Following waterways from Mantua into the heart of Venice by bicycle and barge gives Susan Gough Henly plenty of opportunity to explore beyond the tourist trail.

Late afternoon sunshine streams across Ave Maria’s spacious top deck as we cruise slowly along Venice’s Grand Canal admiring the ducal palace at Saint Mark’s Square and the elaborate gardens of the Venice Biennale.

Jam-packed commuter vaporettos (waterbuses and taxis) dash across the water below us and in the distance a flotilla of cruise ships is moored on the city outskirts. I’m feeling lucky to be among just 34 guests aboard this sleek custom-built boat. There can’t be a better way to enter La Serenissima. We even raise a toast to Amal and George Clooney as we glide past the Belmond Hotel Cipriani to moor nearby on the island of Giudecca.

We’ve just spent a week biking with Girolibero, Italy’s only bike and barge company, from the Renaissance city of Mantua along the Po River Valley and across the barrier islands of the Veneto Lagoon to arrive here. The biking has been blissfully easy and perfect for building appetites for superb local dishes served up by Ave Maria’s excellent chefs.

The idea of Girolibero was hatched 19 years ago by five teenage friends during a university break. Today, it is the largest bike-touring company in Italy, offering 26 different trips with 2,000 bikes and 150 guides.

Its intrepid leader, Pierpaolo Romio, always had a passion for the Dutch-style of biking and barging holidays, too.

“It was as crazy an idea as selling ice-cream on Mars,” one of the founding partners, Giovanni Bottazzi, tells me, “but he went ahead and bought a barge and sailed it all the way from Amsterdam, down the Rhine and Danube to Istanbul and eventually to Italy.”

There was even a book written about the voyage, which became a bestseller in Japan, of all places.

Today, that original boat, Vita Pugna, still does the trip alongside the larger, purpose-built Ave Maria.

“The two boats run 31 weeks a year and are fully booked. We have eight captains and eight chefs that rotate through the schedule. All the chefs are Italian because the food is very important,” Bottazzi laughs.

Ave Maria is a supremely comfortable home for the week, with spacious cabins each with en suites, a large dining and lounge area with picture windows, and a shaded roof deck.

On our first day, we are fitted with our excellent orange touring bikes and cycle around three picturesque lakes created by the Mincio River. A highlight is the exquisite lotus flower beds near Mantua that were created by the princely Gonzaga family who ruled Mantua much like the Medicis ran Florence.

Mantua is the Italian Capital of Culture this year and there are many treasures to discover. On a walking tour, we visit the Basilica of Sant’Andrea with its spectacular barrel vault, which some say inspired Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

We ride the barge along the picturesque heron-dotted Mincio River to Governolo, stronghold of the Mincio pirates, and then take off on our bikes to discover hidden gems such as the fascinating National Museum of Carousel and the Popular Tradition in the tiny town of Bergantino. Some of the world’s biggest suppliers of amusement park rides are based here and the museum showcases everything from elaborate music machines to miniature rollercoasters.

There are many other adventures, too, such as visiting a Grana Padano cheese factory and tasting aged cheese with local honey and wine, wandering medieval laneways in the castle town of Ferrara and cycling beside a maze of bird-filled waterways in the Po River delta.

At the entrance to Venice Lagoon, we love the fishing port of Chioggia, nicknamed Little Venice, where we explore its huge fish market. We then spend a day cycling along the lagoon’s narrow barrier islands passing fishing boats, brightly coloured villages and grand waterside mansions. We feast on fresh seafood, swim at beaches decked out with striped cabanas, and devour delicious gelato in the heart of Lido’s glamorous resort community.

And as Ave Maria starts its journey across the lagoon to Venice we cheer rowers in a gondolier race, each team bending their oars in full flight, not chasing the tourist dollar but the finish line and the glory that comes with it.

Venice is much more than a tourist trap and on this bike and barge adventure we have been privileged to experience some of its genuine attractions.

The Verdict

Highs: Sitting on Ave Maria’s top deck as we cruised down the Venice Grand Canal. Fabulous meals and a convivial crew. Extremely affordable.

Lows: All the museums and shops were closed in the middle of the day when we visited the historic city of Ferrara. A guided walking tour would have helped get a better appreciation of the city.

Best suited to: This is a terrific adventure for active travellers who want to explore Venice and its surrounding region beyond the tourist brochures. You can even hire an electric bike to make the cycling easier.