A cruise on Italy’s Po River gives you a ringside seat for some of Italy’s top cultural centres. It’s why river cruising is becoming so popular, as Brian Johnston reports.

River Countess is as aristocratic as her name implies; elegant and white-trimmed, so polite that there’s barely a tremor to disturb our wine-filled glasses as we set sail over dinner. Diners swivel their heads towards the restaurant windows. Venice floats past: bridges and wave-washed palaces, marble promenades and church domes burnished in the dying sun. This sinking city that flourished on sea trade should be admired from the water and we have grandstand seats.

I’ve been to Venice twice before. Like most, I’ve hauled suitcases, got lost, endured awful tourist food, elbowed my way through photo-snapping crowds. Venice by land is magnificent and frustrating. Venice by water from a luxury ship is just magnificent. All the cliches about river cruising’s convenience are amplified. How many people in Venice have rooms with full-on lagoon views, the best Italian food and nary a traveller’s worry?

Next morning we’re moored at Riva Sette Martiri. It’s a scenic 15-minute waterfront walk to St Mark’s Square for our guided tour of the Doge’s Palace, yet we’re right by Castello, one of Venice’s least visited quarters, where I find washing strung across buildings and locals prodding market-stall fruit. I take an afternoon stroll and am back in time for dinner. The waiter, Valentin, remembers my name and my wine preferences. I have veal with truffles in a cream sauce, easily the best meal I’ve ever had in Venice.

But every subsequent night on Uniworld’s River Countess, I tell myself I’ve had the best food in Venice. Savoy Restaurant is the main dining venue, with buffet breakfasts and lunches (soups, sandwiches, salads, pasta and a gluttony of desserts) and fine a la carte, Italian-influenced menus for dinner. The cheeses are a particular education: taleggio, asiago, stracchino, gorgonzola. For a more informal meal, Osteria Siena is a glass-enclosed cafe on the sun deck that serves salads and pizza.

Next day, we’re sailing away across a misty lagoon. As we slip past the island of Pallestrina, the sun illuminates multi-coloured houses. Church spires wobble in watery reflections. By lunchtime, we’re docked at Chiogga for our afternoon excursion to Padua, a lively old university town whose art-hung basilica houses the tomb of St Anthony. The town’s squares are busy with markets, its shops hung with salami. Students slurp gelato and strum on guitars beneath Gothic arches.

Our genial captain Thijs van der Lee is always at the gangplank to welcome guests back. Returning to the ship is a pleasure. The stylish decor is more subdued than on some Uniworld ships; cream, brown and blue predominate, with splashes of colour from Venetian carnival masks. A forward lounge and bar is the only real public space, but the vast deck provides the best views. Cabins are small even by river-cruise standards (the ensuite is particularly cramped), yet luxuriously presented with attentive details such as anti-steam mirrors, reading lights and a pillow menu.

That evening we’re nosing up the Po River but, in truth, we never sail far. River Countess isn’t so much a cruise ship as a floating hotel, puttering for short distances. Next day we’re back on the coach and heading to Bologna, city of red-hued towers and streets crammed with delicatessens for which the city is renowned. In a local cantina chef Louisa gives us a demonstration of pasta making, pulling ribbons of angel-hair and tagliatelle from her dough like a magician.

Uniworld’s shore excursions are nicely varied. Next day in Ravenna, it’s all about church mosaics that gleam in gold and green, and in Verona it’s a plunge into  history thanks to its Roman coliseum, Renaissance squares and, of course, the house and balcony where Romeo is said to have wooed Juliet.

Our ship makes up for its short runs by ensuring they’re spectacular. On the final day, we’re sailing the lagoon towards the islands of Torcello, Burano and Murano, a collection of churches and houses afloat on pale water. The cruise provides an overview of the lagoon that most visitors to Venice never get, and numerous times we ply the waterway past St Mark’s Square and Venice’s most iconic buildings. I sit and tuck into spaghetti with clams and mussels, sprinkled with parsley that we just bought that morning on our Rialto market tour with the ship’s executive chef. I’ve never seen Venice quite like this before, and I think I’m in love.

Highs: Seeing Venice and its lagoon from the water, and the ship’s exceptional dining.
Lows: Those who like being on the move along a river will be disappointed by this more sedate and circular float.
Best suited to: Culturally-minded couples of all ages. There are no amenities specifically for children.

CRUISE LINE: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
VESSEL: River Countess
RATING: 3.5-star
LENGTH: 361 feet
FACILITIES: Open-seating restaurant, cafe, bar/lounge, sun deck, fitness area, cabins with French balconies or window, lift.
BOOKINGS: Nine-night Gems of Northern Italy tour aboard River Countess, April-November 2016, is priced from $5,159 per person, twin-share. For bookings see uniworld.com