common areas were quite spacious. There were couches, a small library of books, and even a piano. On the upper deck outdoors, there were plenty of loungers and chairs where we relaxed and marveled at the view. Feeling cold? There are blankets. Fancy a drink? You can always have a cup of coffee, tea, a beer, a glass of wine, or anything you choose!
I’ll start with the incredible staff aboard La Bella Vita. From the moment you arrive, they welcome you on board and make you feel like family! La Bella Vita can host between 10 and 20 passengers with a staff of 6-10 crew members. With such a high ratio of crew to passengers, I can attest to the fact that it is a very personable and hospitable experience.
The staff truly goes above and beyond to make your trip very special. If there’s anything you need, they will try their best to make it happen. There are so many surprises and special additions along the way. I won’t spoil any of them for you, but you will love them.
On our Italian river cruise, there were nine crew members: Captain Diego, 2nd Captain Roger, Deckhands Babu and Andrew, Maitre Francesca, Hostesses Leoniya and Orietta, Chef Andrea and Cruise Director, Ilaria. Thank you to everyone who made our trip so magical!
When you sail on a barge cruise, you’ll meet many wonderful fellow passengers from around the world. You’ll dine together and tour around together. I’ve travelled on two barge cruises so far, and everyone I have met has been fabulous. We met two lovely ladies on board La Bella Vita and we’ve stayed in touch with them. It’s very common to make new friends on the barge and keep in touch!
Themed Italian River Cruises
For a unique experience, you can sail aboard La Bella Vita for a themed barge cruise. If you have a particular interest, you may be able to take a cruise centered around that theme. For instance, there are opera cruises, golf cruises, wine appreciation cruises, garden cruises, and family cruises that are perfect when travelling with small children. If you are a solo traveller, there is a solo cruise itinerary, perfect for making new friends on the barge.
In addition, it is possible to reserve the entire La Bella Vita barge for a private charter if you are sailing with a larger group. Have a special occasion to celebrate with your loved ones? Interested in visiting Italy with your extended family? You can reserve La Bella Vita for a private sailing.
Thank you again to European Waterways and the crew aboard La Bella Vita for such a memorable and amazing trip. From the destinations to the small group tours, and the delectable food to luxury barge living, I can’t imagine a more comfortable way to slowly travel through Italy.
Meet the Author
Lauren Yakiwchuk is an award-winning travel blogger and content creator from Toronto, Canada. Lauren and her partner, Justin travelled aboard the La Bella Vita barge from Venice to Mantua in April 2022.
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Images © Lauren Yakiwchuk