The Po

Italy’s longest river (670 km or 415 miles), the Po, flows eastward across northern Italy from Monte Viso in the Cottian Alps across the agricultural and industrial areas of northern Italy and lush plains of the Val Pada, and then empties into the Adriatic Sea near Venice. Partly thanks to Leonardo da Vinci, the river is connected to Venice, the city of romance, via a network of channels he helped design. Though Venice is the ultimate destination for cruises on the Po, as it wends its way across the country, the Po travels through or near many important ports of call, such as Turin, famous for the 2006 Winter Olympics and the Shroud of Turin, the fashion and design capital of Milan; and the unforgettable cities of Shakespeare: Verona, Padua, and Mantua. Cruising on the river Po affords the opportunity to explore these treasures as well as the Po Valley, which is home to many of Italy’s most magnificent historic cities. Most cruises on the Po focus on Venice, and typical itineraries include Chioggia, Padua, Ferrara, Bologna, Verona, Mantua, Cremona, Parma, Le Roncole and Bussetto.

Destination Highlights of a Po River Cruise

Venice

Venice is a dreamy, romantic, magical town located on the edge of the Venice Lagoon. Composed of 118 islands and numerous canals, the town has inspired artists, musicians, poets, and lovers throughout the centuries. The main sights include the incomparable Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), a trapezoidal ‘square’, with an amazing array of things to see, hear, taste, and experience. The crowning glory of the square is the grandiose Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's Basilica), the most famous church of Venice, which exhibits an eclectic mix of architectural styles, mosaics, Byzantine domes, and treasures from the Near East and Asia.

Piazza San Marco is also home to a clock tower, Torre dell’ Orlogio, which has been faithfully ringing the hours since 1499, and the Campanile, an 8th century guard tower measuring 325 feet. An elevator-ride to the top can give you wonderful views of the lagoon and the city. The Mercerie, a series of interconnecting shopping streets leading to the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), can be reached through the archway of the clock tower. The Ponte di Rialto was the first bridge over the Grand Canal and the gateway to the commercial heart of Venice, from which you can admire the marketplace, warehouses, and palaces.

Take a moment to relax and have some coffee or Prosecco wine at some of the inviting cafés on the square. Some famous one include the Caffè Quadri, where occupation troops from Austria had Turkish coffee in the first half of the 19th century, and Caffè Florian, which, since 1720, has been a hangout for such illustrious characters as Balzac, Byron, and Henry James.

The Grand Canal is the main canal or water highway of Venice and is filled with traffic. Many gondolas are still used as ferries or traghetti. A gondola trip on the Grand Canal is an unforgettable experience, affording amazing views of the ornate palaces and grand houses from the 14th to the 18th centuries, which line its route.

The Gallerie dell’Accademia was once a convent and now houses an astounding and complete collection of 14-18th century Venetian paintings, from masters such as Titian, Canaletto, Bellini, Carpaccio, and Tintoretto.

The Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace is the seat of the Republic and a striking Gothic edifice with Byzantine roots.

Ca’ d’Oro is a magnificent 15th century gothic palace, home to an impressive selection of 15th and 16th century paintings, tapestries, and bronzes.

Built by the Franciscans, Santa Maria Glorioso dei Frari, in San Polo, is the largest and greatest of the Venetian gothic churches. It is the home of Venice’s divine treasure trove, including Titian’s Assumption altar painting and Bellini’s sacristy altarpiece.

The Ghetto of Venice is a unique and extraordinary historic quarter and a lively center of Jewish activity. There are five synagogues dating from the 15th and 16th centuries and the interesting Museum of Jewish Art.

Chioggia

Chioggia is a busy fishing port with a small medieval center located at the southern end of the Venice lagoon. Though much was destroyed in a bloody battle in the late 14th Century, there are some sites to take in, such as the 11th century Santa Maria cathedral and the 14th century churches of San Martino and San Domenico.

Padua

Padua is an ancient and picturesque walled town, with a dense network of arcaded streets. Famous for it’s university, where Galileo taught mathematics in 1592, it is also the setting for Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and frequently visited as a half-day trip from Chioggia. Padua’s highlights include the 13th century Basilica del Santo 13th built in honor of St. Anthony, the patron saint of the town, the Capella degli Scrovegni, with the 39 fresco cycle created by Giotto, and the Mercato delle Erbe market, with a huge range of regional produce.

Ferrara

Ferrara is a walled town with massive ramparts surrounding a large castle at the center and a combination of narrow lanes, wide streets, and lavish squares. Home of the Este Dynasties from the 13th to the 15th centuries, the families left behind some noteworthy structures, such as Castello Estense, the most prominent building in town, the Palazzo del Municipio, an earlier residence, and Palazzo Schifanoia, housing some Renaissance frescoes by Francesco del Cossa. In addition, there is the Cathedral San Giorgio, with a Romanesque Gothic façade and the fine palace, Palazzo dei Diamanti, home to the National Gallery. Ferrara is accessible from the small town of Polesella; a usual mooring spot on Po River cruises.

Bologna

Bologna is a town of great historical interest and therefore often included as a full-day excursion on Po River cruises, though it does not lie on the river itself. Located at the foot of the northern Amennine Mountains, Etruscan-founded Bologna is the principal city of the Emilia Romagna region, and the site of the first university of Europe, which was established in 1088. The city has the second largest historic center in Europe, with a wealth of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque monuments and architectural achievements. There are a multitude of medieval defense towers to see as well as numerous important churches, including the Basilica di San Petronio in the Piazzo Maggiore, one of the largest churches in the world, the San Petro Cathedral, and the Basilica di San Domenico, to name a few. In the heart of the city are some lovely squares, such as Piazza Nettuno and Piazza Maggiore, surrounded by renaissance and medieval buildings, outdoor cafes, and street artists.

Verona

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Verona is an ancientt and Romanesque city in the Venoto Province of Northern Itraly, located in a loop of the Adige River near Lake Garda. It is usually included as a half- or full- day excursion on Po river cruises. The city boasts a number of Roman and medieval monuments, with a compact medieval center, resplendent with smooth marble-paved shopping streets and façades depicting 600-year old frescoes.

The most famous site is the rose-coloured Roman Amphitheatre, the Arena, located on Piazza Bra, which is the third largest arena in Italy. The Roman Theatre is also worth a look in addition to several of Verona’s noteworthy churches. The Church of Sant’ Anastasia is a huge and lofty Dominican construction with an interior boasting one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic workmanship in northern Italy and the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of Romanesqe architecture.

Verona is home to many beautfiul piazzas, among them the Piazza delle Erbe, encircled by 14th century palaces, and the Piazza dei Signori, with the Scaligeri graves. The piazzas offer many lively outdoor cafes and shops and are perfect for sampling some of the local wines, such as Bardolino, Reciote, Soave, or Valpolicella.

This city inspired Shakespeare and was mentioned in his works, Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Though Shakespeare invented the story of Romeo and Juliet, and their feuding clans, the families were indeed based on the very real Cappello and Montecchi familes. At Casa de Giulietta, visitors can see the famous balcony from Romeo and Juliet. A few minutes away is Romeo’s house, though it has not been well-preserved and cannot be visited.

Mantua

Mantua is an important and picturesqe city in Lombardy, Italy and the capital of the province of the same name. The old city center is perched on a peninsula reaching out into one of the three artifical lakes, which surround the city on three sides and receive water from the river Mincio. Having been mentioned in Shakespeare’s tragedy of love and feuding familes, Romeo and Juliet, Mantua is also the hometown of the poet Virgil, and a flourishing center of the arts. The city has a lot to offer in the way of sights, with a variety of ancient stone churches and small shops, lively cafes, and a bustling marketplace. The most impressive and lovely squares are the Piazza dell’Erbe and marketplace, the Piazza del Broletto, a medieval oasis, and the Piazza Sordello, a handsome and cobbled place to enjoy some local dishes.

The powerful Gonzaga dynasty had its seat here in the 14th centurey, leaving behind their impressive residence, the Palazzo Ducale, gathered around the Palazzo del Capitano, the Magna Domus, and the Castle of St. George. The palace is madde up of a number of buildings, gardens, and courtyards exhibit the family’s greath wealth and a huge colleciton of renaissance art and fresoces.

Outside of the walled section of Mantua is the Palazzo Te, an elegant country palace built in the Renaissance style with some post-Raphaelian mannerisms, housing the Museo Civico. The palace was the summer residential villa of the Gonzaga family and affords views of sweeping gardens opposite the cathedral. It is said that lovely villa served as the inspiration for Versailles in France, Nymphenburg near Munich in Germany, and Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria.

Cremona

Capital of the province of of the same name, Cremona is a busy port city located on the left shore of the Po river in the Po Valley in the area of Lombardy. Boasting a distinguished musical history and one of the most important music towsn in Italy, there are important Renaissance and Baroque music ensembles, a famous music festival, plus the famed Museo Stradivariano, giving homage to the infamous violin.

The main church is the 12th century cathedral, Duomo di Cremona, which is an eclectic blend of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Barogue elelments with an important collection of art and frescoes. There is a lovely square in the town center called Piazza del Commune, which is surrounded by palaces and medieval monuments, such as the Terrazzo, the tallest bell tower of its kind in Europe, affording a spectacular view over the terracotta rooftops of the city, with its violin workshops and astrological clock.

For an impressive array of priceless stringed instruments, it’s essential to visit the Collezione del Palazzo Comunale, which has the oldest violin in the world.

Parma

Located on the Parma River between Piacenza and Reggio Emilia, Parma is a town famed for its culinary heritage. Delicatessen-lined cobbled lanes populate the handsome town center, offering local goods, especially Parma Ham, Parmigiano Cheese, and the Colli di Parma wines, plus a colorful market with an abundance of fresh produce. In addition to culinary specialties, Parma was the place where Verdi and Toscanini composed some works, and there are some beautiful places to visit, such as the lovely Cathedral, which houses Correggio’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and the National Gallery, located in the 17th century Palazzo della Pilotta, the ancient home of the wealthy Farnese family.

Lying amidst countryside of gentle wooded hills, Parma is also the starting point for visiting some very impressive and well-preserved castles located to the south, between the Po River and the Apennine mountains. Virtually unchanged since the 15th century, when it was built upon the ruins of a fortress high above the valley floor, Torrechiara is a wonderful castle, filled with frescoes depicting fantasy scenes and ancient battles.

Le Roncole (RoncoleVerdi) and Bussetto

These towns in the province of Parma are associated with the life and works of composer Giuseppe Verdi. Le Roncole is a sleepy village and the hometown of the composer. To pay homage to the master, you can visit the composer’s birthplace-come-museum, Casa Natale del Maestro, and the nearby church where the organ used by the young Verdi is housed. The village and the surrounding countryside, including the village of Bussetto, were the center of Verdi’s universe and there are many monuments and references to the composer, including a statue of him in Bussetto.