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5,5 29.06.2017 | Stephen M. Po River by Bike + Boat from Venice

Venice and Mantova - it’s going to be special!

Overall
This is a very special tour. Of course, it has all the usual advantages of boat and bike tours (your “hotel” moves with you so you don’t have to pack your bags every day), the number of people on board makes for a sociable experience and you visit some remarkable places.

Although billed as a self-guided tour, everyone cycled as a group lead by our tour guide, Hugo, who stopped off at places of interest en-route and gave commentaries on the places visited.

Date of Tour: 2016-09-17/24 (7 nights)

Boat Chosen: Vita-Pugna

Direction: Venice to Mantova

Transfers
I flew from London to Venice’s Marco Polo airport (VCE), from where I took the Alilaguna WaterBus (Red Line — Linea Rossa; it’s cheaper to buy the ticket online at home and avoids any queuing) to Giudecca Island’s Zitelle stop (the final stop for this line). From there, it was a short walk to the lagoon-facing side of Giudecca Island to find the mooring place of Vita-Pugna.

For the return from Mantova, I found flights from Venice Marco Polo to London were disproportionately expensive compared to the outbound journey, so I looked to other airports and found flying from Bologna much more reasonable. Shared taxis were taken from the boat to Mantova railway station, from where I took a TrenItalia express to Bolgna Centrale, with a journey time just over an hour, and then the connecting bus service to the airport. My experience of TrenItalia is that it is incredibly cheap (again, booked online at home) and reliable.

The Boat
Vita-Pugna is the older and smaller of the two boats which operate this tour, carrying about half the number of passengers of Ave Maria. The two boats run in opposite directions, crossing paths in Adria. According to those who were given a quick tour of Ave Maria when the two boats were moored together, it is more luxuriously appointed than Vita-Pugna and purpose-designed for boat-and-bike tours. Our tour guide, Hugo, also credited the chef on Ave Maria as vastly experienced and extremely good (not that Sylvia on Vita-Pugna is any slouch), but, despite these obvious advantages, his own preference is for Vita-Pugna; his view was that you really need two tour guides on Ave Maria. Although the tour was billed as self-guided, it was obvious from the outset that Hugo was very keen to lead the rides, rather than for people to cycle independently; when operating as the sole guide on Ave Maria, he says he doesn’t discourage people from cycling independently if they want to. The only real criticism of the boat concerns the Wi-Fi provision, which, in common with many tour boats, was a bit patchy; personally, when on holiday, Wi-Fi is of little concern to me. I did have trouble initially with the shower in my cabin, which only produced cold water; I found I needed to give the control several full rotations before warm water emerged and after that, I left it in the right spot.

The Crew
Apart from tour guide, Hugo, we had the captain Giovanni, Chef Sylvia and Sous-Chef Irene serving on our boat. In reality, the various job descriptions are fairly meaningless, with all the crew mucking in where needed, Sylvia and Irene helping to sail the boat, for example, and Giovanni acting as a waiter in the evenings. You could not ask for a more amenable crew, bending over backwards to be of assistance — to the passengers, if not to Hugo, who found they had all disappeared when he called upon them to join him in singing the Italian patriotic song Bella Ciao. (Yes, if Hugo is your guide, there will be singing.)

Tour Guide
Hugo is an exceptional tour guide. He loves to be at the centre of events, finding new experiences for his tour group. A couple of examples: in Adria, on the evening walk, he discovered an open door at the cathedral and led everyone inside, where we discovered the cathedral choir rehearsing; the choir insisted on putting on an impromptu recital for its unexpected guests. Very good it was, too. (Showman that he is, Hugo felt a need to respond in kind with a solo performance of his own, albeit with markedly less success, leaving some of our group slightly embarrassed.) At the town of Revere, Hugo managed to gain access for the group to the River Po Museum there, despite the fact it had not officially re-opened following flooding. On the final night of the tour, he presented a session of photographs and video clips he had taken during the course of the week; the following morning, each cabin was given a USB stick containing this material, supplied at Hugo’s own expense.

On Board
Our tour consisted of six Australians, six Canadians, four Germans and three Britons. The three crew were Italian and the tour guide Dutch, so together we represented a fair selection of “Western” society. Previous experience of boat and bike tours shows this is a typical mix, with strong representation from north America and Australia / New Zealand being a common feature. It can highlight different perspectives as you cycle along, with the Australian farmer in our group often commenting on what he felt was the tiny scale of the farming he was observing, or seemingly inexhaustible conversations between sports enthusiasts explaining the diverse joys of cricket or ice hockey.

Bike
The bikes first came off the boat at Lido Island. Surprisingly, there’s only one size of bike, but they have a remarkable range of adjustment both of saddle height and, through an ingenious mechanisim I’d never seen before, of handlebar height. This meant that bikes had not been assigned to passengers in advance; it was a case of choose any bike, adjust it to your liking, and it’s then yours for the rest of the tour. The bikes are fitted with battery-powered lights, and, relevant for me, a Klickfix handlebar bracket enabling me to attach the Ortlieb Handlebar Bag I’d brought with me. Towards the end of the second ride, I noticed one of my pedals coming off its spindle; with a little care, I was able to continue to the boat where Hugo insisted on changing both pedals, despite the physical strength required to remove them. Apart from this, I had no trouble with my bike.

Written Materials
In general these were superb, and included a Girolibero (Rad und Reisen’s local agent) “Green Book”, some 170 pages of text and photos. Some of the material distributed before the tour contained remnants no longer relevant, which initially caused confusion (eg, in previous years, the boat has obviously been moored at Certosa Island in Venice rather than Giudecca and some references to making your way to Certosa remained in the text).

 

Day 1 (Venice)
A seat on the right-hand side of the plane gave a magnificent view of Venice as we made the descent for landing. The water bus from the airport to Giudecca takes well over an hour, but is best treated as an initial sight-seeing tour, with stops at various outlying islands of the Venice lagoon (Murano, optionally Certosa, and Lido) and at San Marco in Venice itself (where the boat pretty much empties out) immediately prior to reaching the Zitelle stop on Giudecca island. In the evening Hugo lead a sight-seeing visit to San Marco at night, when it is much less crowded, an opportunity to see some major sights and hear several cafe orchestras in the square. It also served a practical purpose, enabling us to buy a two-day ACTV (Venice local transport) card and activate it (needed for sight-seeing in Venice on day 2 and island-hopping on day 3).

Day 2 (Venice)
The ACTV card was used to take the Vaporetto from Giudecca Redentore to Zattere. Hugo lead a walk through varoius parts of Venice, including views of the Grand Canal, before making our way to San Marco, where an official tour guide was waiting for us. After detailed descriptions of San Marco, she took us through the city to the Rialto Bridge, describing highlights along the way. The afternoon was free for individual sight-seeing and people went off in varying directions, some to the islands (Murano for glassware, Burano for lace). In the evening, Hugo lead a walking tour to another part of Giudecca island; I chose instead to go back to San Marco.

Day 3 (Venice to Chioggia)
Following breakfast, the boat set off for Lido Island, across the lagoon, taking an indirect route which afforded excellent photographic opportunities. On arrival, bikes were distributed and Hugo lead the ride round Lido Island, choosing to loop round the opposite way from that described in the route booklet. This had the advantage that we rode north (not south) along the west coast of the island, putting Venice in our line of sight across the lagoon, rather than behind us. Having completed the loop, we were back at our starting point, where Vita-Pugna was just setting off, and headed south, using our ACTV cards to take the ferry to Pellestrina island. We passed through the colourful village of Pellestrina itself and onwards to our meeting point with Vita-Pugna which took us across to Chioggia on the Italian mainland at the south of the Venetian lagoon. In an afternoon stroll, Hugo guided us through the fish market, past the fishing boats to the Chiesa di San Domenico and across Ponto Vigo to the main street (Corso del Popolo) for the return to the boat. Hugo lead another walking tour in the evening.

Day 4 (Chioggia to Adria)
Prior to leaving Chioggia, we cycled first to the Chiesa San Giacomo, then to the Torre dell’orologio San Andrea (millennial clock tower), where we were shown the clock, still working, and experienced the bells, then a loop round the cathedral before exiting the city at Porta Garibaldi. Our route took us along the Adige river, which we crossed, doubling back along the other bank to the coastal resort of Rosolina Mare. Then back again and through the Adige/Po delta area, where some people had expected to see flamingoes (we didn’t), to find our boat waiting for us, close to Loreo, on the canal joining the two rivers. A short cruise along the Canal Bianca took us to our mooring in Adria. In the evening, Hugo lead a walk into the city with the impromptu choral recital in the cathedral.

Day 5 (Adria to Zelo)
Heavy rain, expected to last all morning, put paid to cycling plans. After some discussion, the group decided to walk in the rain to the local railway station to take the train to Ferrara rather than cycling. (The standard tour is to cycle to Ferrara and then travel by coach, bikes in a trailer, to Zelo to re-join the boat.) We boarded the train wet and bedraggled, leaving puddles all over the coach, but by the time we reached Ferrara, we had dried off and the rain had stopped, so we had an enjoyable afternoon admiring the many sights. The boat’s mooring point in Zelo was bathed in golden sunshine and in the evening Hugo (always a man of surprises) lead a walk to the local cemetery, which, rather than being morbid, turned out to be absolutely fascinating.

Day 6 (Zelo to Mantova)
After a visit to a cheese factory where we sampled (and, in some cases, bought) Grana Padano cheese and, a little further along our route, a visit to the museum of street entertainment and fairground attractions in Bergantino (our lunchtime stop), we were — at last! — cycling alongside the River Po, passing small villages on our right hand side. Our destination was Governolo, where we re-joined Vita-Pugna for an afternoon cruise, now on the River Mincio, to Mantova. Very pleasant indeed sailing along the river in warm sunshine, its golden rays enhancing the foliage of trees just beginning to show their autumnal colours. And then Mantova itself, bathed in the early evening sunshine. Naturally, after dinner, Hugo lead a night-time walk into the city, taking in the main sites of the centre.

Day 7 (Mantova)
The route book described both a long and a short ride round Mantova. As far as I can see, we didn’t follow either of them (and they may have been changed in the 2017 season). We headed to the Palazzo Te in the suburbs of Mantova, where we spent some time looking round the palace. Then, on to Grazie and a visit to the Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria. For our lunch stop, we found a quiet spot by the waterside in Rivalto sul Mincio and then headed further out, almost reaching Goito, before turning off and following another branch (canal?) of the Mincio towards Mantova, arriving back at the boat in time for a walking tour of the city with an official guide.

Photographs
Selecting just two photographs to illustrate this tour is very difficult. I decided not to use any obvious shots of the famous sites visited, but instead have chosen a picture taken at Ponte Vigo in Chioggia on the afternoon of our arrival there, and our lunch time stopping-off point in Rivalta Sul Mincio on our last day, cycling round Mantova.

  • Overall satisfaction 6
    Booking handling 5
    Travel documents 6
    Information at the beginning of the tour 5
    Accomodation 5
    Board 6
    Route description 6
    On-site assistance 6
    Route-character 5
    Bicycle + equipment 6
    Price-performance ratio 5
  • Comment of your RAD+REISEN-Eurocycle-Team

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