Il Burchiello: A tour of the Venetian Villas along the Brenta River

Shortly after we arrived in Milan, I saved a scrap of paper with the name of a river tour that several of my Italian lady friends strongly suggested I take before leaving Italy. I became worried that the Coronavirus shutdown would make this impossible, so imagine my delight when I checked the website of the Il Burchiello river tour once we were allowed to leave the Lombardy region and discovered that the tour from Padova to Venice was available several days later. The full day cruise passes 50 villas and stops at three: the Pisani, Widmann and Malcontenta villas. On one day they take the boat from Padova to Venice, and then the next day they go from Venice to Padova, so we were lucky enough to book their very first tour going in the right direction for us.

Our cruise started at an ancient port in Padova. The riverboat follows a path taken for more than 300 years in the summer by wealthy Venetians looking to escape the summer heat of Venice, creating a traffic jam along the Grand Canal in Venice and along the Brenta River, where ball gowns, poker chairs and other personal effects were loaded onto barges for fun and games lasting until November. The annual parties ended when Napoleon arrived in 1797, but 80 villas still stand elegantly along the river’s edges, with six of them now open to the public during each spring. We visited three of them on our trip.

Villa Pisani was built in 1774, with 114 rooms, a hedge-maze for lovers to get lost, and pools to reflect the beautiful villa. It has the feel of Versailles, probably because Alvise Pisani was the ambassador of Venice to Paris at the time of Louis XIV and the splendor of Versailles. Pisani commissioned architect Francesco Maria Preti in 1735 to redesign the main body of the Villa di Stra that was already built on the property. We were unable to visit inside due to Covid concerns, but the outside area was impressive enough. When the Venetian republic fell, the Villa became the property of Napoleon I, then the Savoy House, and then of the Italian States from which is was declared a National Museum. Hitler and Mussolini famously met here in the reception hall in 1934.

Villa Wildmann (or Rezzonico Foscari) is the next villa to stop and visit along our trip. It is a typical 18th century summer residence, built in the slightly rococo style and including an enormous Murano chandelier and frescoes in the grand ballroom with an upper viewing gallery where musicians could play for the guests below. Also upstairs is a gambling parlor where, according to local lore, villas were once gambled away in high-stakes games.

Villa Foscari (or La Malcontent) was the final villa where we stopped. It was built by Venetian artchitect Andrea Palladio in 1560 and includes beautiful weeping willows along the canal waters. It was built for the Foscari family and still belongs to descendants of the Foscaris. According to legend, the Villa owes its name “Malcontenta” to the unhappy soul of the wife of one of the Foscaris who was confined here against her will. There are six Ionic columns on the side facing the canal which creates a high base accessible by two ramps.

The trip itself was fun- the sun was out and we traversed through many locks. Each lock dropped the boat 2 meters or more and a worker basically followed our boat along the canal and river to open and close the locks on our trip. We had lunch along the way at a restaurant called Il Burchiello (it was the only game in town and was good enough) and enjoyed the sunshine and views for the 9 hour trip. It was special to finally exit the river and cross the channel to disembark at S.Marco. It was a glorious way to spend a day.