Tim Warrington finds himself bewitched by the charms of a Countess he meets in Venice.
"There is no such thing as 'Spaghetti Bolognese'."
Our cruise manager announced this during her nightly briefing in the forward lounge. I'd been on the River Countess less than 48 hours when Louisa unhinged my culinary world with this revelation. I winced and covered my ears as I felt a million English dinners disappearing in a vapour of mistaken identity.
I imagined my tomatoes back home dangling forlornly from the vine, and my basil withering with every syllable she uttered. "It's ragu," she said, as I tuned back in. "Italians would never put meat sauce with spaghetti."
Full marks for information and reason I thought, but what's for dinner?
Another exquisite a la carte offering in the ship's sumptuous aft restaurant as it turned out.
It was my first cruise and she was a beauty. Uniworld's 10-day "Gems of Northern Italy" had quashed every preconceived notion of cruising I'd ever had.
They operate an international fleet of 17 exquisitely appointed luxury floating boutique hotels. Their brochure says "You deserve the best" and who was I to argue? "Alright", I thought to myself, "give it to me."
And they did — right down to the decanters of top shelf spirits in my suite, personal Nespresso machine and nightly assortment of chocolates.
The well-stocked minibar was a constant temptation as I passed to the marble bathroom with his and hers sinks, rainwater shower and Hermes toiletries.
My initial fears of Celine Dion muzak piped to every corner of the ship and the razzle-dazzle of nightly talent shows were quickly allayed as we boarded the vessel. Not a squeak of My Heart Will Go On, or a ship's magician in sight.
The River Countess is a classy lady.
The 130-passenger ship was filled with light and colour — and original Picassos. Other ships in the fleet boast original works by Degas and Matisse — originality is the finest form of luxury, they say.
Muted shades of turquoise complemented by soothing cream, taupe, and white accents created a luxurious and sophisticated environment.
The only sound: the swish of the butler's tails as he sabred a champagne bottle. Not a flipflop in sight and everything just as it should be — except for the spag bol, which I'd forgotten at the first sip of the most divine Aperol Spritz.
I was still giddy with excitement at seeing the Duomo and The Last Supper in Milan, when we arrived in Venice.
Within seconds of boarding I had already scheduled my teary goodbye. I knew it was going to be hard leaving. Venice: it was love at first sight.
Of course, I had seen it on television and in magazines, but once I'd boarded the River Countess I realised I was about to experience Venice from the best seat in the house. What better way to visit a city hugged by the ocean than by wining, dining and reclining on the water. We were moored right in the thick of it — a short walk to Piazza San Marco. Our ship — our quiet haven of tranquility — was smack-bang in the centre of one of the busiest, most beautiful cities in the world — with all of its delights, just around the corner.
The little touches on board had wooed me, but so did the grand gestures on dry land. We experienced a private tour of Saint Mark's Basilica, accompanied by our resident historian, Susan, who provided a fascinating commentary on the history of the church, its breathtaking mosaics and the ancient crypt below.
Another guided tour: to the Doge's Palace to gaze upon murals by Tintoretto and Titian, not to mention the exquisite Bridge of Sighs. King for a day — or week — never sounded so right.
"Just popping down to Gucci to pick up some loafers — back in 10," I told the captain as I passed him on the gangplank — because I could.
And it wasn't ridiculous saying it; neither was the Chanel-clad pug trotting out of Bulgari, or the little plastic rain coats they gave shoppers for their designer shopping bags at the slightest hint of rain.
Because it's Venice, and it's sublime.
As I sauntered back to the ship, over bridges and past gondolas, I saw tourists battling suitcases on cobbled streets — and I continued on with a wry smile, even more thankful for my marine lodgings.
Absolutely everything on board had been shipshape and Bristol fashionista. But on the bus to Bologna, Louisa's pasta revelation still fresh in my mind, I felt I'd dropped the meatball. Spaghetti Bolognese, the only recipe I knew by heart, didn't exist. And we were about to visit its home town.
We'd come for a tour, a spot of shopping and a pasta-making demonstration.
Bologna is as red as the pasta sauce for which it has become famous: red earth, red bricks and everywhere around us red buildings and towers soaring skywards. The city is unmistakably Italian by design, and so stylish even the graffiti has flair.
The pasta demonstration was informative and entertaining, but best of all I received a copy of Cantina Bentivoglio's recipe for traditional Bolognese Ragu. No longer was I a maverick figure of the kitchen heaping abuse on my spaghetti. From now on I'd do it right. That night I lay awhile in my handcrafted Savoir of England bed, smiling widely, my mind sorting my tagliatelle from my fettucine.
Another excursion, this time to Padua and more treats for the taste buds.
The waiter at Caffé Pedrocchi begged me not to stir their famous mint coffee to avoid disturbing the exquisite alchemy of flavours. The signature beverage offers a different taste at every sip as the flavours burst in a kaleidoscope of coffee and mint. Anti-Austrian revolutionaries of 1848 mustered there, as did Lord Byron, in quieter times.
Padua, like all excursions is optional, and there is a variety to suit all tastes and levels of physical activity. There are 18 included excursions: from Chioggia mussels and a half-day trip to Ferrara, to the fairytale islands of Torcello, Mazzorbo and Burano.
Due to Italian maritime regulations, guests are not allowed to remain on board while the ship transits the Adriatic Sea. This happened twice during the cruise; you simply join an excursion, but, other than that you can relax on the ship as much as you like — perhaps a spot of yoga on the top deck?
At our Last Supper, it was hard to shake the glum reality that we were soon to bid farewell to The Countess. I had become fond of her during those seven days, and more than a little spoiled, but I managed to muster enough cheer to enjoy the sumptuous feast put on for the Captain's farewell gala dinner.
Louisa, the cruise manager to my left asked me what I thought. "About the cruise?" I asked.
"Tremendous." And it was.
An all-inclusive Milan/Venice luxury river cruise really is a gem. And it really is all-inclusive, so inclusive I spent the last morning boring another notch in my belt to accommodate my waistline. As the taxi drove away from the harbour on the last day I cast a final glance over my shoulder and closed my eyes with a wistful sigh and a silent promise to return.
Book Uniworld's 10-day Gems of Northern Italy boutique river cruise from Milan to Venice before May 31 and save $1500pp on select 2019 voyages, now priced from $3699. Call 0800 484 333, see your travel agent, or go to uniworld.com