AS far as diverse holiday groups go ours was about as diverse as you can get.
There was the French nuclear physicist, the Australian real estate agent, the Norwegian salesman, the American public speaker, the Canadian university professor, the English lawyer, the retired Austrian educationalist, the Welsh outdoor guide, two American cancer survivors and 10 Englishwomen on their 17th annual cycling sojourn.
In total there were 28 passengers who boarded the barge Ave Maria in the historic Italian city of Venice on a perfect Saturday afternoon late in June primed for a week of guided cycling, sightseeing and, as it turned out, a lot of fun and good company.
Touted as the most comfortable river cruise vessel ever built in Italy when it was re-launched as a new age ‘floating hotel’ in 2011 by leading Italian organised cycle tour company Girolibero, the Ave Maria was originally built in 1972 to pump and remove sand from canals.
Measuring 40.5 metres in length and with a breadth of 7.5 metres, the barge was totally rebuilt from the hull up to the most exacting design which included the latest European environmental standards and safety regulations.
The final result is a stunning example of maritime architectural ingenuity, with the Ave Maria - resplendent in its bright red and white livery - impossible to miss as it cruises the waterways of the Venetian Lagoon and Po Delta between the northern Italian cities of Venice and Mantova on a weekly basis from late March to mid-October.
Far from being “just another converted barge”, the Ave Maria has everything even the most discerning guest could want. There are three types of cabin choices – all with private bathroom facilities - a large and well appointed lounge/restaurant, a covered outdoor area, a well stocked bar complete with a wide range of spirits and local Italian wines and, most importantly, a kitchen capable of turning out fine a la carte meals – as we all discovered much to our collective delight every night.
But as comfortable as it is, it is important to note that the Ave Maria isn’t just another one of the many luxury passenger barges you see plying the waterways of Europe during the tourist season.
No, no, no. The Ave Maria has one very big difference to the barges you see on rivers such as the Danube, Rhine and Moselle ... the difference, you see, is that the Ave Maria was specifically designed to cater for cycle tourists.
With room incorporated into its design to store up to 40 of Girolibero’s bright orange 27 gear unisex city sports bikes, the Ave Maria takes on a completely different persona – and judging by the wide smiles on the faces of each and every one of the guests on our cruise, it is a mix that works perfectly well.
From day one it was patently clear that our group of intrepid cycle tourists knew that they were getting much more from their holiday experience than just the opportunity to sit on the deck of a barge or in a bus as they watched the scenery go by – more to the point, as cycle tourists we were all actually part of the scenery.
Over the course of five days of cycling that saw our group cover 220-plus easy-to-cycle kilometres, we visited numerous charming villages and saw many memorable sights after first cruising out of Venice on the Ave Maria past the famous Piazza San Marco.
As Venice, which we explored on day one of the tour, slowly fading into the distance at the start of day two, we cruised to our first port of call at Malamocco on Lido Island – famous, of course, for its magnificent Art Nouveau buildings – and from the excited talk onboard it was clear we were all anxious for the cycling to finally begin.
With the distribution of bicycles and final safety and logistical questions asked and answered by our intrepid guide Helmut “Always Go Straight” Witt, the collective focus of the group was on the trip ahead ... it would have been impossible to find a happier group of holidaymaker cyclists.
After a departing lap of Lido Island followed by a cooling swim in the sea at Alberoni Beach, we cycled to a commercial ferry for the short trip to nearby Pellestrina Island where we continued to cycle for the remainder of the day until meeting up with the Ave Maria, our floating hotel, late in the afternoon for the cruise to Chioggia where we berthed for the night.
And basically this was how it was for the next five days. We cycled through charming villages, sampled local foods, visited a fish market in Chioggia, the Ballottara Cooperative cheese factory in Bergantino where the famous Grana Padano cheese is produced, enjoyed two swims at seaside resorts at Alberoni and Rosolina Mare, marvelled at a picture perfect rural scenery, explored the rich agricultural region of the former walled Papal city of Ferrara and the Renaissance and UNESCO World Heritage city of Mantova and much, much more.
Basically we made the most of every kilometre on the bicycle, every minute while onboard the Ave Maria, every opportunity to explore another ancient city, every sumptuous meal, every bottle of very drinkable local wine, the company of newfound friends and most importantly the memories made.
With the week’s adventure, as it did, coinciding with seven days of perfect northern Italian summer weather, on a daily basis we felt the warmth of the sun on our faces while we cycled, smelled the smells, stopped when we wanted to speak to local residents and were generally part of the picture postcard northern Italian scenery around us.
And without doubt the experience onboard the Ave Maria was just as intoxicating thanks in no small part to the ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude of the crew of Conny ‘Skipper’ Van Moergastel, guide Helmut ‘Always Go Straight’ Witt, engineer Luciana ‘I Can Fix It’ Penzo and cooks extraordinaire Giulliana ‘Cooka’ Zarantonella – a great cook who could surely double as a stand-up comic - and Sara ‘The Charmer’ Visentin.
Special ‘how good is this’ moments for all onboard were numerous and included dining one night while cruising on the Ave Maria after an earlier delay at a lock, enjoying a barbeque on the deck of the Ave Maria at the end of a memorable day’s cycling, the stunning scenery along the Po Delta, coming ‘home’ each day to our floating hotel, a guided tour of Venice on day one and the stunning scenery we all marvelled at every turn of the road.
If you are looking for an active holiday with a difference a bike and barge tour aboard the Ave Maria in northern Italy is an amazing experience, give it a go ... you definitely won’t be disappointed.
More information: Venice - Mantua Aboard Ave Maria