Cruising near Venice's Grand Canal

The five-star MV Casanova, a slow boat to Shakespeare's Italy with an Elizabethan feeling, near Venice's Grand Canal. The tower of the San Giorgio Maggiore church, back left, stands behind the ship. (AP photo)

William Shakespeare wrote a dozen plays about Renaissance Italy, but never planted a buskin there. Yet the Bard looms large, both culturally and commercially, in Venice and Padua, Verona and Mantua, indeed most everywhere in the valley of the Po.

Going down Venice's Grand Canal, Charles Dickens imagined he saw "old Shylock passing to and fro upon a bridge and a form I seemed to know as Desdemona leaning out a latticed window to pluck a flower. I thought that Shakespeare's spirit was abroad upon the water somewhere, stealing throughout the city."

We had the same eerie Elizabethan feeling when we boarded the MV Casanova, a slow boat to Shakespeare's Italy. Just before sailing, we strolled down the fondamenta, the embankment, and saw a girl in a Padua University T-shirt studying a poster for an upcoming Shakespeare festival. She offered to show us Othello's house along the Grand Canal, his tomb in the church of San Giobbe and the very spot near the Rialto bridge where Shylock had his pawnshop and demanded his pound of flesh.

The two Moors striking the hour on the bell tower in Piazza San Marco, she assured us, were "Othello's cugini," his cousins. If we had time, she could also show us Desdemona's digs. Probably Portia's pad too, but the 6 p.m. departure time summoned us to other venues where the Bard's characters lived on.

Now in its third season on the Po River, the five-star Casanova headed up the lagoon to the flutter of pigeons and the angelus chimes of 107 churches, past that bizarre blend of gothic, baroque and Byzantine palazzos and basilicas outlined against a baby blue Canaletto sky.

"Opium couldn't build such a place," Dickens once mused about Venice. The city is even more dreamlike when viewed from the deck of a boat as sunset guilds the Doge's palace and the domes of the Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore - Palladio's masterpiece and the clustered oriental spires of fabulous St. Mark's.

"It is a sight that I never tire of," remarked Capt. Joachim Schramm as he detoured the 335-foot-long riverboat with gleaming white with red trim into the Canale Bianco, the White Canal. Rising in the Alps, Italy's longest river curls and twists and piles up shoals for 425 miles in an unpredictable, unruly torrent of alternating dangerous floods and incorrigible low water.

The unpotable Po was proving uncooperative again. Last evening, a rival riverboat got hung up on a sandbar, so the captain ventured up this pleasant, little-used canal, lined with fields of rice and asparagus and ancient farm buildings with red tile roofs. Off in the distance, like cones of gelato, Italian ice cream, loomed the snow-tipped Alps.

Along the banks, poppies, honeysuckle, wild irises and mushrooms glowed like fire opals among the reeds. Joggers and bikers kept pace with our 5-knot speed, and whole families alighted from cars and mopeds to wave as we passed through century-old moss-covered locks.

Being on a German-registered boat, boasting all the amenities and then some, we waved back with foamy glasses of free pilsner from a keg brought up on deck for passengers preferring something more bracing than morning bouillion.

To our astonishment, the pilot house suddenly almost disappeared from sight as we passed under a low bridge, and a deck hand shouted "heads down" in German and English. The captain was left with only a tiny slit of window to peer through, offering less visibility than a submarine commander leaning into his periscope.

The pilot house kept retracting into its own elevator shaft, like a turtle going into its shell, as we slid under a series of bridges, one so low a sailor chinned himself on the span as we waited to enter another lock.

Around a bend, two naked nymphs sunbathing at the water's edge were startled to see a three-deck riverboat, bigger than a soccer field, glide by. They ran up the bank hugging their clothing.

The Casanova caught up with the mainstream Po near Mantua, and the great plain of Lombardy spread out in emerald fertile fields, patches of pine and poplar forest and remarkably beautiful marshes that lie along northern Europe's migratory bird routes. More than 150 bird species have been logged here.

Cuckoos called to us along the banks; cormorants, glebes and egrets preened in the tall reeds; sea swallows skimmed our wake and a pair of gorgeous purple herons spread their enormous wings for a flyby.

Industrial pollution from chemical and power plants and excessive spraying of rice fields with herbicides have rendered the Po unfit to swim in or drink. But you can drink in some of the same serene scenery that lured Monet, Manet, Whistler and Winston Churchill here with their paint boxes.

At the tiny town of Polesella, a spectacular double rainbow arched over the boat just as Gustav Ribbi, our Swiss pianist, arrived on deck. He immediately launched into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the electronic keyboard.

One morning along a lovely stretch of river, an Italian Tom Sawyer, barefoot and sun-bronzed, reeled in a dark, ugly fish almost as big as himself and tied it to his bicycle. "Not to eat," warned Dr. Klaus Ziergiebel, the Casanova's surgeon who thought the catch was a carp, a species which somehow manages to survive in these polluted waters.

Because the Po, like the Mississippi, keeps eating its banks and changing course, few towns are located right on the river. From our nearest docking place, Mantua was a 15-minute tour bus ride, Verona and Cremona were 45 minutes away, Bologna and Ferrara an hour, and Padua was reached in less than an hour by a tender and bus. All were worth the visit.