Gentle cycling along the river Po
The best things in life are so often simple, and so it is with Cycling for Softies and their Bike and Boat trip in Italy, cycling from Venice to Mantua. Staying on a converted barge hotel, you cycle along the rivers during the day, meeting the boat late afternoon, for a short cruise to an evening destination, where you take a walk for cultural points of interest, have dinner onboard and then repeat again tomorrow! It’s a recipe that’s attractive to couples, single travellers and families – we had three generations on our trip, which was in total a small group of around 30. The concept has international appeal: we travelled with Italians, Swiss, Brits, Germans, Canadians and Americans. What’s more the cycling is flat, a word I like in relation to bicycles. Distance I can do, hills I’m not keen on. Everyone is provided for – the e-bikes a real bonus for older legs and clever tandems, where a child’s bike can couple (and de-couple) easily from an adult bike for younger legs. Our age range of 7 and a half (most important) to 82 worked beautifully!
Accommodation is in compact, en-suite cabins of varying configurations – again, all combinations happily satisfied. Breakfast of the hearty continental variety and a tasty 3-course dinner, using produce bought en route, was served onboard each day. We were introduced to the ‘packeted’ lunch by our charming Italian crew: essentially cheese, cold meats, fruit, chocolate bars and rolls were provided each morning so you could create your own picnic to eat along the way. Although it must be said that we stopped each day near cafes, so there was always the chance to have a plate of pasta or pizza instead.
This trip is a variation of the escorted tour (a self-guided option is available) and as always in this situation, much depends on your guides. Our Dutch, endlessly energetic and efficient Hugo, proficient in all languages needed (at least 5!) and a positive walking Wiki on this route was partnered by Italian, friendly Frederico – a European version of Little and Large, if I’m honest! We were delighted to leave the planning and logistics in their highly capable hands, we woke up and did as instructed – a holiday in itself. And I must highly commend the ‘extras’ which we were not expecting, walks around the destinations where we moored, full of interest and information. I’m always humbled by in-depth knowledge – Hugo had it in spades!
We arrived into Venice airport and were whisked away by water taxi (it is a truly breath-taking experience, as you approach the city) to Giudecca island in the lagoon, where our hotel boat, the Ave Maria, sleeping around 30 people, was waiting. Cabins were allocated, unpacking done and dinner served. Then before anyone got too comfortable, we were whisked off to Venice’s main island by a vaporetta and the glory of St Mark’s Square. Cafes around the edges were busy, with a piano and string quartet giving their all for our enjoyment. It is an iconic square, with powerful echoes across the ages and leaves one with so much to ponder – history, religion, the state of Venice too. The Venetians were empire builders extraordinaire in the Mediterranean and beyond, so to see their architecture on ‘home turf’ is inspiring. We bought red roses from the flower seller, a cliché and corny but so what, we thought!
Hugo herded us back to the boat and we tucked up snug, ready for a full day exploring the city next morning. And it was glorious, weather-wise and the exploration. Our cheery guide was intent on showing us not just the main obvious sights, the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s itself, the Rialto Bridge, but also the back streets, the narrowest of canals, endless little bridges and of course, gondolas, replete with their boater-wearing gondolier. No singing was heard, however an onboard accordion player entertained on one vessel. Venice is busy, full of tourists and coffees are expensive, the ‘packeted’ lunch came into its own. However, it is totally unique, and no mater how many times you visit, I suspect you’d find something incredible to marvel at. We plan to return to discover more art in the many churches.
We hit the trail on day 3. The boat left its mooring, in the mist, very evocative, with a parting glance at St Mark’s from the water. We headed to the island Litorale di Lido, playground of the rich and famous, glamourous and sophisticated, as could be seen from the fabulous houses. A pitstop at a beach cafe and then on to ferry for 5 minutes to Pellestrina, with an entirely different atmosphere: it is a working fisherman’s island with scores of trawlers along the promenade. You sense not much has changed here in generations. Just one bar was open for lunchtime drinks, the siesta is still an essential part of life here. The cycling was easy along well marked trails or almost empty roads. We picked up the boat and sailed to Chioggia, for an afternoon walk in the sunshine. The town has an impressive fishing fleet and is a combination of working port, with a charming town.
Our evening routine then followed: shower and change, pre-dinner drinks on the sun deck, a hilarious explanation of the meal by our Italian chefs (a career in TV must surely be waiting!) and then we ate companionably at three long tables, a set menu with variations for any with ‘dietary requirements’. Good value local wines (including a very decent Amarone), beer and soft drinks were available and paid for at the end of the trip. We took a further evening stroll in Chioggia, although bed was calling after all the fresh air and exercise!
Day 4 took us into the Chioggia fish market, having woken up on the quayside to see the trawlers racing back with their catch. Mornings started briskly at about 8am for breakfast and ‘packeted’ lunch making, with seats in the saddle being taken by 9am at the latest! No sluggards on this trip, and actually we were excited to enjoy what each day would bring. Hugo’s enthusiasm, the jolly exchanges with our companions and the sheer glory of Italy, fresh air and exercise made those brisk starts bearable. The 7.57am to Marylebone it was not! Then on to Adria, past a superb beach, through wetlands famous for their birdlife, in the warm sunshine, 30kilometres felts like nothing! And there, tucked in the reeds, was our lovely boat, welcoming us back with tea and snacks.
Ferrara was the destination for day 5, and apart from a few bumpy cobbles, not great on a bike, it’s a tremendous city. Brilliant buildings which are an integral part of the city today, a real sense being stylishly Italian and also a place of great intellectual curiosity. I happily managed to enjoy a yummy gelato whilst peddling. After a tour around the Palazzo Schifanoia, what tremendous frescoes, we took a coach to Zelo on the Canal Bianco. A barbeque followed on the communal grills, available for anyone in Zelo to use, then a visit to a local bar later and a darts match with the Italians there, after a drop or two of a walnut liquor, a regional speciality.
For me the city of Mantua was a real high spot of this thoroughly enjoyable holiday. We cycled from Zelo (day 6), via a cheese factory producing Grana Padano for a tasting, and on to Bergantino, to pick up the boat again. In totally fabulous soft sunshine, we rounded the corner and there, magnificent in the afternoon warmth, was Mantua. We moored up right by the city walls and I leapt off into one of my favourite Italian towns. The main square, colonnades surrounding it, restaurants with crisp tablecloths and handsome, hovering waiters, is perfect for a pre-dinner drink. Ingrid (82) and doyenne of the e-bike, tasted her first Aperol spritz and loved it.
Our final day was spent in and around the city, cycling all morning, then exploring, with an amusing guide, the Palazzo Ducale, home of the Gonzaga and more like a small village within the city. Labyrinthine passages, hidden doors and secret courtyards all hint at the intrigue for which this Italian family were famous. They too, like many of their ilk, supported and displayed the finest art as a symbol of extraordinary wealth. A final wonderful dinner, with shared memories and Hugo’s incredible video of our trip before departure the next morning.
What we so enjoyed about this Bike and Boat experience was a chance to explore the Italian countryside with lively guides, get a touch fitter, meet interesting fellow-cyclists and also get a sense of the wealth of history and culture in this region.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cycling For Softies