Looking for a long distance hiking trail with a difference? Then walk the Via Claudia Augusta from the Danube River in Bavaria to Valmareno in northern Italy, along the course of a 2000 year old Roman road…
I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compestella for the first time in 2008, and as anyone who has walked it knows, the first time is a unique and, for some, a transforming experience. It certainly was for me and over the next few years I walked other Caminos: in Spain, the La Plata from Seville; and in France, the Via Podiensis from Le Puy and the Via Tolosana from Arles. By 2013 I was ready for a change and looking for a different long-distance walking experience in Europe. Spoilt for choice you might say, but I have always valued the workings of serendipity to provide inspiration. I found mine on the wall of a little hotel in the Bavarian town of Fussen, a poster advertising the Via Claudia Augusta, a 700 km trail through the Alps from Bavaria into northern Italy. I walked 500 kms of this trail from Donauwörth to Meran in September 2013.
The Via Claudia follows the route of a 1st Century Roman road of the same name. The original road led north from Ostiglia on the Po River in northern Italy, to the border province of Rhaetia and the provincial capital Augusta Vindelicorum, now the city of Augsburg in southern Bavaria. The modern Via is a long distance hiking trail (Wanderweg) but is perhaps better known, and more popular, as a cycle route (Radweg). The two options co-exist quite comfortably, sometimes sharing the same stretches of the trail and at other times going their own way.
Whether you are on two feet or two wheels, the Via is a journey of common themes and contrasts. Whilst the trail connects three countries, Germany, Austria and Italy, for most of its length, certainly as far south as Meran in northern Italy, the lingua franca is German. Even so there are regional variations in accent along the way, just as there would be if you were to walk from Wales through northern England and into Scotland. As it winds its way through the Alps the Via follows three river valleys, another common theme, and yet the experience could not be more diverse. In Bavaria the Via follows the course of the Lech River, a tributary of the Danube, as it flows south through a broad valley towards Fussen and the Austrian border. In Austria it leaves the Lech at Reutte, and after crossing the Fernpass, joins the narrow valley of the Inn River dominated by alpine peaks. Finally it crosses the Reschenpass into Italy where it joins the broad valley of the Etsch River with its extensive apple orchards and vineyards.
The German Language
As I have already said, German is the lingua franca of the Via. Even in the northern Italian province of Südtirol, German is the first language for more than 60% of the population. So when writing about the Via in Südtirol, from the Reschenpass to Meran, I have used German place names. A list of the Italian names is given at the end of the article.
The Roman Road
Construction of the Roman Via Claudia began in 15 BC on the orders of the Emperor Augustus and was completed sixty years later in the reign of the Emperor Claudius. Initially it was a military road connecting Italy with the Danube River, then the northern frontier of the Empire. Later it became a commercial artery for the transfer of people and goods between a distant Roman province and the Adriatic ports.
Archaeological evidence of the road is limited and for most of its course it is presumed to lie beneath modern roads. Two ancient milestones testify to the existence and the course of the road. Both were discovered in Italy, one at Rabland near Meran and the other at Cesiomaggiore near Belluno, both confirm that the destination of the road was Augsburg. Replica milestones can be seen along the route of the Via Claudia, these have been set up by local communities as part commemoration and part promotion.
The only section of the Roman road to be extensively researched is in Bavaria between Konigsbraun and Epfach. It lies to the west of Landsberg and the modern Via Claudia which runs along the east bank of the Lech River. The Roman road and the modern hiking trail meet at Epfach beside the Lech. It is possible to walk a 7km section of the Roman road which lies beneath field paths and tracks between Konigsbraun and Untermeitingen, to the north west of Landsberg.
The Hiking Trail
Officially the hiking trail begins in Landsberg am Lech, however it is possible, as I did, to start at Donauwörth, a pretty little town on the Danube River 100kms north-west of Munich. From there a well sign-posted pilgrim path (Pilgerweg) heads south to Augsburg, part of the vast European network of pilgrim routes that lead ultimately to Santiago de Compostella.
From Augsburg the Via is signposted as a cycle route to Landsberg, from where the official hiking route heads south to the walled town of Schongau and then Fussen. From Augsburg southwards, the Via is never far from the banks of the Lech River.
After Fussen the Via crosses the border into Austria and the mountains of Nordtirol. The trail leaves the narrow valley of the Lech at Reutte and enters the Tyrolean Zugspitze Arena before crossing the Fernpass to follow the Gurgl valley down to the Inn River at Imst. From there it follows the river valley upstream turning east at Landeck before climbing up out of the valley to the resort town of Nauders, and then on to the Reschenpass and the Italian border. The landscape is one of narrow river valleys, alpine meadows, and snow-capped mountain peaks.
Descending from the Reschenpass, the Via follows the course of the Etsch River through the broad valley of the Vinschgau. The river flows east to Meran where it turns south, leaves the German-speaking region as the Adige, and continues to its confluence with the Po at Ostiglia. The Via runs along the slopes on the north side of the valley, gradually descending towards the river as it runs east and crossing to the south bank of the Etsch at Algund on the outskirts of Meran. My journey on the Via finished at Meran, but the hiking trail continues southwards, leaving the valley of the Adige at Trento and heading east to finish at Valmareno in the Veneto region of north east Italy.
Bavaria – Donauwörth to Fussen
The first two weeks of September were warm sunny days as I made my leisurely way from Donauwörth to Fussen. A succession of tidy little Bavaria villages and farms, with their attractive wall murals on houses old and new, and blue and white chequered maypoles. Augsburg is a fine city and worth spending a day or two to explore. The highlights for me were the Cathedral and the Fuggerei, the world’s oldest social housing complex.
This walled enclave within the city was created in the early 16th C by the Fugger family to provide housing for the needy citizens of Augsburg, and is still in use today. Also worth a visit is the museum celebrating the life and works of a famous son, the poet and playwright, Berthold Brecht. Situated beside the pilgrim route that passes through the city is the delightful pilgrim church of St Jakob, a tranquil place for some moments of quiet contemplation.
After Landsberg I left the Via for a few days to make a detour west to Kaufbeuren, in the Allgäu, and the Crescentia Pilgerweg. I re-joined the Via at Schongau, a town that celebrates its medieval origins and was once home to the Dukes of Bavaria. The medieval walls still surround the Altstadt which sits on a small hill and was once an island in the Lech. Schongau was memorable for the warm hospitality I received in the home of a local resident and for the beautiful late Romanesque Basilika of St Michael in the Altenstadt, just to the west of the town.
Between Schongau and Fussen there is a landscape of small rounded hills, lush meadows and woodlands, picturesque villages and a succession of small lakes. To the west rises the Auerberg and the Via turned away from the Lech to climb to the summit. This hill was a strategic site for the Celts and the Romans, with commanding views in all directions. Today the Auerberg is crowned by the church of St Georg, a pilgrim church (Wallfahrtskirche) on the Pilgerweg from Munich to Lake Bodensee. The Via rejoined the Lech at Lechbruck and from there followed the river south to the shores of the Forggensee, an artificial lake just north of Fussen created by a dam across the Lech. Not the hoped for bright sunny day when I was there, but nevertheless there were wonderful views across the lake to the Ammergaur Alps, and King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein.
The old Roman road lies beneath the lake, while the modern Via follows the western shore to Fussen. Along the way I passed one of the replica milestones erected by local communities to commemorate the Roman road. Fussen is a tourist town and busy throughout the year. As well as all the facilities the town has to offer it is also an access point for Neuschwanstein. The castle is an extremely popular tourist attraction, so be prepared for crowds.
Nordtirol – Reutte to Nauders
As I left Fussen to cross the border the weather changed and it rained on and off for the next few days. The Via followed minor roads, cycle ways and forest paths beside the railway line from Reutte to Lermoos. A succession of damp little villages nestled on the narrow valley floor, but when the sun shone I could see the forested slopes of the mountains on either side, with the trees dusted in snow against a background of blue sky. The villages of Lermoos, Ehrwald and Beberwier lie in the broad basin of the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena, a holiday region on the border with Germany. The Arena is surrounded on all sides by a grandstand of mountains, dominated by the huge bulk of the Zugspitze (2962m), the highest mountain in Germany.
Lermoos is a popular tourist resort in the summer and winter, but September is a rather in-between time and it had a sleepy feel as I walked down the main street. The plan had been to stay for a couple of days, ride the cable car from Erhwald to the Zugspitze summit, and climb at least one of the surrounding peaks. But the weather conspired against me, with low cloud shrouding all the mountains and the cable car closed until the weather improved.
Rather than wait around for the sun to shine I took the bus out to Erhwald and the base station of the Tiroler Zugspitzebahn, and followed one of several walks that fan out around the base of the Zugspitze. I also took the local train to Garmisch Paternkirchen, back across the border in Germany. Another pleasant tourist town with plenty to see and do, but the highlight for me was a visit to the former home of composer Richard Strauss which is now a very interesting museum. Back in Lermoos I went to a concert in the local Cultural Centre. Rather more than a Bavarian-style brass band because there were also flutes and clarinets and plenty of percussion. Lederhosen were much in evidence and dirndl-clad young women passed among the audience selling shots of schnapps from small barrels strapped to their waists. I also had an excellent dinner at the Olympia restaurant in Lermoos and met the owner, a contributor to the Official Via guidebook, who amongst other things, runs bike-shuttles over the Fernpass to Nassereith.
From Lermoos the Via followed the course of the highway up to the Fernpass and then down the Gurgltal to Nassereith, Imst and the junction with the Inn. Thankfully the sun had returned on the day I took the winding forest path up and over the pass. The trail was never far from the highway which it crossed several times, but for most of the way the thunder of traffic was blocked by the forest. The yellow emblem of the Jacobsweg appeared once again on trees and signposts between Lermoos and Nassereith.
There are pilgrim routes running west from Innsbruck to the German border and Lake Bodensee, and into Switzerland. Nassereith was sleeping in the hot afternoon sun as I walked down the road from the highway. Historically the village has a long association with mining in the Gurgltal, one of the major mining areas of the Tirol. The settlements of the Gurgltal, together with Imst, are also a stronghold of the Tirol’s carnival tradition, Fasnacht and there are Carnival Museums in Nessereith and Imst, sadly both closed on the days I was there.
According to the regional Tourist Office, the Gurgltal is the ‘valley of a 1000 barns’ because of the numerous hay barns that dot the meadows on the valley floor. I can confirm that to be true, but I only glimpsed them through the trees because the Via followed forest and woodland paths on the lower slopes of the valley.
Shortly before it emerged from the trees into the meadows the Via passed a Kneipp Centre (Kneippanlage) at Frauenbrunnen. It was a small garden with a collection of hydrotherapy pools, I tried the cold arm bath and even on a hot day the water was icy cold.
Further on the trail passed a small mining museum before it crossed the meadows to Tarenz and Imst. I took a break and wandered around the museum and its reconstruction of lead mining in the 16th century.
It was hot and very busy on the following day when I walked around Imst. Eventually I took refuge for a while in the cool of the fine Parish Church. Outside in the churchyard was a memorial chapel to the dead of both World Wars (unsere Gefallenen). On the walls were listed the names of many local Austrians who had died in the 1939-45 war and nearly all of them on the Eastern Front, more than likely with no other memorial to their resting place. Apart from the many fountains for which it is celebrated, another delightful feature of Imst was the striking murals (Fassaden-Gemälde) on churches, public buildings and ordinary house.
I had seen examples in practically every village I had walked through since leaving the Danube.I stopped to admire these the following day, as I walked down from the town to the junction with the Inn River.
From Imst the Via followed the narrow valley of the Inn river upstream to Landeck. Initially the trail shared the route with the cycleway sandwiched between the river and the motorway, but shortly after Schonweis it gradually climbed the side of the valley towards the ruined Kronburg castle. It was a hot climb but the reward was a cold Weisbier at a traditional Gasthof beside the Maria Convent, and the company of happy Austrian families out for Sunday lunch.
At Landeck the Inn took a big swing east and the valley narrowed. It was just wide enough for the river and the road all the way up to Hochfinstermünz, just short of the Swiss border, where the Via left the Inn to climb up to Nauders. Since Lermoos the weather had settled into a pattern of warm sunny days with clear blue skies and it remained like that for most of the way to Meran. After Landeck the Via climbed steeply on a forest road up to the Fliesser Platte and then followed the contour lines, a little up a little down, into Fliess. The sky was blue from horizon to horizon without a cloud to be seen. The bright white vapour trails of jets criss-crossed in bold arcs and lines, combined with the mountains they made for some spectacular images which I tried to capture with my camera before they softened and gradually faded.
From high on the hillside there were views up and down the valley. The grey-blue river below, the small villages suspended high up on the opposite slopes, green pastures and little white houses and churches. Above them, the dark green of woods and forests and higher still the browns and greys of the mountains, capped with only a scattering of snow. On the way into Fliess I stopped to chat with a cowherd on his bicycle and after Fliess I came across another of the replica Roman milestones, this one overlooked the original route of the Via in the valley below.
Descending to the valley floor I crossed the Inn by the single span bridge, the design of which made me think of the bridge in the film of ‘For Who the Bell Tolls’, albeit it this one was only a few metres above the river. Beside the bridge was a striking monument to those brave Tirolers who had defeated an army of Bavarians and French at this crossing in 1809.
On the way into Reid I took a rest on a spit of sand and paddled in the milky grey waters of the Inn which were icy cold. The next day the sun was shining but in the early morning shadow cast by the mountains the grass was crusted in frost. On the left bank of the Inn the mountains closed in on the river and for a while the Via became a narrow path clinging to the side of a cliff.
Fortunately there was a low wire fence protecting the downward side, which was just as well because the Via shared the route with a mountain bike trail! Further on, and back down at the river there was a sign which provoked a rueful smile, nür fur geübte Wanderer (only for experienced hikers). Later on I met a Dutch couple taking a rest by the road side, they were following the Via Claudia Radweg all the way to Ostiglia. They had cycled from Amsterdam in two weeks and were on their way to Rome.
After Hochfinstermünz at least part of the route to Nauders was along a very busy highway which climbs up out of the valley. The official Via guide recommends taking the bus on this section, which is what I did.
Vinschgau – Reschenpass to Meran
The weather was mixed as I made my way down from the Reschenpass and along the Etsch valley through the Vinschgau to Meran but there was only a little rain and many fine sunny days. Shortly after the Pass I came to the two lakes which feed the Etsch, the Reschensee and the Heidersee. There were picture-postcard views down the valley, a bright blue sky and the still waters of the lakes framed by the V of the mountain slopes on either side.
Couples, families and groups of cyclists were enjoying the sun and the scenery as I walked beside the lakes past the half submerged church tower at Graun and I happily provided my services as photographer, ‘ein, zwei, drei’ – Click! Leaving the lakes the Via gradually climbed the northern slopes of the valley through pine woods and green pastures before descending to Mals. There were fine views down the valley and across to the white walls of Kloster Marienberg.
After Mals the valley broadened out and orchards and vineyards covered the valley floor and washed up the lower slopes all the way to Meran and beyond. According to the Tourist Office one in eight of the apples eaten in the European Union are grown in the Vinschgau. Because I was there in September harvesting was about to begin and the trees were laden with apples, every shade of red, including a deep purple, as well as yellow and green. I could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the Spring with all the blossom on the trees.
After Mals the Via tracked along the drier, northern slopes of the valley, ranging up and down along the 750 metre contour line before gradually dropping down to the valley floor at Algund.
As I descended the valley apple trees and vines were my constant companions. Beyond Schlanders the trail frequently ran on paths beside the Waal, irrigation channels which are a characteristic feature of the Vinschgau.
Looking up and down the valley from the vantage of the Via I could see the river and the highway slicing through a dense patchwork of orchards and vineyards. Across the valley the green southern slopes rose up toward the brown and grey peaks of the Ortler range.
On the way into Mals I passed a grotesque witch carved from a tree trunk, a reminder to passing hikers that ‘elves’ once inhabited the surrounding woods.
Just outside of Rabland I took a break for half an hour and watched a hard fought game of football between skilful twelve year olds. In Schlanders I enjoyed an excellent concert by a visiting Russian male voice choir. Powerful voices, traditional costumes and a Joseph Stalin look-a-like!
After Algund I left the Via and spent a few days in Meran before leaving for the UK. Meran is a delightful spa resort at the confluence of the Etsch and Passer rivers with a mild climate as a result of the protecting mountains to the north, east and west. I enjoyed walking the stone arched pedestrian shopping arcades, relaxing in the municipal Spa and risking a few euros at the racecourse.
Looking back on my experience of the Via I am very pleased I responded to that moment of serendipity at that hotel in Fussen. I wanted a different walking experience and the Via Claudia did not disappoint. Compared to the communal spirit of a Camino to Santiago, the Via was much more solitary, but there were ample compensations. The scenery was always impressive and often spectacular. Whether it was the green pastoral landscape of the Lech valley in Upper Bavaria, the majestic mountains of the Zugspitze Arena, the narrow valley of the Inn, or the unique environment of the Vinschgau. Although I walked through three countries, encountered people of three nationalities, and enjoyed three diverse landscapes, all the while I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of the German language. As a novice student of German that was a welcome experience.
But language wasn’t the only common denominator along the Via. The economies of these regions are all, predominantly, agricultural with tourism making an important contribution. In addition, it seemed to me that, the communities in these regions all value tradition in custom, dress, music, dance and festival. These are all aspects of culture and I found myself asking some questions. Is there a link between language and culture? Can communities share a culture but not a language? Does a common language imply a common culture? I don’t have any answers, but here are a few, probably contentious, observations.
Despite what George Bernard Shaw said, the Americans and English share a common language, but a common culture? Of course there is an ocean in between. Culture and tradition, by definition, have deep roots, and in some parts of the world nationality is a relatively modern creation. A German speaker in Südtirol is neither German nor Austrian, but go back a few generations and national boundaries were different, but not the language. Traditions are local, culture less so, but both reach back to a past that doesn’t always recognise existing national boundaries. Language on the other hand is generally a constant.
Place names in Südtirol/Alto Adige (German/Italian)
Heidersee/Lago della Muta
Rechensee/Lago di Resia
Getting there and back
From the UK there are flights to Munich with British Airways, Lufthansa, EasyJet and Monarch. From the Munich Hauptbahnhof there are trains to Donauwörth and Augsburg. RyanAir fly to Memmingen from where there are trains and buses to Munich, Augsburg and Donauwörth.
Depending on where you decide to finish the trail, there are trains from Meran and Trento to Verona, from where there are flights back to the UK. Alternatively there are trains via the Brenner Pass back to Munich.
Where to stay
Southern Bavaria, Nordtirol and Südtirol are major tourist areas so there is an abundance of overnight accommodation along the length of the Via Claudia. Local tourist offices have lists of Gasthaus, Pensionen and hotels, and there are signs for Zimmer Frei (rooms in private houses) everywhere.
Guidebooks and Maps
There is a German guidebook for the route:
Via Claudia Augusta: Auf den Spuren der Römer uber die Alpen
Non-German speakers should not have too many problems, the strip maps in the guidebook are easy to follow, there is generally good signposting on the trail, although there were moments when signposts and guidebook didn’t agree, and I found that English was widely spoken.
If, like me, you feel more comfortable with detailed topographical maps then they are available, but it will add a few pounds to your pack. A good place to look is Maps Worldwide.com.
For those who would prefer an organised hike, there are several companies offering self-guided walking packages, nearly all of which concentrate on the section through the Vinschgau in Südtirol.