Free-Wheel to relax

THE medieval streets of Borghetto are packed with cyclists.

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Bardolino is one of the towns on a 400km cycle route in Veneto
Bardolino is one of the towns on a 400km cycle route in Veneto

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 cut on his knee.

An inveterate couch potato, I'd usually opt to spend my holidays ensconced under an umbrella in a cafe, enjoying an aperitivo, watching the world go by.

Not today. Today I have joined the ranks of the two-wheeled. But while these bruised devotees have just completed a cross-country race, I've been receiving a gentle introduction to the cycle routes of Veneto, in north-east Italy.

The area has, perhaps unfairly, earned a reputation as a high-end destination best suited to older travellers. In fact, there are lake- shore hotels to fit every budget.

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 by bike foolproof.

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 men fish for pike and tourists sample the world-famous tortellini.

My introduction to mountain biking is a far cry from the experience of the racers but the next day brings a new challenge - weaving through the crowds of tourists on the lake shore.

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 category imaginable.

Bardolino is well known for its local ruby-red wines, 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.

Once I reach the crest and free-wheel down a broad avenue of cypress trees to the Tenuta Preella winery, I finally relax enough to appreciate the beauty surrounding me.

I'm hot, dusty and ready for lunch - and by the time I've worked my way through 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 four-star Hotel Caesius occupies prime Bardolino real-estate feet from the lake shore, just a 15-minute stroll into Bardolino town.

The next day I tackle packed streets of Veneto's second city, Verona. After getting into the city along the river Adige, I'm jolted along a cobbled cycle path to the Castelvecchio bridge.

My guide leads a small group of intrepid cyclists on a tour of Verona's highlights, starting at the Castelvecchio, built by the della Scala family in the 1350s. 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, then forsake the bikes to witness the Casa di Giulietta - Juliet's house. Despite the fact that there's no evidence Shakespeare's heroine ever lived there, thousands of love-struck tourists make the pilgrimage to touch a statue of Juliet.

Celia Paul was a guest of Thomson Lakes (www.thomson lakes.co.uk; 0871 230 8181) who offer a week's half board at the Hotel Caesius Thermae Spa, including flights from Gatwick and transfers from £739 pp. Flights from major UK airports are available at a supplement.

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