Via Claudia Augusta by bike

Replica of a roman milestone on the Via Claudia Augusta near Unterdiessen, Bavaria, Germany

My bike tour with Sigi and Christian this year, took us across the Alps on the old Roman route 'Via Claudia Augusta' which the 'Imperial BO', Emperor Augustus built some 15 BC. Augustus, also known as Gajus Octavius, had an impressive history. As heir to Julius Caesar he collected titles like a geologist collecting rock samples and ended up being called Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus pontifex maximus tribunica etc. etc. Having conquered the Celtic tribes in Raetien and Norikum, including the Bajuwaren, he required a secure route to logistically support his legions north of the Alps and the 'Via Claudia Augusta' was built. It extended from Donauwoerth on the Danube to Trient, where it forked towards the Adriatic Sea and southwards towards Rome. The route led along the path of the river Lech, to Augsburg, Landsberg and Fuessen, then via the Fern Pass to Landeck and the Reschen Pass to Meran, Bozen and Trient. We took the train from Munich to Innsbruck and picked up the 'Via Claudia Augusta' on day 2 in Landeck.

The Inn Valley between Innsbruck and Landeck runs approximately from west to east and forms the division between the predominently dolomite ranges to the north and the gneiss, paragneiss and amphibolite rocks of the main Alpine fold, to the south. Between Martina and Landeck, the Inn flows approximately south-west to north-east and the outcrops on both sides of the river appeared to be dominated by dolomite. At Martina, the route leaves the Inn Valley and climbs southwards from about 900 m altitude to 1,500 m in a series of hairpin bends, over a distance of about 10 km. This was decidedly too much for three geriatric bikers and so we elected to take the Austrian Post Bus service from Prutz to Nauders, which also transports bikes.

Our original plan was to cycle from Landeck to Pfunds, a further 10 km along the Inn Valley, but the 'Tour der Swiss' had chosen to cycle across the Reschen Pass on that day and the road was closed for an hour or so, which forced us to wait in Prutz and drink beer until the road was opened again. The delay for the Post Bus was minimal and so we reached Nauders, still 100 m below the top of the pass and about 10 km from the Italian border, with plenty of time to cycle along the old route, away from the main road, to Reschen.

The 'Via Claudia Augusta' is famous amoungst other things for its milestones, of which, two originals have been found. Each milestone is an impressive 2-3 m high and not only did they supply information regarding distances, they also made sure that the traveller knew who had the road built, alledgedly with his own money, and what a magnificent fellow he was. Between Nauders and Reschen, we cycled past a milestone, not Roman but clearly pre-Napoleonic, stating that it was '59 Meilen nach Bolzen'. About this point, the first ants over 1 cm long appeared, a clear sign that the southern side of the Alps was close.

We took residence in the town of Reschen/Resia on the east side of Lake Reschen/Lago di Resia, with a magnificent view across the lake to the snow-capped Ortler/Ortles, Koenigsspitze/Gran Zebru and Monte Cevedale peaks. Our route on day 3 took us along the west side of the lake, where the outcrops were definitely still dolomite. The profile of the rocks and ridges on the east side of the lake suggest that they too were dominated by dolomite, gneiss weathers much more evenly than limestone or dolomite, leaving a smoother profile and supporting a different vegetation. The lake was originally much smaller and natural, it was dammed in 1949, together with Lake Haider/Lago della Muta just below it, for hydro-electric power generation. The original village of Graun was sacrificed and moved, leaving the tower of the old parish church, St. Anna's, projecting out of the surface of the water.

Over the next 14-15 km, between St. Valentin auf der Haide/S. Valentino alla Muta and Glurns/Glorenza, the route drops from 1,500 m to 900 m in altitude, following the path of the river Etsch/Adige and it was there that the three geriatrics turned almost hooligan. It was only 'smoking' brakeblocks, drainage gutters traversing the path and a few other human and bovine path-users which kept speeds sub-sonic, all very exhilarating, but at the cost of missing seeing some of the prettiest villages in Vinschgau/Val Venosta. In Glurns/Glorenza, sanity returned and we took a few minutes to look around the old walled town, which hasn't changed much since being sacked by the Swiss in 1499 and then rebuilt.

The route flattened in Glurns/ Glorenza and it was here we first experienced the 'Ora', in the Lake Garda/Lago di Garda region a similar phenomenon is called the 'Bora'. The 'Ora' is a strong wind blowing up the valley, caused when the surface of the ground and the air close to the surface heat up, causing the hot air to convect. This sucks in air from the lower valley to replace the air convected and since the replacement air is already very warm, it rises too, in a positive feedback loop which is only broken at sunset, when everything starts to cool down, often accompanied by violent thunder storms The 'Ora' sets in traditionally at 13:00 hrs, during our visit it started nearer 11:00 hrs each day.

After Glurns/Glorenza, the topology and the 'Ora' slowed things down dramatically, making it possible to determine changes in the outcropping rocks and somewhere between Glurns/ Glorenza and Laas/Lasa gneiss started to dominate again. Laas/Lasa is world famous for its marble, which is quarried high above the village, up to 2,200 m. I found two beautiful samples, together with some of the gneiss, right next to the bike track. Today, the blocks of marble are transported from the quarries, down to the valley by a cable-driven railway and trucks. Prior to the errection of the railway, things were more difficult and photos in the 'albergo' where we had lunch showed the blocks being transported, around the turn the 19th to the 20th century, by four very large draught horses hitched up in front of two even larger oxen, pulling a wooden cart. Other photos showed large blocks being moved downhill on sledges made from rough tree trunks, restrained by ropes.

The total amount of marble is estimated to be some 500 million cubic metres, it is located on the eastern flank of the Ortler/Ortles massif. The original limestone was apparently laid down during the Devonian, along the northern coast of European plate during formation of Pangea and subjected to temperatures up to 600 °C and pressures up to 10 GPa. In the Late Permian, the region was uplifted and the exhumed marble eventually formed what today is the eastern flank of the Ortler/Ortles massif, during the Alpine Orogeny.

Laaser Marble is generally preferred to Carrara Marble for use in the open air, as it is harder and hence more weather restistant. One website that I interviewed described Laaser Marble as being marble and Carrara Marble as being 'cheese'. In any event, our friend Claudia Augustus appreciated its properties and used it in the production of his 'Via Claudia Augusta' milestones.

We were too late to partake in a guided tour of a nearby quarry, our target on day 3 was to reach Naturns/Naturno another 30 km along the excellent bike track, despite the 'Ora'. The Etsch/Adige Valley had widened considerably and apple orchards dominate this region. Each apple tree starts life as a 'wild apple', when the fledgling tree is large enough, it is be-headed and a shoot of the future apple sort is grafted on to topless stem. This procedure results in the stem of each 'modified' tree developing a sizeable bulge, just above ground level.

On day 4, our first stop was to see something of the very elegant town centre of Meran/Merano. Meran/Merano was a favourite spa of the Habsburg Monarchy, it lost its popularity in 1918, but has regained much of its old splendour since being 're-discovered' in the 1960s. By the time we left Meran/ Merano, the 'Ora' was at gale force, making the 37 km to Bozen/Bolzano seem more like 137 km. In Bozen/ Bolzano, we left the 'Bicycle Autobahn' along the Etsch/Adige and took an alternative route along and up a disused railway track, to Eppan/Appiano, some 200 m higher than the river valley. The route then led us toKaltern/Caldaro, which had been our goal for the day.

After some councelling from our 'host' in Kaltern/Caldaro, we set our final destination to be Trient/Trento and not Verona. This avoided about 100 km against the 'Ora', of which some 30 km are busy roads, and left us time to explore the region around Kalterer See/ Lago di Caldaro. Maybe the change in agriculture from predominently apple orchards to vineyards slightly influenced this decision.

On day 5, we explored the lake and stumbled across a massive outcrop of rock which was definitely neither gneiss nor limestone and certainly not marble. The socalled 'Untere Berge/Le Coste di Sotto' is an exposed part of the the largest plutonic intrusion caught up in the Alpine Orogeny. The original volcanic activity occurred on the PaleoAfrican Plate during the Permian, generating andesitic, dacitic and rhyolitic lavas, covering some 4,000 square kilometres, up to a thickness of some 2,000 m. The remains of the 60-70 km diameter caldera were eventually caught up in the Alpine Orogeny and form part of the basement rocks in South Tirol, known as the 'Bozener Quartz-Porphyrite Plate'.

On day 6, we cycled to Tramin/Termeno, probably the prettiest village we visited and definitely the culinary highlight of the tour. Bikes were dumped and we took the bus and cable car to the top of the the Mendelpass/Passo di Mendola, where a hill race for veteran cars was taking place.

We managed to reach Trient/Trento on day 7, before the 'Ora' really started blowing. This gave us time to find accommodation and look around the 'Painted City' as it is known, which under normal circumstances warrents a couple of days to view the sights. We were now in the province of Trentino 100% Italian in language, culture and flair and with a direct rail connection back to Munich/ Monaco, which we took the following day.

Mike Molloy

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