Story and Photos by Lisa TE Sonne
“River! That floweth by the ancient walls where dwells the Lady of my love….” Lord Byron wrote of the delta countryside of the Po River, not far from the Adriatic Sea.
Here, travelers today can indulge their own romances and muses . It was at Ca’Zen that Byron secretly enjoyed the love of his life, the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, the young third wife of the owner of the bucolic retreat. Elegant and unique, Ca’ Zen is a Bed and Breakfast in the European sense.
Ca' is Italian for House, and though the place is permeated with a sense of peace worthy of a Buddhist monastery, Zen refers to the powerful Zen family from Venice who built the Villa in 1710.
The rustic sanctuary feels far from any bustle, but the villa is also a launching hub for cultural richness – the Renaissance and Medieval treasures of Venice, Padua, Ferrara, and Ravenna are all within an hour’s drive. Ca' Zen also hosts its own concerts and art events, and the villa itself houses beautiful pieces of art from different historic eras.
Naturally romance and nature go hand in hand. The lovely views and the active options of canoeing, biking, and horseback riding allow guests to explore endlessly. Escape to the nearby Po River and its islands, or seek out the Euganian Hills on the horizon. Beaches on the Adriatic Sea are less than 30 minutes away. Excursions can be arranged to the “Nature Park,” billed as Europe’s largest wetland.
Even the geography offers poetic metaphor for balance – Ca' Zen is a pleasurable horseback ride to Polesine, which is touted as half-way between the North Pole and the Equator.
I spent a wonderful July evening at this enchanting villa with fellow passengers of La Bella Vita, a luxury barge traveling from Venice to Mantua on the Po River and Italian canals.
Although most of our meals on that trip were taken aboard the barge (superb cuisine thanks to chef Andrea Chin), our tour guide, Klaudia Neri, arranged a special evening for us, taking us to a private dinner at her friend’s childhood home. That friend is Baroness Maria Adelaide Avanzo, who grew up in Ca' Zen.
When we arrived at Ca’ Zen, the Baroness warmly greeted us, handing out flutes of Proseco in the backyard. She referred to the manor behind her as “a simple house,” since it lacked ornate frescos, but admitted the 100 windows were a bit much to keep clean.
The Baroness took me aside for a a private tour of the 300-year-old manse including a peek into the guest rooms. Each has been lovingly restored and is distinctly different with its own antiques and color schemes.
As we winded through the estate, I was allowed to touch the 2,000-year-old ("give or take a decade or two") Etruscan vases unearthed on the property years ago. Other Etruscan finds from the same archeological sweep were sent to museums, but the family retained a few precious pieces and now guests can share in the pleasure.
The Baroness pointed up to where her childhood playhouse once was, through a secret ceiling passage to the attic. She revealed that it had been a hiding place for people during World War II. The villa probably saved their lives.
The room and balcony where the romantic Lord Byron stayed looks out over expanses of Italian countryside. I close my eyes and imagine Byron penning STANZAS TO THE PO.
She will look on thee, I have looked on thee,
Full of that thought: and, from that moment, ne’er
Thy waters could I dream of, name, or see,
Without the inseparable sigh for her.
But according to the Baroness' effusive Irish mother, the current owner of Ca' Zen, some of the most memorable words about the former inhabitants of Ca' Zen were found in the diaries of Alessandro Guiccioli, who owned Ca' Zen during Byron’s time. As the husband of the much younger Teresa, who passionately paired with Lord Byron during and after her marriage. Guiccioli wrote to his much younger wife:
During your stay in Ca' Zen, You will get up early, dress with simplicity, organize the staff, have lunch with the agent, and in the evening you will go to bed early without seeing anyone.” …
And her letter back to him:
During my stay in Ca' Zen, I will get up at the time I wish, dress according to my inclinations, see and dine with whom I choose.
As far as I know, guests this century to the Bed and Breakfast are allowed to dress according to their inclinations, and see and dine with whom they choose, while also enjoying a diverse menu of culture and nature.
I didn’t want to leave after our candlelit dinner, the villa was so intriguing and comfortably elegant, but our floating suite on the barge also held a magnetic pull. I had miles to go for adventures ahead, including Mantua where the poet Virgil lived 18 centuries before Byron.
EUROPEAN WATERWAYS Barge trips:
from European Waterways, (www.gobarging.com)
Fact Box details:
Prices for a 6 night cruise aboard the 20 passenger La Bella Vita are from $3,840pp in a twin/double en suite cabin, including all meals, wines, an open bar, excursions, and local transfers. Full boat charters are also available.
European Waterways: Tel: +44 (0) 1753 598555
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