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Venice, a kingdom synonymous with water and in keeping with tradition, it was to be the starting point and ultimately the end of my exploration around the Po Valley. I had been invited by HF Holidays to experience one of their fully inclusive barge/bike trips.
After landing at Marco Polo airport, I had to make my way to Mantova, 120km west of Venice, so after several hot bus and train journeys I arrived in the bustling town. It was Saturday afternoon and as you would expect the centre was awash with bodies. The main part of the town was very pretty with an understated charm, and the ever-present ghosts of the Gonzagas family in the air. The city’s central location and abundance of waterways has greatly developed its importance.

The boat was moored in Porto Catena, a lovely spot with sweeping views of the lake, it wasn’t due to sail until Monday morning. After a rather fidgety sleep, and a healthy yoghurt fuelled breakfast, we were introduced to our bikes for the duration. More than adequate (probably would suit my mother), bright orange but sturdy enough. After a brief introduction from Hugo Gietelink, our Dutch guide with flowing grey hair and a distinctive El Capitano hat, originating from Amsterdam he happily allowed us to rib him constantly that Utrecht was a very beautiful city. We set off, our Italian journey was about to begin.
The group consisted of 28 with a diverse range of nationalities, British, American, French and surprisingly the majority from Australia. Most were retirement age or older but all were keen to explore and discover the beautiful surroundings. We were being hosted by Ricardo, the captain, Erika, Silvia and Giovanni on board the glamorous boat ‘Ave Maria’. To refer to it as a barge would be understating its imposing structure; it has 20 rooms and plenty of space to accommodate comfortably a mass of sweaty bodies, especially after a long day in the saddle.

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Mantova is a simply beautiful Renaissance city with a cavalcade of history, an abundance of towers, battlements, churches, cupolas and an intricate network of atmospheric alleyways. There is a stunning collection of palaces and the town is best known for its numerous squares, Piazza Sordello, Piazza Broletto and Piazza Erbe. Its population is 415,000 which is above the national average and it sits at the south-easterly tip of the Lombardy region. Thankfully the environment is completely flat, with only some occasional soft hills.

The whole area is dominated by water, especially the Po, with an extensive capillary network of canals, inland lakes and wide lagoons. The lakes were created in the twelfth century by the architect Alberto Pitentino to protect the city from flooding. The construction of a system of dams and locks led to a useful and dramatic inclusion to the environment.

To accompany your trip, you are given your own personal ‘Green’ bike guides. The set is presented in its own rather fetching handlebar case and consists of a booklet with detailed maps of the itinerary: in colour and scaled 1:75,000/50,000, a roadbook with detailed description, stage by stage of the itinerary with precise directions and a travel guide with all the expected important information of the history and heritage of the places you will visit. HF Holidays make it easy even if you would prefer to take on the Self-Guided option, they are so proud of this material they constantly update and fine-tune the information. Bravo!

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Day 1 – Mantova Long Round Trip

Exploration of the lakes 40km and no elevation sounds simple enough. We departed Porto Catena after a lazy breakfast, the weather was glorious. We initially followed the contours of the Lago Inferiore through some beautiful tree cover, thankfully the entire Mantova – Venice route is marked by yellow arrows. We halted briefly as we departed onto the roadway by the monument to Martiri di Belifore (Martyrs of Belifore) which was erected to commemorate the patriots of the Italian Risorgimento who were executed between 1851 and 1855 on these very shores. The memorial was wonderfully imposing, its clean lines cutting sharply into the bright blue skyline. The pedalling was sedentary and everybody appeared comfortable with the pace.

After approximately 10KM we stopped in bustling Curtatone, the market was in full flow, the area dominated by a rather animated lady on a microphone. She became even more excited when she noticed our mass of bikes. The town is famous for its magnificent church, the Santuario delle Grazie (Sanctuary to Our Lady of Grace). A visit is highly recommended, it’s recognised as one of the most important places of pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary. The interior is bizarrely macabre but so hypnotic, the darkness is dominated by stucco and shells with the elevated gallery containing a selection of life size figures representing the miracle that saved their life. Oh, not forgetting the chained, stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling, its role to act as some form of talisman to ward of evil spirits. See I told you bizarre!

After a coffee stop we continued onwards, our next goal was the Museo Etnografico dei Mestieri del Fiume di Rivalta, which tells the story of river, its flora, fauna and the basic relationship between man and river. It afforded a wonderful collection of tools and equipment and I found it refreshing that it was all in Italian; they had not made the effort to convert the displays into English. It was only a short pedal push to our lunch stop in Laghi di Mantova where we all descended on a sleepy Trattoria. An hour later we were heading back towards the boat, the sun was still as strong and our water consumption was considerable. The boat was a welcome sight, we had explored plenty and already friendships were being made.

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Day 2 – Mantova to Zelo

We docked at Governolo and one of the largest inland basins in Italy, the small town lies on the stunning Mincio River. One of the largest systems of river locks in Italy is situated here to balance the different water levels of the Po and Mincio. We followed a dyke (there is a joke there!) for the majority of the day. The weather was glorious, strong sunshine with a hypnotic headwind, we made good pace, the group happily pedalling past several substantial locks through Ostiglia (famed for its medieval fortress and floating mill)

We stopped in the beautiful Revere; a small town which is often overlooked it has a population of 2,500 but possesses so many hidden charms, again dominated by the legacy of the Gonzaga family. The approach to the town was stunning as we pedalled on an elevated section of grassy bank with the Po on our right and red tiled roofs on our left, vibrant in the sunlight. The town once possessed an entire substantial fortification; unfortunately this is no longer visible apart from the imposing bell tower. As we departed we stumbled on a rather surreal war memorial, a steel creation of barbed wire, a soldier in repose and the memory of the lives lost across generic wars. From Revere, our next stop was Bergantino, the town is famous for the creation of fairground rides, our group treated themselves to a visit to a museum dedicated to the great fun of the fair. The exhibition is setup to create the atmosphere of the simple fairground with an ornate collection of wooden horses, pipes, musical devices, billboards. We even managed to dance whilst listening to the Italian national anthem. Some of us (Hugo) displayed a creative flair as a bizarre mix of foxtrots and rumbas dominated our surroundings, I wasn’t sure what the poor guide felt about the experience, befuddlement and amusement were definitely appropriate.

From Bergatino we continued to move sedately towards the cheese factory Caseificio Sociale Ballottara, it specialises in making Grana Padano. The landscape was a collection of rolling pastures and placid arable farmland. We had a tour of the factory, which was most welcome as the shade was a much needed distraction, however the smell of the stacked cheeses was so overpowering.
Our day ended in Zelo, again a small town but with plenty of character, we made an adventurous foray in the darkness to the local cemetery, the tombs evocatively lit, creating a stunning sombre light show. The tranquility and experience was mesmerising. The night ended in the local bar listening to Jim expertly strumming his guitar.

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Day 3 – Zelo to Adria

I decided to experience the boat for the day, it’s not a pre-requisite to pedal so on this occasion several of the group decided not to get on the bike. The sedentary life of the boat as it negotiated the locks and waterways was a compelling draw. The slow pace was rather infectious, it promoted a lethargic approach to life, providing time to contemplate our simple existence, if life is in-fact that simple, mine especially. The scenery was glorious, a mass of greenery from the endless cavalcade of flourishing embankments. We ended the day in Adria nestled between the Adige and Po rivers, with a population of 20,000 it was once an important trade centre along the navigable branch of the Po. Its attraction to visitors is the diverse architecture with remnants of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans.

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Day 4 – Porto Viro to Chioggia

Boat, sleep, write, boat. I had to keep up with my writing so I experienced another peaceful day on the water. We eventually docked in Chioggia; its stunning location on the southern edge of the lagoon of Venice was breathtaking. I went off to explore, I had to negotiate a plethora of fishing boats and the rather pungent fish market, it obviously still had a working relationship with water, birds were swooping down to see if they could scavenge some lunch. As I encountered the main road into town, I noticed the attractive architecture; unfortunately the rain was now incessant. The place was dominated by locals on bikes, all ages happily weaving through the narrow streets.

The town is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Venice’ and you can immediately see why, with it being constructed on an island and interlaced by canals which are crossed by ornate arched stone bridges and is mainly untouched by the effects of mass tourism. The main artery is the Corso del Popolo which is a lovely avenue with a wide pedestrian area, dotted with plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes with tables invading the pavements. I stumbled upon the Chiesa di Sant’ Andrea, the church has a beautiful marble façade and is home to a magnificent Crucifixion by Palma il Vecchio (1480-1528). I paused for several minutes, to remember my loved ones. The majority of the buildings have porticos as imposing features and these cannot be found in any other lagoon towns or cities.

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Day 5 – Chioggia to Venice

This was a simply stunning stage following the thin strip of land that separates the Venice lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. The ride was a mix of inviting sandy beaches and fine views of the lagoon. On the 4th November 1966, a high tide measuring 194cm submerged Venice, Chioggia and many other surrounding areas. So it was decided to create a special law to plan interventions to prevent a re-occurrence and the MOSE project was created and eventually there will be a collection of 78 mobile dams to protect the harbours and lido. Work began in 2003 and is planned for completion in 2016. The transportation system is extremely efficient; the water-taxis are reliable and relatively cheap.

Venice happily combines an aura of calm juxtaposed between the chaos of thousands of tourists and the demands of religion. It’s easy to be mesmerised by the world famous architecture, I explored the narrow side street and alleys, the ever changing pace of life was an unexpected revelation. I stopped on several occasions and was taken aback by the total solitude before turning a corner to be confronted by a throng of people, conversing noisily. All these streets and alleys appear to terminate at St Mark’s Square, which is an ideal location for strolling, pausing and contemplating. A wonderful pavement café ambience dominates, however the prices might not be to your liking. I ambled contentedly.

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In conclusion, this was a wonderful adventure with great people, great accommodation, great gastronomy and great laughs. The itinerary was easily manageable by all abilities and Hugo (guide) was a minefield of information and his animated and enthusiastic explanations were a delight. The climate in the Po Delta is ideal for exploration by bike, being very hot and humid in the summer, with no distinct rainy months but it does tend to rain more in the autumn and spring months. I travelled in the middle of May and the first part of the week was extremely hot with the second part rather rainy, like you need more water in Venice! With a cavalcade of history and culture dominated by the ruling dynasties of the Este and Gonzaga families and the crowning glory, the lagoon and the sea, this was a completely unforgettable experience and one I will always remember fondly, especially Hugo getting lost and trying to cover his tracks by introducing us to the cows, explaining they produce MILK, hilarious!

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Scot Whitlock is a well respected author of Simple Words from the Saddle, Simply More Words from the Saddle and The Way of St James with my father, his love and a dodgy bike. Previously editor of two national cycling magazines. He writes for a selection of cycling and travel publications.

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