I had made it – half-way between the North Pole and the Equator. I hadn’t intended to be straddling the 45th parallel but I was there nonetheless, at Taglio di Po.
It was 2013 and I had read in the local paper about the official opening of the cycle route that ran along the river Po, past Taglio di Po and the many villas from the 17th to 19th centuries that dot this part of Italy.
From Rovigo, our only form of transport to Taglio was bus and that meant not being able to take our bicycles. Less than an hour from Rovigo and we were disembarking from the bus in the centre of Taglio. We had arrived at 2pm, and true to form the town was asleep. A few men sat in the shade of the coffee bars, nursing a Prosecco or Campari whilst we hunted for a bicycle hire shop.
Our hunt for a bicycle hire shop was futile, so we resigned ourselves to walking. Subsequently, we discovered there are in fact two hire shops in the town but their exact whereabouts was forgotten by our informer. All was not lost, by walking we were more inclined to stop, dive down half-hidden steps and find ourselves in conversation with fishermen who, after a poor day’s fishing sped off in their boats.
What’s in a name?
Taglio di Po gets its name from the engineering works carried out by the Serenissima of the Republic of Venice in the early seventeenth century. Taglio means cut in Italian, and the engineering cut saw the creation of a new channel of the river Po.
We walked a short distance from the town centre and onto the riverbank on the island of Ariano. Our destination was the villa Ca’ Zen, built by the Zen family and once the home of a lover of Lord Byron. We set off at a leisurely pace, frequently overtaken by power-walking women and casual cyclists.
Wide expanse of the Po
To our right was the wonderfully wide expanse of the Po, lined with trees and shrubbery from whence the chatter of birds was almost deafening. Herons, egrets and ducks sat in the shady branches, occasionally taking to the air or standing stock-still camouflaged by the foliage. To the left were fields of wheat, fruit trees and various vegetables.
An overgrown set of steps is always a temptation, and one I rarely resist. This set took us to the river’s edge where we found a small flotilla of fishing boats tied to posts, bobbing on the sun-dappled water.
Further along was the rickety and derelict boarding of what had once been a landing stage for pleasure cruises. If it had not been quite so time worn, I could have sat there and watched the life of the river unfold before me.
Villas abound in numbers
The region of Veneto is known for its villas, with a good many designed by Palladio. Ca’ Zen is not an example of a Palladian villa but one that had progressed from hunting lodge to villa.
The villa’s chapel caught our eye first, as we rounded a long curve of the track, nestled in amongst the greenery. We broke off from the main track and approached the villa along a short, shaded drive that offered us much welcomed respite. Lizards soaked up the warmth from the stones of the gateposts as three dogs, whose main aim was petting, greeted our arrival.
There is no denying it, Ca’Zen is a beautiful villa. Its asymmetric wings spread out from the central hall and the peeling green paint on the shutters evokes romantic feelings of faded grandeur.
The villa retains its grandeur with wooden beams, silver tureens and grand bedrooms; and is certainly a romantic setting. We rested on the terrace in the shade, looking up at the pink facade, snuggled into each other despite the heat – it brings that feeling of calm passion to you.
Byron and his lover
How calm Byron’s passion was when he was here, I could not tell; but he was a frequent visitor during his affair with the Contessa Teresa Gamba. Though married to the considerably older Alessandro Guiccioli, Teresa had begun an affair with Byron whilst in Venice.
Teresa’s husband sent her away from Venice to Ca’ Zen but that did not cool the ardour of the pair and they met in secret at the villa. Byron wrote Stanzas to the Po based on his time here, and even a poor poet like me felt enchanted enough to put pen to paper (though the effort was so poor I will not foist it upon you).
Back on our feet we explored the stables, said hello to the horses and goodbye to the dogs, then made our way back along the river to the town, which was showing signs of life.
Polesine – a pot pourri of experiences
Ca’ Zen is just one of a few of the villas along the Po’s banks that offer B&B, or full-board; and many of them offer bicycle hire, local guides, horse trekking and boat rides along the river.
There is a little bit of everything in Polesine, the strip of land that runs between the lower courses of the Po and Adige – villas, nature parks, museums and galleries – and it is the perfect base from which to explore further.
Venice, Ferrara, Padua and Bologna are all within easy reach by train, bus or car. Polesine itself is gloriously flat for easy cycling between towns and villages, only the Euganian Hills offering a small bump on the horizon. Due to its relatively unheard-of status Polesine also offers a less crowded alternative for holidaying.