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Italian canal cruises into past

EIN  Jan 12, 2009

Italy is to reopen medieval and Renaissance inland waterways so that tourists can travel more than 500 kilometres (300 miles) by boat from Lake Maggiore to Venice via Milan.

This summer engineers will start clearing eight kilometres of canals from the southern end of Lake Maggiore at Sesto Calende to Somma Lombardo. Alessandro Meinardi, of the Navigli Lombardi (Lombardy Canals) company, which is overseeing the project, said that the aim was to make navigable the whole of the 14th-century 140-kilometre stretch of waterways from Locarno in Switzerland to Milan.

The restored canal system would eventually link up with the River Po, winding its way to Venice by way of Pavia, Piacenza, Cremona and Ferrara. Whereas the waterways used to transport goods, they would now enable visitors to take “the slow route” to Venice, “drifting past the Italian Renaissance landscape”. The billion euros (£886 million) project aims to revive what was once a main transport artery, as confirmed by casual references to Milan in Shakespeare's plays as an inland port. Some have assumed that Shakespeare was demonstrating ignorance of Italian geography by referring to ships at Milan in plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest. In The Tempest Prospero says that at Milan “they hurried us aboard a bark, and bore us some leagues to the sea”.

Francesco Rusconi Clerici, a Milanese engineer, said the first part of the route was originally used to transport marble from quarries at Candoglia in the Val d'Ossola in Piedmont to build Milan's Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, which was begun in 1386. The trip, using horse-drawn barges known as cagnone, took two weeks, with each barge carrying up to 50 tonnes of stone.

Why have we turned our back on our waterways?
Mr Meinardi said the canals began falling into disuse in the 1930s, as goods were transported by road and rail instead of water. They became unnavigable either because of neglect or because dams were built for irrigation. Electronically controlled locks would now be built.

The canals of Milan were first built in the 12th century by Benedictine and Cistercian monks, and later expanded in line with designs by Leonardo da Vinci, linking the city to the sea. Leonardo turned his hand to waterways after painting The Last Supper at Milan's church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Some of Milan's canals have already been restored for picturesque boat trips, including the oldest one, the Naviglio Grande , now lined with boutiques and cafés. La Stampa newspaper said canals were enjoying a revival throughout Europe, not least in Britain, with a rise in property values along navigable waterways.

Italian canal cruises into past

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