Step Back in Time to Discover the Borgias' Italy; A Little-Known Part of the Eastern Italian Coast Charms Carole Howland with the History and Beauty of Its Architecture, Museums and Rare Wildlife
Byline: Carole Howland
As the boat glides through the green water, birds fly up from the marsh grasses. Two rows of posts with canes wedged in between hold the canal banks intact. Venice, this is not.
The Po Delta Park covers 150,000 acres of fresh and salt water marshes, the same kind of terrain - or lack of it - on which Venice was built, 70 miles to the north.
For centuries the inhabitants of the Po Estuary subsisted by salt-making and eel-fishing, occasionally fending off the Venetians who coveted their salt.
We dock at an old fisherman's hostel (now a museum). More than 20 men would have dossed on straw mats slung over wooden slatted cots in this sparsely furnished marsh house.
Live eels would have been held underwater in these huge cane baskets, smoked on these rows of spits and, afterwards, packed in these wooden buckets.
Cunning traps, posts lined with canes to form a series of 'arrows', were dug into the canals to catch the eels.
Poaching was rife. Eel fishermen had to manoeuvre their slim boats at night without lights through fog and ice by compass. Poachers sometimes hoisted their boats across dikes to avoid capture. I could just imagine the film - a family feud between poacher and legitimate fishermen.
Today the park area represents an exemplar of land reclamation and flood control as well as a bird sanctuary for more than 370 recorded species.
Sea swallows, and pink and coral seagulls are amongst the rare species and the delta is the only place in Western Europe where the pygmy cormorant nests. Visitors can explore by boat, launch or bike; birdwatching or fishing can be arranged. There are even houseboats and seven lidos line the sandy coast.
In a model in the Argenta Marsh Museum are realistic lightning and thunderstorms - kids and adults were transfixed - and tiny pumping stations demonstrate how floodwaters are channelled into the Adriatic.
A few minutes away, the Torre Abate is the real thing, a 17th-century brick pumping station built to a design by Leonardo da Vinci, no less.
Driving past pear and apple orchards and barren fields strewn with waste ripe tomatoes, you see the square perforated Romanesque bell tower of Pomposa Abbey rising from the plain. Possibly the second most visited church in Italy, seventh-century Pomposa served as staging point for pilgrims travelling the Via Romea to Rome.
An early intellectual centre, Pomposa is also noted for the work of musicologist Guido d'Arezzo, inventor of the musical staff. Its mosaic floor and frescoes, painted between the 10th and 14th centuries - those in the Chapter House by Giotto - are in surprisingly good condition.
On a salty lagoon a little to the north-east, the unimposing small town of Commachio, built on 13 islands connected by canals and bridges, was strangely empty at lunchtime like an abandoned film set.
But Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders had already been here, borrowing Commachio as a setting for their film, Beyond the Clouds. I climbed the steps of Trepponti (Three Bridges) where several canals meet, approached by five flights of stairs and gazed along the narrow, main canal. Slim punts lined one side beside a sign: 'escursione gratuita'. …