Richard J. Goodrich

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The Peripatetic Historian: Via Romea Germanica, V

A day in the mountains.

We awoke, miracles and wonders, to a rain-free morning. In fact, by the time we finished our breakfast, a few swathes of blue sky played overhead, and a dim light lit the rooftops of Chiusa. Although this appeared promising, mist still swirled around the upper reaches of the mountains, and the weather forecast continued to advance the possibility of afternoon rain.

“The rain is done for the week,” declared our hotel’s owner.

I hoped he was right. Today’s stage promised ample difficulties without the added hurdle of inclement weather. Our guidebook lists the stage from Chiusa to Collalbo as one of the toughest on the Via. It is not long—only 20.5 KM—but it has one of the steepest ascents of the entire route. This stage would take us from the bottom of the valley up to what is known as the Altopiano del Renon. We would begin the day at around 500 meters of elevation, and finish at 1,200. To make it all more amusing, the ascent was leavened with a number of descents, so uphill distance for the stage would be approximately 1,240 meters, roughly 3,600 feet, or about two-thirds of a mile. In other words, it’s the hills — not the length of the journey — that gets you.

Welcome to the Peripatetic Historian's multi-part series about hiking Italy's Via Romea Germanica. If you have stumbled across today's installment by accident or a fortuituous Google search, and have no idea what is happening, you might prefer to begin at the start of the series, here: The Peripatetic Historian's Introduction to the Via Romea Germanica

Otherwise, let's return to our story, already in progress.

We departed Chiusa on a bike path that ran flat beside the river. I saw a sign that claimed it was only 27KM to Bolzano on the bike path. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” I asked Mary. “We could follow the flat bike path, right down the valley floor to Bolzano and skip the hill climbs.”

That idea was summarily rejected. Many of my best ideas are.

Pull the backpack straps tight, take a few steadying breaths, and we’re off.

We departed the bike path, followed the Statale for a brief period, and then plunged up into the woods on the designated Via Brennero. The road wound up a hill, the concrete turned to trail, and suddenly, after far more climbing than is healthy, we emerged at the edge of a vineyard as the trail vanished in grass. There were no waymarkings, trail signs, or any indication that we were even close to the route. Fortunately, I had my GPS. Although it offered few clues, its map did indicated that there was a road 300M south. With no better idea, we elected to bushwhack up a hillside on a faint deer track. Much to our joy, the thin trail steadied and after 200M we encountered the red and white blazes of an official Italian trail. We continued south (when on doubt on the Via, always head south), and sure enough, the GPS led us to a road, where we were pleased to see a Via Romea indicator.

This GPS rescue put me in such a happy frame of mind that I did not even mind the road’s obstinate upward slant. Hills are far easier to stomach than being lost in the woods.

I was pleased to note that we were once again back on the Chestnut Trail. Evidently the trail begins at the Abbey of Novacella, and finishes at the Castle of Roncolo,which is north of Bolzano. It is becoming an old, familiar friend.

Each step seemed to carry us more deeply into Italian wine country. Long rows of grapes clung to the slopes of these hillsides. Some of the vineyards appeared almost unmanageably steep. How would someone be able to maintain their balance while picking the grapes? They must have fabulous balance.

Alpine vineyard.

As we walked, some of the mist began to burn off the mountaintops, offering a hint of what the rain clouds had concealed. The views improved with every upward step. Perhaps that is why people climb mountains, to obtain better views of other mountains.

Of course, as I noted earlier, the day’s stage was not all uphill. Occasionally the road would turn sharply downward and I would watch all of the altitude we had expended so much sweat and calories to attain, slip away again. This was particularly true as we passed the village of San Maurizio, and began strolling into a gorge that had been carved into the side of the mountain. We descended into the gorge. The sound of crashing water reached our ears, and then, rounding a corner, we saw an incredible flume of water smashing downward over large boulder.

Mountain stream.

We crossed the raging flow on a rickety wooden bridge built on a base of two steel railroad tracks. The trail then turned steeply upward, switchbacking up through the forest as we worked to recover the altitude we had just lost. The ascent was challenging, a serious thigh-breaker.

Somewhere down there was a nearly flat bike path.

The mountain views continued to improve. Large peaks, still dressed in snow, emerged from the mist. This was the first time we had really seen the mountains and it was quite impressive. I wished that I had a longer telephoto lens to pick distant details. Unfortunately I’m already carrying 7 pounds of camera equipment, and adding a 200–400 millimeter lens would have made my pack even heavier on the hills.

But back to the mountains. The closest peaks, across the valley were Mount Santer and Schlern Sciliar. They were our constant companions throughout the day as we slowly trudged past them.

The clouds clear slowly, revealing hidden peaks.

We reached the small town of Barbiano around noon. The morning brightness was dissipating as dark clouds thickened. I hoped to be proven wrong, but it certainly felt like rain was on the way.

At the town church, we encountered an old friend, a statue of St James. He was dressed as a pilgrim, with his cape, staff, and scallop shell. James is the patron saint of the Santiago de Compostela, and we spent a lot of time in his company two years ago. It was nice to see him again.

Our Lady of the Mountains.

The afternoon progressed. The gathering clouds lent a grey hue to the world. There was a smell of wood smoke in the air from the fireplaces of the farm houses we passed. The day felt autumnal, as if we were walking through the last days before the first snowfall.

Chestnut trees.

The slope leveled for a couple of kilometers before ascending to the church of Santa Verena. This required a steep climb through the woods, following a narrow, root-infested trail. The trail had not dried out from yesterday’s rain, and the roots were slippery and provided an awkward surface for our feet.

After this short, but brutal climb, we emerged in a clearing at the top of the hill and found the church. Santa Marina was a fourth century Christian faith healer and caregiver. Born in Egypt, she accompanied Rome’s Theban legion on a military expedition into the region that became Switzerland. Liking the climate, she settled in a cave outside modern day Zurich and lived a solitary, ascetic life.

The Church of Santa Verena

The church, which overlooks the valley floor, was built sometime before 1256. After centuries of neglect, it was restored in 1980. It was also locked, which, given its remote location, was both sensible and frustrating. We took a rest outside Verena’s walls and contemplated the fact that after hiking all day, the worst of our climb was still ahead of us.

The trail descended the other side of the peak, down past the stations of the cross. At this point, the trail follows a segment of the old Imperial way, the Kaiserweg. The Kaiserweg was a stone path built by the medieval German emperors that gave overland access to northern Italy. Today, only isolated fragments of the path remain.

On the Kaiserweg.

As we hiked down from Santa Verena on this section of the rocky Kaiserweg, I was surprised by how narrow the path was. And although the stones were laid to provide traction for horses, carts, and soldiers, when they were damp, they were slippery.

Our serious day’s climb began on a two rut road that ascended at what was probably a 45 degree angle. Someone had poured cement into the two ruts, which provided stable and grippy footing. They were much easier to climb than any of the other surfaces we encountered today. A pilgrim’s blessing on the heads of those who poured this concrete.

We reached an intermediate plateau and hiked toward a farmhouse. An old woman clipped flowers in front of her house. As I approached, she looked up, took a look at me, and then scuttled inside her house. I obviously didn’t make a good impression. Moments later, her dogs began barking.

More climbing. Growing fatigue. The next major milestone was the church of Maria Saal, which, rather predictably, was set on top of a hill. Up we slogged through a pasture. The path ran beside an electric fence, and a constant stream of water oozing down the hill had made it fairly muddy. Finally, we reached the top, and found the church.

The church marked the end of the day’s climbing. From here we followed a trail past the Pyramids of the Earth (which I plan to discuss in tomorrow’s entry), and then on into Collalbo. Footsore and fatigued, we limped through town, vainly searching for our evening’s lodging. As it turns out, our beds were housed in a Agriturismo on the other side of the town, and, you guessed it, up a steep hill.

A few pyramids to whet the reader’s appetite

Despite the arduous and lengthy stage, Mary and I agreed that this day was the best of the trip so far. The Altopiano offered phenomenal views, and we look forward to tomorrow’s shorter, largely downhill day.

Today's distance: 23 KM; Total distance: 98 KM

Next: Day VI -Collalbo, Italy to Bolzano

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