A Feast for the Senses – Cruising Venice on Uniworld’s River Countess
Article by Heather Koroluk, Photography Francisco Sanchez
“Look for octopus that is pale and tender to the touch,” says Executive Chef Tricu as he holds up a tangle of pulpo (octopus), its tentacles glistening in the sunlight.
It’s morning on the Venetian Lagoon, the 118-island archipelago on the cusp of the Adriatic Sea in northern Italy. Our group of culinary enthusiasts is participating in a walking tour of Venice’s famed Rialto Market with Daniel Tricu, Executive Chef of Uniworld’s River Countess.
Exploring Venice with a chef at your side is like being handed the culinary keys to the city. From shopping for fresh seafood to enjoying cicchetti (Venetian snacks) at a traditional bàcari wine bar, it’s an immersion into experiencing this classic destination as its earliest residents did and locals still do.
In 2019, while slightly different than our cruise itinerary, Uniworld’s Gems of Northern Italy odyssey will be a 10-day river cruise and motor coach journey from Milan to Venice with excursions to Bologna, Verona, Polesella, Chiogga and several islands of the Venetian lagoon. For first-time visitors to Italy like us, Uniworld’s all-inclusive philosophy makes it an effortless way to experience the best Italy has to offer.
Uniworld’s fully all-inclusive philosophy includes shore excursions, gourmet meals, all gratuities onboard and on land, scheduled airport transfers, wine and unlimited beverages, Wi-Fi, self-service laundry and more. The River Countess, one of the top-rated ships in the cruise industry, is boutique-sized with just 62 staterooms and 4 suites.
With an average of just 130 guests per ship and one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios of any cruise line, experiences can be tailored to guests’ needs and interests. As food fans, not only do we want to see Italy’s major sights, but we want to sample regional dishes at their origin. Excursions curated exclusively for Uniworld guests makes this possible.
After our market tour, back on the River Countess we enjoy the octopus carpaccio-style, sliced thinly with a sprinkle of olive oil that enhanced its delicate, plucked fresh-from-the sea- flavour.
The next morning, we awaken to the chiming of church bells from Chiesa di San Sebastiano, a 16th-century Venetian church. We peer out our French balcony, frothy cappuccino in hand, and watch as a vaporetto (water taxi) glides past on the crystal blue waters of the Venetian Lagoon.
Another advantage of being boutique-sized is that the River Countess is moored at the San Basilio pier, a special cruise terminal for small ships located beside a pedestrian promenade along the Giudecca Canal. This means it’s an easy morning stroll with our Uniworld guide across postcard-perfect footbridges to Venice’s historic center.
At the Piazza San Marco we weave past hundreds of people, bypassing the queues with our guide, to marvel at the opulent 14th century Doge’s Palace, a symbol of Venice itself, with its ceremonial staircases in Istrian stone and red marble, before exploring the building’s secret passageways.
Dinner that night takes place in the ship’s elegant Savoy Restaurant. Set on the main Marco Polo Deck with panoramic views of the lagoon, its luxurious Baroque décor feels formal yet airy and inviting. Unlike mega-ships where food provisioning for thousands of people can mean stockpiling goods, the River Countess’s compact size means menus can be seasonally inspired and locally sourced.
“Dishes made with local ingredients are marked ‘L’ on the menu,” explains our server who carefully takes note of diners’ food preferences and allergies. The menu features Italian classics such as scaloppine di vitello, rich osso buco Milanese and an inventive Bellini sorbet inspired by the famous Venetian cocktail.
After dinner, we step back off the River Countess for an exclusive after-hours tour
of St. Mark’s Basilica. We enter the hushed, empty church, an 11th-century masterpiece of Italian-Byzantine architecture, and learn of St. Mark the Evangelist as lights illuminate the jewel-studded altarpiece.
Over the course of the next several days, it’s a slideshow of sights and experiences as we immerse ourselves in northern Italy via the port of Polesella, on the Po River. In Padua, once home to scholars Galileo and Copernicus, we use our generous free time to relax over steaming cups of crema di menta cioccolate (mint hot chocolate) in the historic Café Pedrocchi.
Other culinary highlights include a hands-on pasta-making workshop at historic Cantina Bentivoglio in Bologna where we learn how to create fresh tagliatelle for ragu alla bolognese. Lunch is a showcase of local flavours that begins with antipasti of local cheeses, mixed cold cuts including mortadella and traditional Prosciutto di Parma cured ham. For mains there’s even a savoury eggplant parmigiana, a plant-based entrée we’re all keen to replicate at home.
In Verona, the famed city of Romeo and Juliet, Uniworld guests enjoy a look at the Casa di Giulietta where the ill-fated lover Romeo is said to have climbed Juliet’s balcony. The fact that it’s actually a 13th century inn doesn’t diminish the thrill of the atmospheric setting and we all step forward to place our hands on the bronze statue of Juliet, a ritual said to bring good luck in love. Later we enjoy spritz cocktails of sparkling Prosecco and red Campari overlooking the impressive Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheater built in the 1st century.
The pleasures of ship life wrap up each day. Our welcoming Category 1 stateroom, with its tranquil blue and white Baroque décor, is much like a floating luxury hotel and comes equipped with a queen bed, marble bath, French balcony, flat screen satellite TV and spacious built-in closet.
Onboard diversions include the Serenity Spa, a fitness centre, a well-stocked library and its own boutique. Evening entertainment onboard includes dancing to a live band, DJ music and even an opera performance of La Bohème. Often, we simply opt to spend the evening on the Upper Deck sipping bright yellow limoncello liqueur watching the stars rise above the inky sky.
We conclude our journey to “La Serrenissima” with memories of spectacular palaces, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and monuments, our culinary curiosity satisfied with regional specialties such as seppia (cuttlefish ink) risotto and Cynar, an artichoke-based Italian bitter liqueur.
Exhilarated by an immersion into Italy’s landscapes, culture and cuisine, we bid our fellow travellers arrivederci just as the chef welcomes the next group of culinary enthusiasts aboard the River Countess.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: Uniworld operates a fleet of luxury cruise ships along the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt, India, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Heather Koroluk is a Toronto-based travel journalist who specializes in luxury travel. Her work has appeared in Taste & Travel International and on several websites.
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