We keep hearing the rustling sound of unseen animals rushing away as we cycle the rural back roads of the Veneto region in northeast Italy. Sometimes they do the complete streak and cross the road; lizards playing "chicken" by stopping just before our moving tyres, then darting off.
The sweetest was what looked like an otter or beaver followed by its baby who also stops to test my brakes, before following mama into a road-side stream. Later research reveals it is probably a coypu – or nutri in Italian – known charmingly as a “little otter” or menacingly as a “big rat”. Life and the way we see the world is about perception.
We are getting an intimate perspective on Italian farming in a self-guided cycling tour of the region where prosecco grapes are grown and the fizzy wine made. We tuck the tour instructions into the clear plastic holders on the front of our bicycles, that take us through wine estates, occasional gravel tracks, atop a dam, down many small country roads and rare large roads. Concentrating on the route helps to get the head into the now as the body is also having a rare (for me anyway) outing on the main stage, freeing the mind from everyday, roundabout chatter.
Directions change every few kilometres to criss-cross, and stay off, the main roads that rush traffic straight to destinations such as the redbrick walled town of Castelfranco Veneto, founded in the late 12th century and home of artist Giorgioni (1478-1510) whose painting "Enthroned Madonna and Child with St Francis and St Nicasio" is in the town's cathedral. The church were quite the patrons, commissioning a Titian (or Tiziano in Italy) for the duomo in Treviso, the first town on our five daily tours looping out and back to the charming, with a tinge of stateliness, four-star country hotel of Relais Monaco, that blissfully has a swimming pool for post-cycle stretching and floating.
Titian’s “Malchiostro Annunciation”, painted in 1520, sits in dim light beyond a wooden barrier beside the altar in Treviso. It is above a crypt – a dramatic space to descend into, strangely open while also imprisoning – which releases you up into a cloister to the right.
Shortest cycling trip
The trip to Treviso is by far the shortest cycling day, about 25km there and back, so a good one to start with. You can do the five daily bike tours in whatever order you like, barring the day in the prosecco vine hills to which you are driven.
We wander Treviso's narrow streets and waterways from the duomo/church and the cobbled street beside it populated with pharmacies, make-up and lingerie shops and gelaterias, no doubt catering to demand and saying something about priorities in these parts perhaps. Oh, and there's a Benetton shop – the family is from these industrial climes, where coffee machine company De Longhi and Geox clothing were also born.
We go south to the river and along it and back into town and around, further appreciating why this is known as Little Venice (the real thing is half an hour away). This quieter, smaller – but just as beautiful in its way – sister has vast classical villas too, heavy in material yet lightened by the way they seem to float on the water and their people-pleasing symmetry as illustrated in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”.
Flowers are artfully arranged around building bases, and here’s a lowered door shutter, hovering above the water bedecked in herbs in great clay pots. Dark, dripping water wheels dot the town, including one near the small island that houses the fish market, as if a moored vessel.
We have cappuccini (shortened to “cappucci” in Italian cafes) – at €1.60 a pop – in the Max cafe down from the duomo with “mignon” pasticceria, a beautiful concept, common on these travels, of exquisitely formed baby cakes – running the gamut from cheesecake and fruit tarts – at €1 each. These and intensely flavoured one-scoop gelati allow neat, sweet sugar pops to punctuate the day.
The cycling routes are described as “easy to moderate” and indeed terrain-wise they are, with every route a flat one except for half a day in the hills at the heart of prosecco country around the town of Valdobbiadene (it descends to the plains for the second half of the day). Yet each tour is about 65km which, at a cruising speed of between 15km per hour and 20km an hour, has you in the saddle for four hours a day and more, leg pumping and saddle-sitting beneath the sun.
The first day to Treviso woke the body up but increasing from 25km to 65km on day two shakes the anatomy out of home life. You notice it when you sit or lie for a while and stand up again: stiff. But on day three – remarkable as we human forms are – the body gets with the programme.
Leaving the “easy” flat terrain on the fourth day for the hills, we start in Valdobbiadene town – home of Prosecco Superiore (with DOCG on the label; one up from DOC). Heading up from the square where a market has drawn locals to its lush fruit and cheap bags we find the 2km hill climb surprisingly easy (although the thighs say otherwise the next day). We spend the morning moving gears from 3:7 to 1:1; switching through the lot but at times jumping straight across them all at mountain tops. And the effort of climbing pays off when freewheeling down with the wind swishing by.
The vines – here since Roman times when Pucinum, a forerunner to prosecco, began production – run over the hills and climb the most inhospitable-looking outcrops. Stone villages perch on hilltops, their red roofs and grey steeples contrasting beautifully with the verdant vines while looking utterly settled in over their centuries here.
It’s a day that contrasts with earlier cycling on the agricultural plains where cicada click, dogs run at thankfully locked gates as we wheel by, and we catch birthday parties, weddings and family gatherings in gardens. Vast Venetian palaces, often deserted, rise up in villages and countryside, where vines line up across fields and sweetcorn plants higher than people cram together in fields.
Our routes take us to Castelfranco Veneto and the Piave river where you can picnic and swim just outside the town of Ponte di Piave. There are those paintings to see, and Villa Emo by Palladio – where we stop and contemplate frescoes of an androgynous Venus – and prosecco estates to stop and quaff bubbly at. But a strange sense of purpose sets in when you cycle long distances and we want to keep going.
You are totally in your body – it propels you along and then every two hours or so blood sugar suddenly drops sending you to seek fuel for somatic satisfaction rather than the spectacular art and architecture that feeds the psyche. So despite good intentions we eat sandwiches and ice-cream in Castelfranco Veneto and our mood goes out of waiting for siesta to end and the 3.30pm opening of the church with Giorgioni’s painting. Instead we take days out for history, art and architecture in Treviso and on a day in Venice which is €3.40 each way by train.
One morning, due to a sudden work commitment, we set off late, at 1.30pm, and get to enjoy what the evening sun does to the land at dusk, catching the olive trees at an angle that makes their silver side shine, sending cut fields deep orangey yellow and highlighting the emerald spectrum in deciduous and grape leaves (and a great, carbo-dinner in Pizza and Co in Visnadello: €5.50 for the pizza and €10 for a bottle of prosecco).
Others come awake at this time, clouds of bugs that splatter your face as you cycle after dark, and there’s shouting in the bushes from unseen animals. This is their terrain – we’re just passing through – and experiencing some of the intimacy they have with rural nature.
The six-night Prosecco Vineyards tour, covering 265km (165 miles), costs from £508 pp for two sharing (about €580) and includes B&B accommodation at the 4* Country Hotel Relais Monaco, which has an outdoor pool, in Ponzano, bus transfer to Valdobbiadene with the bike on one day with prosecco and snacks afterwards, entrance to Villa Emo, discounted rate for hotel spa facilities and local assistance.
Departs on Thursdays and Saturdays from April to October.
Bike hire from £73 pp (about €83). Electric-bike hire from £159 pp (about €181).
Return flights and transfers not included; fly to Treviso, which is 20 minutes away, and take a taxi (€30) to the hotel.
Freedom Treks (0044 1273 224 066, freedomtreks.co.uk)