Semifreddo all’amaretto (Smifreddo with Amaretti Biscuits), Panna Cotta with Basil and Lemon Cream, Chocolate Tortino and, of course, Tiramisu. Let’s start the article with dessert!
It was a good thing that we biked 25-30 miles a day. The barge was a floating gourmet Italian restaurant and it was impossible to say no to the desserts! Chef Silvia would announce the menu for the evening, and when it came to the dessert – we would all do a hand drum roll on our tables as our master dessert specialist Cristina, in her limited English, announced her latest creation. Never any left-overs. We did stay relatively trim as our itinerary provided ample biking and a chance to stroll through enchanting towns along the way.
We were on an International Bicycle Tours (IBT) bike and barge tour from Venice to Mantua. It was September and the hordes of tourists in Italy had somewhat abated. Bike and barge means we would bike during the day and return to the barge, usually around 4 PM, for rest and relaxation (ie wine and goodies) and have dinner at around 7. This specific bike trip was rated as “easy” as we did only 25-30 miles each day on relatively flat paths. We were mostly on bike paths or country roads and only occasionally encountered traffic. Having the barge as a base meant that we only needed to unpack once. A traditional bike trip requires packing and unpacking almost every day as the group moves along to their next destination and the sag wagon brings the luggage.
The adventure started at Venice airport where we spotted a fellow with a bike helmet and a concerned look in the area we were told, via the itinerary, to rendezvous. He did look a bit out of place with the bike helmet in the crowded airport – but that was Guido’s intent. We all (17 of us) “found” each other and were whisked off to an awaiting boat that took us across the Bay of Venice to our barge that was docked in Venice proper. What a superb way to approach Venice. Wind, sun, and the spires of St Mark’s as a silhouetted backdrop.
We were introduced to our fellow bicyclists and our below-deck cabins. The cabins were small, but comfortable with portholes, en-suite bathrooms, plenty of shelf space and excellent air conditioning. We then gathered on the spacious outdoor deck of the barge for some wine and conversation about our upcoming week together. Our barge had the glorious name of Vita Pugna – “Life is a Battle”. A bit ominous, a definite point to consider – except when on vacation. It would be a day before we actually did some biking as the first day was spent in the jeweled city of Venice.
I’d been to Venice several times before, but one never tires of its beauty and vibrancy.The main streets around St. Marks square were filled with tourists such as ourselves but it was easy to roam through the back alleyways and quaint bridges without interference. Venice is a series of 118 islands so whenever we crossover a small canal – we are actually on another of her islands. Away from the crowds, we discovered a small church that housed an exhibition of antique baroque stringed instruments. This was a permanent exhibit present in the church of San Maurizio – a hundred musical instruments of which a significant number are violins and guitars, primarily of Venetian origin with some dating back to the 16thcentury. Vivaldi, a Venetian, could be felt amongst all those magnificentinstruments.
After lunch in a reasonably priced café – we met the rest of the group and with our excellent guide, bypassed the lines of waiting tourists, and entered St. Marks Basilica, the iconic and religious center of Venice.
After all the noise and frantic energy of St. Mark’s Square – the Basilica itself maintained its serene spiritual atmosphere.
Our guide than presented us with the glories of the Doge’s Palace. This Gothic masterpiece was the seat of power for the Venetian Republic that lasted for more than 1,000 years. The interior of the palace was resplendent with grand staircases, gilded ceilings and frescoed walls. Throughout the breathtaking walk through we viewed paintings of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Giovanni Bellini. Most impressive were the Doge’s apartments, the Great Hall -The Sala del Maggior Consiglio,and the Sala del Collegio. This last hall was where the cabinet of the Venetian Republic met and featured the Doge’s throne. The elaborate ceiling featured paintings by Veronese and the walls were decorated with famous paintings by Tintoretto. Called the Doge’s palace, this was however a true museum of Italian artistry.
The next day, after a brief orientation to our bikes and a check-out of our biking skills – rudimentary but including the use of hand signals – we set off on the nearby island of Lido.Biking along the beach with its interesting structures made of driftwood, we passed the home of the Venice Film Festival. The timing of our trip was calculated to avoid our being discovered for the next George Clooney film, as the festival had ended a few days earlier.
We stopped for lunch in the town of Alberoni and then took a short but refreshing ferry ride to the village of Santa Maria del Mare. More easy biking to our barge that was waiting for us near Pellestrina. The location offered a chance for a dip in the Adriatic.
On the following day, after a short sail to Chioggia, we disembarked and were immediately engulfed in the morning swirl of an Italian shopping day. A high point for me was the fish market, where I saw more varieties of mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, octopus, sole and countless un-named fish than even the fish markets in Japan. All of these wonders of the sea were freshly caught in the waters of the Adriatic and were quickly being snatched up by the very knowledgeable citizens of Chioggia.
Chioggia is known for the Sant’Andrea clock tower. Almost 100 feet high and of Roman and byzantine origins, it was used originally as a lighthouse or a watchtower. Inside the tower is the world’s oldest working tower clock.With a local guide, we climbed to the top of the tower to observe the inner workings of the actual clock and just an incredible view. We stopped at several levels on our way to the top to rest and to be informed of the true historical significance of this ancient clock. A vertical museum. Originally the clock belonged to the old Podesta palace where it was placed in 1386. It was then given to the parish of Sant’Andrea and moved to the current tower on May 31, 1839.
The rest of the day was spent on the bike paths of Laguna del Lusenzo, a series canals and locks, and the delta system of the Brenta, Adige and Po river, called the Po di Levante. A few of the bird watchers of our group were in constant awe of the abundance of heron and flamingos and interrupted their cycling to view the awesome panoramas with their binoculars.
Ferrara was next on our agenda. This UNESCO World Heritage site, with its 500-year-old walls and 14th Century moated castle was the destination for the day’s 22-mile biking. I appreciated the padded seat liner I brought along as the entrance to the walled city had its fair share of cobblestone streets. Incredibly picturesque, but a bit bumpy. We all laughed at our shared short discomfort.
Once inside the city we were enthralled by our excellent guide to the tales of the Este family that controlled Ferrara for almost three centuries. Not as famous as the Renaissance families of Medici or Forza, the Este family fortified their control, not necessarily by military might, but by having their beautiful daughters selectively married. On the way to the walled castle, we passed a statue of Girolamo Savonarola the quite controversial Dominican friar born in Ferrara but infamous for his attempted control of religious life in Renaissance Florence. The imposing statue was grand but not complimentary in the priest’s expression. Once inside the castle I learned that the wide spiral staircase off the main courtyard was designed in such a manner as to allow horses to proceed to the second landing. I thought that to be interesting if not important.
The following day we biked along the Canal Bianco to two unique and extremely different locales. The first – in the early morning – was the cheese factory of the world-famous Grana Padano. Not to be confused (heaven forbid) with parmigiano-parmesan, this delectable cheese is a highlight to Italian cuisine. We entered the refrigerated warehouse where hundreds of the round cheeses were being aged at controlled temperature. Stacks of cheeses reached the ceiling with machines going up and down each row turning and dusting each culinary 75-pound jewel. Throughout the ageing process, a cheese master will check that there is not an abundance of air within the cheese rounds by hitting each with a hammer. Just like a master winemaker with an educated palate, these cheese masters can tell by the sound of the cheese hit if the correct balance is present. He might also insert a pin into the cheese round to smell its essence. If anything is not up to the high qualifications, the cheese is pulled and sold as a cheaper cheese. Even though it was still early in the day – we were given the opportunity to have some wine while tasting a fully aged sample in the beautiful outdoor gardens.
Next on our itinerary was the village of Bergantino. This small town is home to the Carousel and Street Entertainment Museum. It is not by chance that this unique museum is located in Bergantino. The main industry in the village for decades has been to provide Europe with rides for amusement parks. The Museum chronicles the rides, music and ambiance of our quest for child-like fun. And, yes, we had fun! Some of the large music boxes were precursors to our computers with cut outs on folded paper sheets to create the musical notes – early versions of our current x’s and o’s. This very special touch of visiting off the beaten path museums and sites like the clock tower in Chioggia and the Grana Padano cheese factory were definite hallmarks of the special itinerary put together by International Bike and Barge Tours and really appreciated by my fellow adventurers.
After a full day of biking along thePO river – we welcomed the site of our waiting barge. Exercise and culture- agreat combination. Speaking of culture – our next experience was not in thebrochure. After the barge motored for a while along the Mincio River – weentered a recently completed lock – quite new and shiny. As the water rose inthe lock to the level of the river exit – we waived to the lock keeper who wasensconced in his comfortable office perch high above us. He waived back as heelectronically opened the lock’s gates. As we sailed out, over the lock’s loud speakers,we heard the golden tones of Andrea Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro – Time toSay Goodbye”. The lock keeper had his iPhone up to the microphone in his cabinand was serenading us through the lock. Onlyin Italy!
We sailed on for about another hour or so on the way to Mantua with the remembrance of Andrea Bocelli’s voice mixing with the soft lapping of the water on the sides of the barge. White wine, a regal sunset, swaying shoreline reeds – a great experience.
Mantua was our final destination and well worth the wait. We moored in one of the three man-made lakes that surround the city and were close enough to just walk to the center that first night. The city’s medieval and Renaissance palaces were all aglow as the day turned to night. The locals were enjoying the warm evening and were strolling the narrow streets and dining outdoors.
Our last morning of biking was along the three lakes of Mantua. A beautiful tree-lined bike path created shadows in the still waters. It was a soft finale to our week of varied environs. My wife and I had lunch at an outdoor café on the main Piazza Sordello while we waited for our group and our guide for our tour of this Unesco Heritage city. Our last lunch on the trip was a treat. We are fans of the cave-dried beef and arugula salad called Bresaola and that afternoon we hit the mark. The following course was a local specialty of arborio rice, a light cheese and mushrooms. We were in heaven!
Our guide introduced us to the Ducale palace, the Duomo – Cathedral and the educated artistic tastes of the ruling Gonzaga family. The Gonzagas were Mantua’s major political and cultural family from 1318 until the death of the Duke of Mantua in 1708. At one time the ruling Gonzagas had the most valued art collection in all of Europe. Their wealth was accumulated, not through trade or mining – but by the breeding of horses. As their fortunes changed – they sold most of their collection to royal families in England and throughout Europe.
The last night on Vita Pugna was a true culinary celebration with stuffed Cornish hen and a special rice invention. Dessert was, of course, a chocolate treasure. Our parting gift from our chefs was a compilation of barge recipes in book form. What a fine way to encapsulate our week of culinary delights. Now we need to recreate the experience at home. We’ll try!
Fond farewells, exchanges of emails and the lot. Most memorable were the good byes and thank you to and from the Guide- Guido, the Captain -Filippo, and our chefs Silvia and Crisitina. Ciao
The Venice to Mantua experience is one of the barge-and-bike tours on the canals of Europe organized by International Bicycle Tours, who also offer bicycle tours in Europe and the US. www.internationalbicycletours.com, Tel: (860) 767-7005, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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