Travel: Riding high in Lake Garda
By Celia Paul, Press Association
The narrow medieval streets of Borghetto are packed with cyclists. A woman walks past me, wheeling a mountain bike, her Lycra outfit splattered in mud.
Behind her limps an athletic-looking individual, blood dripping from a nasty-looking cut on his knee. A group of older men stroll past a riverside cafe, cycle helmets in hand, covered in dust.
An inveterate couch potato, I’d usually opt to spend my holidays safely ensconced under an umbrella in a cafe, enjoying an aperitivo, making the most of the sunshine and watching the world go by.
Not today. Today I have joined the ranks of the two-wheeled. But while these bruised and battered devotees have just completed a gruelling cross-country race, I’ve been receiving a slightly more gentle introduction to the cycle routes of the Veneto region of north-east Italy.
The mild climate, clean waters and stunning scenery of Lake Garda and its environs have been attracting visitors in their droves for hundreds of years.
But the area has also, perhaps unfairly, earned a reputation as a high-end destination best suited to older travellers.
In fact, there are hotels around the lake shore to fit every budget - and there’s far more to do in the Garda region than sit around admiring the scenery.
From Garda and Bardolino in the west, to Mantova in the south and Verona in the east, more than 400km of cycle routes have been ‘mapped’ to make exploring the region by bike a foolproof endeavour.
With sat-navs, maps, bikes and helmets all readily available, there’s no excuse not to take to two wheels and gain an alternative perspective of the area. Particularly if, as in my case, there’s the promise of wine and lunch at the end of my exertions.
It would be more than fair to describe me as a novice cyclist - I’m pretty sure the last time I owned a bike I was eight. It was pink.
The last thing I remember about riding that bike is a nasty fall involving a kerb and my chin.
But, starting from the town of Peschiera, it’s a gentle ride along the banks of the shockingly blue waters of the river Mincio to Valeggio sul Mincio and the quaint village of Borghetto, where elderly gentlemen fish for pike and tourists sample the world-famous tortellini. My introduction to the world of mountain biking is a far cry from the experience of Borghetto’s racers.
But the next day brings a new challenge - weaving through the crowds of tourists and locals milling around the lake shore.
Visions fill my head of crashing headlong into octogenarian holiday-makers on a narrow path, precipitating myself, them and my lovely shiny mountain bike into the water.
Luckily it doesn’t take long to realise that not only are there dozens of other cyclists ably navigating the board-walk that runs between lakeside towns of Garda, Bardolino and Lasize, but that those cyclists really do fall into every age-range and category imaginable.
From wiry fitness freaks with thighs of steel, heading up into the hills to plunge at breakneck speeds back down towards the lake, to Lycra-clad retirees and families with young children, cycling really is for everyone around here.
Bardolino is well known for its local ruby-red wines, best served chilled, and the slopes surrounding the town are blanketed with the vineyards where the Corvina Rondinella and Molinara grapes are grown. After making my way around the shoreline in leisurely fashion, I’m directed inland - and uphill.
Soon I’m red in the face and pedalling furiously up an intimidating, steep incline, idly wondering what on earth I’ve signed myself up for.
Once I’ve finally worked out how to use the gears of my bike properly, the inclines do get considerably easier to negotiate - but it’s only when I reach the crest of the hill and start to free-wheel down a broad avenue of cypress trees towards the Tenuta Preella winery that I finally relax enough to take a moment and appreciate the beauty surrounding me.
Ahead lies a patchwork of vineyards, dotted with red-roofed farmhouses. Behind me the hills drop away to the distant waters of the lake.
I’m hot, dusty and more than ready for lunch - and by the time I’ve worked my way though a tasting of Bardolino wines and a rustic meal of breads, meats and local cheeses, I’m happy to spend the afternoon relaxing poolside.
The 4-star Hotel Caesius occupies a piece of prime Bardolino real-estate just feet from the lake shore - from my balcony I can catch a glimpse of the tranquil lake waters, and it’s just a 15-minute stroll into Bardolino town, the best-known of Garda’s resorts. But after my morning exertions I’m quite content to collapse onto a shady sunbed and prepare myself for another day of cycling.
This time I’m tackling a completely different terrain - the packed streets of Veneto’s second city, Verona. Best known as the home of Shakespeare’s most famous pair of star-crossed lovers, the city has survived floods, German occupation and Allied bombs. Now it has to contend with me and my trusty bike.
After making my way into the city along the river Adige, past kiwi plantations, orchards and the home of Hellas Verona football club, I’m jolted along a cobbled cycle path towards the Castelvecchio bridge, where I’m introduced to my guide for the morning.
He leads a small group of intrepid cyclists on a whirlwind tour of Verona’s highlights, starting at the Castelvecchio, built by the influential della Scala family in the 1350s as both fortress and home. These days it’s a museum packed with medieval sculptures and paintings by the likes of Mantegna, Carpaccio and the Bellinis.
We pause at the Roman Arena, once the setting for gladiators’ hand-to-hand combat and feats of bravery, now an impressive backdrop for opera performances, before weaving through the mass of tourists to the Arche Scaligere, gothic mausoleums for the Scaligeri family tucked away off one of the city’s most bustling squares.
Then it’s time to forsake the bikes and witness Verona’s biggest tourist attraction, the Casa di Giulietta - or, in English, Juliet’s house. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence Shakespeare’s heroine ever lived there - and the marble balcony overlooking the tiny courtyard was in fact built the 1930s - thousands of love-struck tourists make the pilgrimage to touch a statue of Juliet and add their graffiti to the walls of the tunnel into the courtyard each week.
Verona, like Garda and the rest of the Veneto region, remains enduringly popular with tourists - and it’s easy to see why.
With direct flights from the UK to Verona, beautiful scenery, a thousand years of history to explore and a world-renowned culinary scene, it’s a destination that’s hard to resist.
Exploring the region by bike gives visitors the chance to explore paths, tracks and cycle routes they might otherwise never have seen, provides a degree of independence that can be difficult to achieve on a package break, and - perhaps the biggest bonus - offers a much needed opportunity to burn off a few pasta calories.
TRAVEL FACTS - LAKE GARDA
:: Celia Paul was a guest of Thomson Lakes (www.thomsonlakes.co.uk; 0871 230 8181) who offer a week’s half board at the four-star Hotel Caesius Thermae Spa in Bardolino on the southern shore of Lake Garda, including flights from Gatwick and transfers from £739 pp (based on two sharing). Direct flights from all major UK airports are available at a supplement starting from £10.