The Po River, the Canal Bianco, and surrounding waterways have always been working rivers used for trade, transport, agriculture, and manufacturing. That utilitarian past is still visible along many stretches of the waterways—so if you’re hoping for all-bucolic-all-the-time scenery, you should prepare yourself for some swathes of post-industrial detritus.
Still, for every rusting warehouse or abandoned boatyard, you’ll spot a pretty farmhouse, a soccer field with kids playing, or flocks of squawking herons and elegant swans. Because some sections of the Po and its tributaries are no longer navigable, reaching Ferrara and other sights sometimes involves longish bus rides. That’s partly why the approaches to Venice and Mantua are so pleasurable—the barge can moor right in town.
La Bella Vita is the only commercial barge cruising the route between Venice and Mantua that caters to the English-speaking market and isn’t charter-only. Beyond the barge, river cruise operators CroisiEurope and Uniworld offer itineraries encompassing Venice and several other cities and attractions of the area, with Croisi’s Michelangelo river ship (pictured above) also reaching as far as Mantua.