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)

Ask not in Verona "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" He is everywhere. So is his nymphet bride, Juliet, "not yet 14," as Shakespeare tells us. Via Cappello, alias Capulet, leads to the 14th-century Casa di Giulietta, where Juliet's lover, Romeo Montecchi, renamed Montague by Shakespeare, stalked her from beneath the balcony. British novelist Arnold Bennett, viewing the alleged house as tourists still do in droves, thought the balcony "too high for love unless Juliet was a trapeze artist accustomed to hanging by her toes."

In the courtyard there is a bronze statue of Juliet, much polished over the centuries by the embrace of lovers. Via Arche Scaligeri leads to what romantics insist is Romeo's house, decked with a smaller balcony, presumably for practice. Locals also show you Juliet's tomb in the crypt of the church of San Francesco Corso, where Lord Byron scoffed at this sarcophagus large enough to bury a regiment, but took away some souvenir pebbles for his daughter.

Verona offers a summer season of Shakespeare at the Teatro Romano, and two hotels with cozy bars pay homage to the Bard, the Giulietta Romeo and the De Capuleti.

In Mantua, just off the lovely Renaissance square dominated by the 500-room Palazzo Ducale, guides point out the apothecary shop where Romeo, thinking Juliet was dead, purchased his suicide poison.

Encircled by three lakes and with four interlocking squares leading to the barrel-vaulted basilica of Sant'Andrea, the town looks like the sound stage for one of Franco Zeffirelli's lavish filmings of a Shakespeare play.

Virgil was born in Mantua, which is the setting for Verdi's opera "Rigoletto." The best restaurants still feature a local delicacy that ages ago was a meal fit for a duke when the ruling Gonzaga family built their palaces: stufato d'asino, donkey stew. We passed it up and tried ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, another Mantuan favorite.

Shakespeare called Padua "the nursery of the arts," justly famous for its university where Galileo taught physics and William Harvey studied anatomy. In "The Taming of the Shrew," Petruchio comes "to wed it wealthily in Padua" by taming the fiery Kate and claiming her dowry. On the university campus, there is a statue of Elena Piscopia, who would not be tamed by the sexist rules of her day and in 1678 became the first woman anywhere to win a college degree.

Thousands of pilgrims descend on Padua every day to visit the tomb of St. Anthony in the huge basilica overlooking one of Europe's largest squares and to view the Giotto frescoes in the Chapel of the Scrovegni.

Back on board, movies available on our cabin TV augmented the daily tours to Shakespeare's Italy: "Romeo and Juliet," "Much Ado About Nothing," Zeffirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew," with Burton and Taylor, and Cole Porter's marvelous musical "Kiss Me Kate."

Seen from shore, the barge-like Casanova lacks the gothic grace of the Mississippi steamboats with their churning paddlewheels, crenelated smoke stacks and forward landing stages. But the Italian Renaissance interior decor, offset by drapes and lounge furniture in the gay carnival colors of Venice, evoked the grandeur of the doge's golden barge.

All cabins, accommodating a capacity 96 passengers, are outside. Our comfortable portside cabin, almost at water level, featured a large color print of the Rialto Bridge by Pierre Mortier.

Near the main staircase hangs a sensuous portrait of that adventurous Venetian rogue, Giacomo Casanova, the legendary lover of enduring virility who debated Voltaire, argued philosophy with Frederick the Great, was denounced as a spy by the Inquisition, escaped from the Doge's prison through a hole in the roof, seduced the six daughters of the mayor of Geneva, invented the kiss-and-tell autobiography and, for none of the above reasons, gave his name to our boat.

"He just seemed like a fun guy," laughed hotel manager Marco Corves who oversaw the parade of gourmet meals in the charming, tall windowed dining room and stocked the wine hatch with regional favorites like Barolo, Valpolicella, Bardolino and Barbaresco.

Zounds and a hey nonny, nonny, as the Bard might exclaim, the whole seven-day voyage on this Peter Deilmann Cruise verily was a merry Elizabethan romp