Richard J. Goodrich


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The Peripatetic Historian: Via Romea Germanica

Vipiteno Mountains. All photos by author.

Vipiteno feels like a tourist attraction about to happen. The quaint shops and restaurants lining the main street seem poised to welcome guests, but on our second night in town, the avenues were largely devoid of tourists. Early evening bars placed chairs and tables in front of their storefronts in a desperate gambit to capture a share of the appertivo market. This was very optimistic on this gray rainy evening.

"The people begin to arrive in June," said the owner of our hotel. "Summer is the busiest time of year, as people from Italy vacation here when the cities in the south become too hot. The mountains and the coast- that's where everyone wants to go."

We are ahead of the rush. That suits me fine. We don't have to jostle through the streets, and we command the undivided attention of the waitresses. Vipiteno in May: I strongly recommend it.

One of the things I love about Italy is that most towns have a campanile with a bell or bells that bang out the hours of the day. Vipiteno has the Torre dei Dodici (The Tower of the Twelve) a large bell tower that sits in the center of the historic district. At one time, this grey pillar marked the border between the old and the new town, but today the two run together.

The torre has a clock built into its face, but the timepiece is startlingly inaccurate. The hourly cycle of bells is off, running about fifteen minutes behind the actual time. I do not know why someone doesn't reset the clock. Its charming imprecision undermines my perception of Teutonic rigor. Perhaps it is allowed to remain in this state to encourage the local burghers to loosen up. Stop watching the clock! Let go and live a little.

The most important church in Vipiteno is Nostra Signora della Palude (Our Lady of the Swamp). Built on the site of an old Roman cemetery, the church was finished in the fifteenth century.

Nostra Signora della Palude

Inside the church we found an old Roman gravestone, the tombstone of Postumia Victorina, which dates to AD 100–200. The church has another interesting feature: all of the pews have locked gates on each end. Although open today, this might have been useful to manage your pew mates in the past.

The most important church in Vipiteno is Nostra Signora della Palude (Our Lady of the Swamp). Built on the site of an old Roman cemetery, the church was finished in the fifteenth century.

Locked Pews, Nostra Signora della Palude

South of town, castles sprung up like grey mushrooms on either side of the valley. Castel Tasso was on the right (western) side of the valley, while Castel Reifenstein, stood to our left. Reifenstein is grounded on a large stoney spine, and in the more than 1,000 years of its existence, it has never been taken. Modern weaponry would reduce it quickly, but for more than a millenium it has watched over this end of the valley.

Castel Reifenstein

The bike path continued to follow the old railroad line, and we ran straight and true on a path that was like a string pulled tight at two points. The plumb-line nature of our course found its counterpoint in the sinuous curves of the white and black birch trees that stood decoratively on the verge between our path and the Isarco river. Southward, the mountain peaks had buried their heads in the low-lying clouds. A light sprinkle of rain fell sporadically, dusting the lenses of my glasses.

After several kilometers we reached the turn for the town of Maria Trens. We marched away from the valley, ascending a long hill between upscale houses. Why did the Tyrolians always elect to place their churches on the high ground? Wouldn't a nice spot down by the train line have been more convenient.

After a gasper of a climb, we reached the Church of Maria Trens, an antique pilgrimage church that is one of the most important in the South Tyrol. Constructed in 1498, it holds a carved wooden statue of Mary and Jesus that was found around 1470. According to legend the statue was discovered by the villagers in the rubble after a rock slide. To celebrate this miraculous manifestation, a church (Maria Trens) was built to hold the artifact.

Maria Trens

Over the centuries, pilgrims following the Via Romea Germanica would stop to visit this church and the statue. Many of them brought painted wooden panels to commemorate their visit and secure the favor of Mary.

We had the good fortune to meet the church warden, Thomas, who showed us around and explained some of the major elements of the church. In addition to the famous statue and pilgrim panels, the church has been decorated with pictures that illustrate the story. One painting shows the discovery of the statue, another a celebration in 1720, during which the nobility, local and from afar, traveled to Trens to honor the statue.

Discovery of the statue

After our visit, we departed south, following the "Bee" trail through the woods. This trail is dedicated to our valuable friends, and signboards and placards have been strategically placed along the route to remind us of all the good the genus apis does in the world. A salutatory exhortation.

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The weather continued to vex me: it could not decide whether it wanted to rain or not. As we approached the hamlet of Valgenauna (a collection of dairy barns), it began to rain. I immediately deployed the rain cover for my backpack, and no sooner had that been secured, then the rain dried up. A cold wind began to blow, chilling me in my thin tech shirt. I dislodged my pack, pulled out my rain jacket, zipped into it, and repacked. Five minutes later the wind stopped and I began to boil beneath my outer shell. Thrust off the pack, take off the coat, remount the pack, and off we go. I sorely longed for just a little consistency.

We worked our way down the hill from Valgenauna on a paved road that snaked through green fields punctuated by yellow dandelions. We rounded the Castel Guelfo- a castle that I would have wanted to look into, had it not been closed - crossed the Isarco river, which is growing larger with every kilometer, ducked under the railway and highway, and rejoined the bike path running south.

The final kilometers of the day were hard. We had done quite a bit of hill climbing, and frankly, we are not yet in Camino shape. My feet hurt, and the relentless slap of my soles on the hard concrete of the bike path was not improving the situation.

Approaching Mezzaselva

The official guidebook directs hikers to proceed all the way to Bressanone, but when Mary was planning this trip, she wisely elected to divide it in two. We finished our day in Mezzaselva, pulling in for a well-deserved rest.

Today's Distance: 19 KM. Total Distance: 36.26 KM.


Day 03: Mezzaselva to Bressanone

Will the Peripatetic Historian be able to distract Mary from her marble-carving?


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