'You've gone over to the dark side, Richard!' says a hard-core cycling friend. Really? Surely it isn't cheating to ride an electric bike just this once. I'll give the legs a gentle workout and have energy over to explore the towns, and when I say "towns" I'm talking Venice and some of the most attractive resorts along the Italian, Slovenian and Croatian coast.
Ancient Venetian Empire By Bike is the trip's billing, a week on the saddle, from Mestre to Trieste, then dipping into Slovenia before finishing in the Croatian coastal town of Porec. History plus exercise – terrific!
Comfortable hotels have been pre-booked and my luggage will be transferred between them. All I have to do is ride that electric bike at my own gentle pace. I do a test circuit of the hotel carpark. I'm still doing most of the work, but even on its lowest "eco" setting my legs feel stronger than usual.
Next morning, I negotiate the quiet back streets of Mestre and find the wide bike path across the causeway to Venice. I haven't needed battery assistance yet.
Venice consists largely of water, bridges, stairs and crowds – not conducive to relaxed cycling. So I explore the fabled city on foot before wheeling the bike on to the ferry to the island of Lido, then to Punta Sabbioni where the real cycling begins. I have more than 350 kilometres to cover this week, plenty of them before I reach Caorle this afternoon. But the weather is fine, this part of Italy is flat, I'm on quiet roads and separated bike paths, the wind is at my back and my battery is showing "full".
I've never heard of Caorle, but judging from the hundreds of umbrellas on the wide beach, many others have. It's certainly colourful, with brightly painted houses and an impressive bell tower by the cathedral. Ernest Hemingway was reportedly charmed when he stayed here and so am I.
The next day's route takes me out past vineyards and cornfields, on a newly paved bike path. It's very comfortable riding. I've been issued with route maps and a guidebook. Knowing I have electric support available this week, I can confidently follow diversions from the main route, even those that add kilometres to the journey.
I ride to the tiny village of Lio Piccolo through wetlands dotted with photogenic white egrets. I pedal the medieval streets and smart shopping strips of Grado, and out to the ancient fort town Palmanova. In Duino I have an hour to spend in the castle, with its fabulous views of the Mediterranean and its fine collection of old musical instruments.
My guidebook's detailed instructions are, unsurprisingly, only helpful to those who take the trouble to read them. Various wrong turns lead me to various adventures – a "shortcut" through a farm, meeting an unfriendly farmer and his large, very unfriendly dog; an uphill stretch on a major motorway, roadworks and suburban backblocks. Somehow I always get back on track, with the help of my phone's map app and entertaining locals. As on any cycling trip, there are sometimes headwinds, traffic, loose gravel and plain boring bits. I have no shame in switching up from eco to "normal" when I just want to get there. And on this trip "there" is always worth getting to.
Young residents outnumber visitors in the lively bars of old Portogruaro. Tourists take selfies by the leaning church spire and the picturesque water mill, and in a cafe garden I enjoy a fine risotto sprinkled with shavings of the truffles for which the region is famous.
By the time I reach Aquileia I'm relaxed enough about the riding to take the history seriously. Aquileia is extraordinary, a huge basilica and extensive Roman ruins by a tiny village. Amazingly, in Roman times this was one of the world's largest cities, a thriving river port with a population approaching 100,000.
Trieste is a handsome town, a legacy of its days as an important Habsburg port. I wish I could spend more time here, but after pizza, vino rosso, a stroll and an early night, I ride on. A sign by the bike path tells me I'm entering Slovenia, and the hills become steeper. No problem. I switch to "high" and power upwards.
Late in the afternoon I roll down towards the sea and the twin towns of Piran and Portoroz. At check-in I'm offered access to the hotel's private beach. It's a nice gesture, but I've missed the height of the summer season and can take my pick of the almost deserted beaches this evening.The last day turns out to be my favourite riding day as I pedal into Croatia. The battery has helped, but I've managed much of the distance on unassisted Richard power, so the legs have hardened up. I've gained confidence in traffic, too – drivers in this part of the world are clearly used to giving wobble room to cyclists. I glide easily past salt pans and olive groves. The pretty hilltop villages Buje and Tar make ideal rest stops, as does the boaty/beachy fishing village Novigrad.
Finally, I reach journey's end at Porec, with yet more ancient cobbled streets, churches, pizzerias and seafood restaurants. As I lock up the bike for the last time, I'm tired and satisfied, though not entirely exhausted. My battery-less bike is waiting for me at home. I wonder what it will feel like to ride. I've enjoyed it here on the dark side, and there may be no turning back.
Lufthansa flies from Sydney to Venice Marco Polo from $1572, and from Melbourne from $1554. See wotif.com
Utracks' eight-day self-guided Ancient Venetian Empire By Bike tour costs from $1550 a person twin share. Bike hire (supplement applies for an ebike), accommodation, breakfasts, luggage transfer, guidebook and route maps are included and departures are from April to October, 2020. See utracks.com
Richard Tulloch was a guest of Utracks.