In historic and imposing Mantua, we were warmly welcomed aboard by Captain Diego and his crew, with a very appropriate glass of pre-dinner Prosecco. We were mixed nationalities from the US, Belgium and the UK, which, combined with our Italian crew, created convivial camaraderie throughout the cruise.
The next morning the US family party enjoyed a pre-arranged cookery class, whilst we took a walking tour through Mantua, escorted by a fascinating and knowledgeable guide, enjoying a breathtaking panorama from the shores of its lakes. The magnificent 14th century Ducal Palace with its baroque architecture, galleries, courtyards and gardens is not to be missed.
Our cruise director Laura explained the format for our days ahead, which fell into either cruising in the morning, with a shore excursion scheduled for the afternoon, or vice versa. At each delicious lunch and dinner our lovely Maitre d', Francesca, described the accompanying wines with a charming smile, each complementing the mouth-watering meals prepared by Chef Andrea. He never failed to amaze, whether serving 'Ravioli Manovana', or 'Queen Scallops "Veneziana" style'.
With maps and guidebooks on display in La Bella Vita's lounge, together with regional information from Laura, we were well prepared for our visit to the next highlight, the Renaissance city of Ferrara. There was such a surprise in store after our gourmet dinner that evening - our very own private concert performed by two opera singers - made even more dramatic by the short but heavy thunderstorm going on outside!
While some of the passengers went hot air ballooning early the next morning we enjoyed our leisurely breakfast in preparation for an excursion to the nearby Bagnoli Estate, with its delightful Renaissance gardens and private wine tasting of their own renowned estate grown vintages.
Travelling serenely downstream that afternoon, taking photos as we cruised, we joined the river Po en route to a peaceful overnight mooring, close to the beautiful 17th century villa Ca'Zen, for a truly memorable evening, with dinner hosted by the elegant daughter of the owning family, whose riverside estate was once frequented by poet Lord Byron.
Our morning cruise took us peacefully past a nature reserve before transferring to Chioggia, where leisurely time was spent in the atmospheric market; we also enjoyed a short tour of the pretty canals on a traditional, locally-built boat. That afternoon, our anticipation was building as we had now reached the Venice lagoon. Approaching the island of Pellestrina, past rustic fishing huts, the charming, colourful houses of San Pietro in Volta were so picturesque. And what contrasts awaited ashore…..there was even the chance to swim in the sea, walk along the beach, or cycle along the 18th century Istrian sea wall and sample some more Italian ice cream, of course!
With a mix of sadness and excitement we cruised into Venice, mooring on the waterfront outside the Naval Museum. Our last full day was spent visiting the wonderful Murano Glass factory and the renowned Doge's Palace. The last evening was more than magical - with pre-Captain's dinner drinks up on deck, watching the most stunning sunset over Venice - just unforgettable.
Throughout our cruise we had learnt so much, not only about Italian history and culture itself but also about both the wines and cheeses indigenous to the region. It truly was 'La Bella Vita'!