Richard J. Goodrich

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The Peripatetic Historian: Via Romea Germanica

Rolling past the Palladian arches of Vicenza. All photos by author.

And so, after all of the thinking, planning, and dreaming, the moment has arrived.

We are in Vipiteno, South Tyrol, on the morning of our first day walking the Via Romea Germanica.

We spent our first three nights of this new expedition in Vicenza, a new city for us. Vicenza, or more appropriately, the monument to the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, was a fabulous place. Unfortunately, our experience of it was tempered by the grey smog of jet lag. Wonderful city, but my dominant memory is going to be of wandering Renaissance streets with an aching, sleep-denied brain, trying to keep moving in order to remain awake.

Beautiful Vicenza.

But that was the past. This morning, in Vipiteno, I awoke after seven uninterrupted hours of sleep. I felt alert and ready for our first steps.

The Via Romea Germanica begins on the Austrian/Italian border in the autonomous region known as the Sud Tirol (South Tyrol). This area was long a flashpoint between the two countries, but, after the first world war, it fell under the control of Italy. Despite this border realignment, the area retains a strong Austrian flavor: the signs are all bilingual (German and Italian), the towns each have two names (we are in Vipiteno/Sterzing), and the landscape is Alpine: deep valleys slice ponderous, glacial peaks. 

Today's weather is likely to be the coldest day of the trip. The weather boffins are predicting that the day's high temperature on the Brenner pass, the official starting point for the Via, will be 47 (8 C). Afternoon rain will turn to snow overnight. This is supposed to be May?

Today will be unique also in that it will the only one in which our afternoon arrival will bring us back to our morning starting point. Mary was unable to secure accommodation in Brennero, so we are spending two nights in Vipiteno, This morning, after breakfast, we will take the train north to Brennero, and then hike back down to Vipiteno.

But first, the hotel breakfast. One of the qualities that links Americans and the British is the proposition that breakfast has its own unique food that sets it apart from other meals. Common breakfast fare in the States would include cereal, pancakes, eggs, and bacon. We recognize that breakfast has a designated group of foods, and coloring outside of the line - adding lunch and dinner food groups - is frowned upon. We Americans believe that only certain foods are served at breakfast. 

Other cultures possess a porous border between breakfast and the rest of the day's meals. At our Vipiteno hotel we enjoyed a breakfast of foods that might appear on an American menu (yogurt, muesli) but also some entries that would be reserved for much later in the day: thick oily slices of emmenthal cheese, salami rounds, and the ubiquitous "speck," a variation of Italy's thin-sliced prosciutto ham. These items are very common breakfast foods in the Teutonic regions to the north. Personally, I think they should be held off for lunch, and then slapped between two slices of bread with some mayonnaise and mustard. Breakfast is a little too early for Speck, at least in my stomach's opinion.

On the other hand, the coffee was clean, black, and hot. I enjoyed both cups immensely.

Vipiteno, Italy

A light drizzle, like a splash of champagne, anoints us as we walk over to the Vipiteno train station. At the station, the speakers are announcing that a strike of the national railway begins today and trains may be late or cancelled. Our iron horse arrives without issue. We climb into an empty car, and ride north for almost 20 minutes. My anxiety level rises with each passing moment. The electric train is carrying us past landscape that we will soon be hiking, distance we will have to make up in hard shoe leather.

We reach our destination, the Brennero train station. As we climb out of the warm coach I realize that unless something goes terribly wrong, we won't be utilizing mechanized transport for the next two months. It's all feet, from this train station to Rome.

For whatever reason, and I certainly didn't bother to investigate, there is a massive outlet mall squatting right on the border. Does this monstrosity cater to Austrians looking for cheap Adidas tennis shoes, or the Italians in search of similar items? In any event, there it is. Some countries mark their borders with flags or barb wire; here we have a temple to consumerism.

Outlet mall, Brennero, Italy

Brennero is a petite little village - take away the truck stop and outlet mall and I doubt if you would have much left. Mary finds a bar where the genial bar keeper stamps our credenziale, the record of our journey from Brenner to Rome. This is a big deal on the Camino de Santiago - you make certain you collect stamps along the way to secure your compestella at the end. Although we have a credenziale, I wonder if it will be filled with stamps by the end of the journey. This is certainly one of the big differences between Santiago and the Via Romea: you can always find someone to stamp your credenziale in Spain; here, not so much.

The other big difference is the solitary nature of this trip. When we set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port two years ago, we were surrounded by peregrinos. This morning, we are the only two pellegrini in sight.

I shrug my backpack onto my shoulders. We circle the church of San Valentino, and then we are away. A journey of a thousand kilometers begins with the first step.

Our route bends south through a parking lot and then onto a bike trail that follows the Isarco river, which is a tiny rivulet that you could hop across at this point. It is not snowing, but both of my eyes are watering as an icy north wind slips around the edges of my eyeglasses.

At around the 7km mark we passed through an old railway tunnel. Another kilometer and we reach a second tunnel. I immediately employ logic and geometric reasoning to deduce that our bike path is following an old rail line. This surmise is given additional weight when we hike past an abandoned railroad station (Moncucco / Schelleberg) - a collection of buildings with no tracks.

Abandoned train station at Moncucco/Schelleberg, Italy

The path has led us along the upper western rim of the valley. Across the valley we can see the traffic on the SS12 rolling past on an elevated motorway at 100 km/hour. They will be in Trento for lunch.

We descend into Colle Isarco, the first real town on our route. Clouds blow off a giant mountain to the west. We wind past a church with a red steeple, cross the main street, and climb toward the elevated motorway.

Church, Colle Isarco, Italy

Our route has descended for most of the morning, but now we begin our first major ascent. A paved path winds up the eastern edge of the valley, passes beneath the motorway, and then terminates at a trailhead. To this point, the Via Romea has been adequately waymarked, but if you hadn't studied the guidebook, you might be mystified. The basic rule on the Via Romea: when in doubt, go south. And we do, following trail 21 up through the woods, ultimately emerging in a clearcut with wonderful views of the motorway, which is now beneath us.

The clouds are shuffling past, revealing some of the snow peaks of the alpine wall above and around us. We cross a bridge over a waterfall and discover the ruins of an old mill, complete with a moldering water wheel.

Once again we emerge from the woods, entering green pastures. Dominating the southern skyline was the Castello della Strada. This thirteenth century castle, once a stronghold of the Bishop of Bressanone, is now in ruins. Signs warn trespassers to maintain a reverent distance, and so we pass along its flanks, denied the opportunity to pay a visit.

Castello della Strada, Italy

We hike through green, dandelion-littered pastures, and ultimately reach a path that parallels the railroad tracks. A long jaunt through the woods, a quick slip through a tunnel beneath the railroad line, and then we are strolling into Vipiteno.

Today's Distance: 17.26 KM. Total Distance: 17.26 KM.

Day 02: Vipiteno to Mezzasalva

After two nights in Vipiteno, it is time to continue south.

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