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River Countess cruise review

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ABOVE: During our voyage, two buses transported passengers to Padua, Bologna, Ravenna, and Verona. INSET BELOW: A guide in Verona, a Venetian water taxi, a gondolier, St. Mark's Basilica, the Rialto fish market, a scene in Padua, our pasta workshop in Bologna, a mosaic sign in Ravenna, Verona's Roman Arena, and a Quietvox radio receiver for tours.

Shore excursions

River cruises put a heavy emphasis on sightseeing. For many travelers, a river cruise is a "pack and unpack once" alternative to a group tour by coach, with the ship serving as a comfortable hotel that floats from one city or town to the next.

imageUniworld's River Countess cruise is a good example of this: The ship spends more time moored in ports than it does cruising, and its "Venice & The Gems of Northern Italy" is designed to offer a kind of chef's tasting menu of cities within driving distance of Venice and the Venetian Lagoon. Nearly all shore excursions are included in the cruise fare.

Venice sightseeing tours

imageIn Venice, excursions are on foot or by boat. Most local tours depart from the ship's mooring along the Riva dei Sette Martiri, within walking distance of the Piazza San Marco. For example:

imageA Walking Discovery of Venice takes you through the district of Castello to the Piazza San Marco and the Doge's Palace. You'll visit the Doge's Palace, which was the seat of government in the Venetian Republic from the 14th Century until the fall of the Republic in 1979. At the end of the morning's tour, you can go exploring on your own or return to the ship by water taxi (included) for lunch.

imageUniworld's exclusive after-hours illumination of St. Mark's Basilica is one of the cruise's highlights: Following an early supper and a vaporetto ride to San Marco, you're taken to the Basilica, ushered into the near-darkness, seated, and given an introduction to what you're about to see by an English art historian, Dr. Susan Steer. Then the custodian begins turning on the lights, and the Basilica's gilded Byzantine-style mosaics are shown in their full glory.

After admiring the mosaics, you're led behind the altar (where the remains of St. Mark are said to be buried) and downstairs into the crypt. When the tour is over, you file out of the Basilica and either walk or take a water taxi back to the ship for an evening buffet.

imageThe Rialto Food Markets are always popular with visitors, and Uniworld makes them easy to reach: You're taken directly to the fish and produce markets by water taxi, where you're treated to a guided tour of the markets and the immediate neighborhood with plenty of photo ops. After drinks and cichetti (the Italian version of tapas) at an historic wine bar, you return to the ship by water taxi or walk back on your own.

imageThe guide in our Rialto Food Markets water taxi was Cynthia Johnson (owner of Art Tours Italy), an American who lives in Italy and is a licensed Venetian tour guide. During the boat ride, she entertained our boatload of passengers with celebrity gossip, but she got serious when we reached the markets, so it was a win-win for everyone: We learned what Nicholas Cage did in the Hotel Cipriani's swimming pool, but we also had a fine introduction to the Pescheria and the Erberia, which have fed Venetians since 1097 AD.

Excursions by coach

The River Countess cruise itinerary includes tours to the cities of Padua, Ravenna, Bologna or Ferrara (your choice), and Verona.

imageThe half-day tour to the university city of Padua departs on Tuesday from Chioggia, at the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon. Normally it's a required tour: While you're ashore, the ship crosses a short stretch of the Adriatic Sea to reach the Po River, and regulations don't allow river vessels to carry passengers on the open sea. After visiting Padua (where Galileo and Copernicus taught, and Dante and Petrarch studied), you reboard the ship at Taglio di Po and cruise up the Po River to the comune of Polesella.

imageOn Wednesday, River Countess usually offers a choice of two tours: the arcaded university and gourmet city of Bologna (full day, with a pasta-making workshop before lunch) or the smaller but more exquisite Ferrara (a half-day excursion to a Renaissance city that once rivaled Florence for its patronage of the arts). Both cities are appealing, but if we were asked for a recommendation, we'd pick Ferrara: The bus ride is shorter, and you can see most of the city's highlights during your walking tour.

imageRavenna is your tour destination on Thursday. It's a compact, attractive city that once was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and it has some of the most remarkable Byzantine mosaics in Europe. (Tip: Unless you're starving, skip lunch and go exploring after the walking tour. If you're like us, you might come home with a memento from Anna Finelli's Annafietta mosaic workshop.)

imageRiver Countess returns to Venice on Thursday evening. On Friday, coaches depart from the Santa Marta pier for a day trip to Verona, which is most famous for Romeo and Juliet and a well-preserved Roman Arena that is still used for operas and pop concerts. During your city tour, you'll walk along the Adige River, cross the fortified Ponte Scaligero to the city center, see the courtyard of Juliet's house, and visit the 1st Century Arena di Verona. You'll also have time to explore the centro storico on your own.

More observations:

  • Quietvox audio receiverOn most Uniworld shore excursions, passengers listen to tour guides with Quietvox radio receivers, which have lightweight plastic earpieces. As we said in our River Baroness review, we were dubious about the system at first, but after using it, we think it's a great idea: Tour members don't need to crowd around the guide to hear the narration, which is more convenient for members of the tour group and less disruptive to other tourists.

  • Every walking tour includes a "Puccini group" for passengers who have mobility problems or simply enjoy a more leisurely pace.

  • Weather conditions and other events beyond Uniworld's control may dictate changes to the tour schedule. During our cruise, the illumination of the Basilica di Marco was moved from Monday to Friday, the Rialto Markets tour was shifted from morning to afternoon because of an acqua alta flood tide, and the excursion to Ferrara was cancelled because everyone wanted to visit Bologna.

Next page: Officers and crew

Uniworld River Countess cruise review:
River Countess: the ship
Cruise itinerary
Cabins and suites
Dining and lounges
Other amenities
Shore excursions
Officers and crew
Is River Countess right for you?
Web links

Ship and shore photos:
River Countess day-by-day cruise photo diary

Also see:
River Countess itinerary map
Venice Santa Marta pier (with map)
Venice for Cruisers