VENICE, Italy — For Kathy Selvaggio, 62, of Valencia, Calif., And several dozen other tourgoers, it is a night to remember.
Entering Venice’s centuries-old St. Mark’s Basilica through a side door, they shuffle down the main aisle in near darkness, taking seats near the altar. It is hours after closing time, and the cavernous icon of Venetian wealth and power is empty, its lights turned off.
Moments later, a bank of lights above the altar kicks on, revealing the glittering golden dome of mosaics above the raised tomb of St. Mark. Then another bank of lights switches on, and another, and soon the entirety of the enormous church and its many treasures — from its tessellated marble floors to its gold- and gem-covered alterpiece — are glowing.
“The fact that it was opened just for us makes it special,” Selvaggio says as she gazes across the Byzantine masterpiece’s mosaic-encrusted walls. “We’re getting the chance to really explore it, and I think that’s unusual.”.
It’s not the only unusual thing about this tour. As the evening comes to an end, a guide leads Selvaggio and her traveling companions to water taxis for a quick trip back to their accommodations. They are not in a local hotel or one of the giant cruise ships docked at the Venice maritime station, but in a small river ship tied up along a nearby waterway: Uniworld’s River Countess.
Earlier this month, Uniworld became the first U.S.-Based river cruise line to own and operate a vessel in Italy. Found until recently on Europe’s Danube, the 134-passenger River Countess was shipped to Venice on a giant transport vessel to sail indefinitely out of the city on seven-night “Venice & the Po River” itineraries. The trips include an extended stay in Venice as well as several nights on the nearby Po — the longest river in Italy.
For frequent river cruisers such as Susan Schmidlin, 69, of Edmonton, Alberta, the itinerary offers a much-awaited new way to explore Europe by river ship.
“Venice always has been on my bucket list,” says Schmidlin, chatting in the River Countess’ glass-walled Il Castillo Lounge as the vessel glides down the palazzo-lined Guidecca Canal on the way to the Po. After Uniworld voyages on the Rhine, Danube and Volga rivers, “I was excited to see Italy on the schedule.”.
The new trip represents a gamble of sorts for Uniworld, one of North America’s largest river-cruise operators. A boom in river cruising in recent years has created strong demand for new itineraries. But the major river-cruise companies have been reluctant to add trips in Italy because of the unpredictability of its waterways. The Po River is prone both to high and low water conditions that make navigating difficult, and vessels that head too far inland risk getting trapped as water levels fluctuate.
Uniworld itself abandoned an earlier attempt to sell trips on the Po in part because of water-level problems. From 2000 to 2001, and again from 2003 to 2005, the company chartered local vessels to offer several departures a year on the river, only to give up the effort after the 2005 season.
All aboard … The bus?
Now that it has added its own ship on the Po, Uniworld is offering a shorter itinerary that avoids the stretches of the river most prone to problems. Instead of sailing all the way up to Cremona, the River Countess travels only as far as Polesella, a small town 40 miles from the waterway’s mouth.
The result is a schedule that includes just a small amount of river cruising and, to the frustration of some passengers, several lengthy bus rides to get them from the accessible part of the Po to the region’s most interesting towns, including Ravenna, Bologna and Verona.
“I’d like to see more places where you could walk right into town from the boat,” says Joe Congemi, 73, of Staten Island, N.Y., A frequent river cruiser on his fourth Uniworld trip.
Pausing to talk in Ravenna’s central piazza after a 90-minute bus ride to reach the city, Congemi says he misses the flexibility and free time of Uniworld voyages on Germany’s Rhine and Portugal’s Duoro River.
Not that Congemi or other passengers are complaining about what they’re seeing. In Ravenna, a walking tour of the historic downtown includes a stop at the nearly 1,500-year-old, mosaic-covered Basilica of San Vitale, one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe, as well as the tomb of 13th-century poet Dante.
In Bologna, guides lead passengers through the well-preserved historical center to its two iconic leaning towers, and in Verona, the schedule includes a visit to a massive Roman amphitheater that dates to 30 A.D.
Still, the highlight of the trip clearly is Venice, where the River Countess spends nearly half the week. The ship docks at the canal-lined city on the first, second and seventh nights of the itinerary, effectively serving as a floating hotel as passengers explore such famed attractions as St. Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge.
Venice also is the jumping-off point for a day trip by bus to Padova, a partially walled town known for a chapel covered in frescoes by 14th-century painter Giotto.
To your left, you’ll see levies.
While cruising up the Po River itself is a fairly ho-hum experience (levies mostly block the view of the countryside), the trip includes scenic sailing around Venice and the surrounding Venice Lagoon, which is a hit with passengers. Still, this isn’t a cruise for lovers of long afternoons gazing at passing scenery.
Many passengers say the best thing about the ship is that it offers an easy, hassle-free way to tour the northeastern part of Italy without packing and unpacking multiple times to move from town to town.
“It’s way more convenient because you only have one ‘hotel’ to stay in,” Congemi says. “With some land tours, you’re living out of a suitcase.”.
Renovated in 2012, the River Countess also offers a level of comfort that isn’t widely available in some of the region’s towns, with upscale cabins that feature beds topped with fluffy European duvets and marble-lined bathrooms. Resembling a small boutique hotel, the ship has a rich, stylish décor that includes a vibrant turquoise-dominated bar area and a white-and-gold dining room serving multi-course meals, included in the fare. Wine and beer are available at lunch and dinner for no extra charge. The service, meanwhile, is efficient, elegant and friendly.
Add to that some of the world’s most enchanting sites, and Uniworld is banking on success.
“If you come to Italy and you’re not happy,” says cruise manager Tony Campailla, “you can’t be happy anywhere.”.
If you go …
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection (800-555-8333; uniworld.Com) is offering seven-night “Venice & the Po River” cruises from April through November starting at $2,899 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares include most meals; wine, beer and soft drinks during lunch and dinners; and excursions in ports. Not included are port charges of $172 per person.
Uniworld also is selling a 12-night “Splendors of Italy” trip that pairs the seven-night Venice and Po River cruise with two nights at a hotel in Florence and three nights at a hotel in Rome. Fares for the longer trip start at $5,499 per person, based on double occupancy.
The only other river line regularly offering trips in the region on a similarly sized vessel is a French company, CroisiEurope, which operates a 13-year-old ship called the Michelangelo. U.K.-Based European Waterways sells Po River cruises on a much smaller vessel, the 20-passenger La Bella Vita.