Cruising Italy’s waterways

Derek Banks, founder of European Waterways, became fascinated with barging, an amazing 17th century transport network, when he moved to La Maison Eclusiere de Fleury on the Nivernais Canal in Burgundy, France. After qualifying as a yacht master at early age, he spent time delivering motor and sailing yachts around the coasts of Europe. Hr then had a year sailing in Greece in the Sporades islands in 1976 with a flotilla cruise specialist setting up their base and having lots of fun! He then moved to Burgundy to start up a self- drive cabin cruiser business on the Canal du Nivernais.

But he had an immediate attraction to the larger barges which were still carrying wine and freight – how did skilled barge masters thread their huge vessels into locks with about enough room for a credit card on either side?  He and a long standing friend John Wood-Dow bought their first barge “Anjodi “, in Holland. An original Dutch hull from 1929, she had been retired from hauling grain for 10 years and was then lying, looking rather forlorn, in an Amsterdam backwater. After a painstaking but thoroughly enjoyable two years transformation, employing a whole variety of skilled craftsmen and characters, Anjodi as she fundamentally is today was created (she featured  in the BBC’s cooking series French Odyssey, hosted by celebrity chef Rick Stein).

European Waterways offers themed (say family, or honeymoon) and geographically-set Classic Cruises. Take Italy, for the romantic landscape that so inspired Byron, and fuelled one of the most notorious love affairs in history. As you cruise through the captivating countryside surrounding some of Italy’s most famous cities, you might just discover something you never expected.

A Classic Cruise on the  20-passenger La Bella Vita takes us up Italy’s longest river, the Po, which stretches across the hilly, northern region of the country. On its eastern end, the river fans out into the famous Po Delta wetlands. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the delta abounds with an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, and is especially popular with horseback riders and bird watchers.

Our favourite part of the Po River Delta, however, is the impressive Ca’Zen, an imposing villa built by a Venetian Patrician family during the 18th century. Our barge hotel guests spend an evening dining here when they join us on the Classic Cruise. Nestled in 300 lush acres of greenery and forest, this salmon-pink villa is well worth a look.

But it is the villa’s history which enchants its visitors. In the early 1800s, Ca’Zen was the secret retreat of the Countess Teresa Guccioli and her lover Lord Byron. Banished to the estate by her jealous husband, the count, Countess Teresa continued the affair with the English poet in the Italian countryside. From their illicit affair sprang some of Byron’s most famous works, including Stanzas on the Po and the completion of Don Juan.

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