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Via Claudia Augusta

Via Claudia Augusta - the only emperor route over the alps

Via Claudia Augusta

After two thousand years of history, Via Claudia Augusta, the ancient Roman road that led from the Po River lowlands and the Adriatic Sea all the way to Bavaria and the Danube, is enjoying a renaissance.

With the end of conflicts and a united Europe, the Via Claudia Augusta has become a bridge joining and blending cultures, places and emotions. It is a symbolic route that spans three nations, each with its own diverse landscape and traditions, artistic treasures and culinary specialities, marked by a more approachable, youthful and ecologically sustainable tourism.

The itinerary invites us to leave our watches at home to explore places and landscapes from a fresh perspective, attentive to the colours, subtle nuances, fragrances and flavours of the history that permeates everything here. This web site offers useful starting points for orienting yourself in this vast, 500-km long journey; it is a point of departure to discovering the charm and attraction of the first overland connection between Southern and Northern Europe.

The Via Claudia Augusta in Bavaria

Via Claudia Augusta: signThe first leg of this great and exciting adventure called Via Claudia Augusta is also the longest, and passes through a good deal of Bavaria. This is a long stretch, which we recommend you tackle at a gentle pace, as this is no Tour de France, and more of a Grand Tour, the adventurous journey that the Northern European gentry of the Eighteenth Century embarked upon at the leisurely speeds imposed by the means of transport they had available, to discover the warmer climes, the history and the art of Italy. The Via Claudia Augusta is obviously a different matter, as it is within the reach of all and is not limited to a tour of only the most important cities, as was the practice in the past. It shares the same spirit, however, with a fascinating epiphany of beauty, a love for history, nature and for wholesome, genuine and interesting things, which are imbued with the soul of the land. There is no goal here – no beach or picture postcard. Although you will be able to pick up an impressive collection of treasured memories, if you feel so inclined: such as of an enchanted landscape, or a city with centuries of history, a famous museum, a ramshackle house and boundless poetry. Or the lake, the river, the sea and the woods. You’ll experience the silence of nature parks alternated with the bustle of cities, and local fetes contrasting with internationally renowned festivals. Who knows how happy it would have made the venerable Drusus and his son Claudius if they could retrace their magnificent creation, the Via Claudia Augusta, together with you. With their blessing and adventurous spirit in your heart, it’s now time to leave idle chit chat aside and get the first leg of this spectacular route under way.

A pure and uncontaminated aquatic environment is both our point of departure and, as we shall see, our destination. At 2,860 Km, the Danube is one of the longest rivers in Europe, but there’s no need to look so worried – we won’t be covering its entire extent from Oberschwaben to the Black Sea. This is the final destination of the Via Claudia Augusta, and, philological and romantic tourists that we are, how can we miss this opportunity to experience a little piece of the Blue Danube for ourselves? Even if only to get an impression of its beauty and immense naturalistic and economic importance for the region.

Once we get our wheels rolling along the cycle path (one of the longest in Europe) that follows its banks, we immediately discover the first of the countless curiosities that we’ll be finding along our journey. This is the Ries, an astonishing 24 Km wide crater formed 15 million years ago by a meteorite smashing into the earth at blinding speed. For those of you who cannot afford a trip to the moon, this is the ideal location for a few lunar snaphots. The landscape is so similar to that of our satellite that in 1970, the members of the Apollo 14 team came here to train. If you want to find out more, a XVI Century granary has been converted into a museum, conserving several fragments of the meteorite, which we hope has no brothers wandering about in the galaxy, ready to strike us.

Returning to earth, we reach the town of Donauwörth, which was once the most important port in the whole of Svevia, making it the ideal terminus for the Via Claudia Augusta. Although the town was partially destroyed during the Second World War, it still retains a quaint old town centre with many interesting things to see, from a museum of archaeology to a doll museum, hosted in the Capuchin Monastery, and beautiful frescoed houses, the likes of which we shall see again throughout our journey, such as the equally charming examples in Trento. It’s your first few days in the saddle and so it"s only natural that you"re already tired and hungry. Looking for somewhere to eat? Try one of the distinctive taverns and order a Weisswurst, the white Bavarian sausage dipped in sweet mustard – another of the region’s specialities. Accompany your meal with a fine glass of local white wine or an ever present beer. If you’re still hungry, then munch a few bretzels, the typical, tasty bread made in a knot and flavoured with course salt or seeds. You’ll soon be on top form again.

Via Claudia AugustaAs soon as we leave this river, we immediately come across another, the Lech, which feeds into the Danube near Donauwörth. A favourite among kayak and canoe enthusiasts, this river was rendered notorious by two bloody battles. The first was a clash between the Emperor Otho and no other than Attila, the ‘Scourge of God’; the second, no less epic battle was in 1632 between the Imperial and the Swedish army, in a bloody war that was eventually won by the Swedes. Some say that the river is haunted by the ghosts of many of the dead soldiers and, on rare foggy days, you may even just see a few. While these visions may be merely the product of the excellent local beer, they only add to the appeal of this area.

As we approach Augsberg, we reach the town of Gersthofen, which was once famous for manufacturing airships. Indeed it was here that, in 1786, the resourceful Baron von Lütgendorf invented the aerostatic balloon and with it, perhaps, science fiction, too. To see the history of these ancestors of the aircraft, visit the Ballonmuseum (Balloon Museum), which is hosted in one of the city’s old and beautiful towers.

Who can tell what it must have felt like, two centuries ago, to float in one of these antiquated contraptions over the Naturpark Altmühltal, which, with its 3000 square kilometres, is the largest in Germany. As we have no time machine, we"ll have to retrace history from down here, on the ground, covering only a handful of the over 800 Km of cycle paths branching through the park by bicycle or on foot. There’s something for everyone here, from the 140 Km path to the archaeological sites to the colossal fossil museum (Jura-Museum) and the countless signs left behind by the Romans, who laid the limes here – the boundaries of their territories. On the subject of Romans, the parks along the Via Claudia Augusta even host theme-based festivals. These are the Festivals of the limes, with costume re-enactments of the lives of Roman legionnaires. No need to worry, however, as they won’t be serving you garum (a fish and salt sauce beloved of the Romans), but Bavarian culinary specialities.

And here we are at Augsberg, the Augusta Vindelicorum of Roman times and the capital of the Svevia area. In 1367 this became the home to Hans-Jacob Fugger, the head of the richest family of bankers in Europe, responsible for much of the city’s glory. After a mandatory visit to the Römisches Museum, one of the most interesting sights here is the Fuggerei, the oldest social welfare housing in the world, dating back to 1519. The complex, consisting of small three-roomed houses and single roomed apartments for widows, was built to house the poor. The area still fulfils the same role today, and the rent for these elegant dwellings is an incredible 1 Euro per year. So, raise a toast in one of the many Biergartens to the Fugger family and their munificence. But remember that we’re not at the Oktoberfest in Munich, so choose quality over quantity. Resist the temptation to quaff from litre tankards and limit yourself to a smaller glass, savouring everything from the light and amber Lagerbier to the stronger Märzenbier, including the Weißbier, made from wheat instead of barley.

A must see among the city’s cultural attractions is the cathedral, whose monumental portal boasts 35 sculpted panels and which hosts masterpieces such as the altar by Hans Holbein the Elder, one of the greatest German artists of the early XVI Century. The secret heart of this architectural gem is the crypt, however, which is almost a thousand years old and is shrouded in mystery. It is said that there is a secret passage leading to another church, the Ulrich Kirche, on the opposite side of the city. If you’re not the subterranean sort, however, take an easy stroll down Maximilianstrasse, the most important and vibrant street in the city, dotted with elegant cafes and major monuments – the most significant of all being the Merkurbrunnen, a beautiful fountain hosting a statue of Neptune, Fugger Haus, the birthplace of Jakob Fugger, and the Damenhof, a Renaissance courtyard which will make you believe that you’re already in Italy. If you like Augsberg so much that you’d like to come back, we recommend Christmas time, when the city hosts the prettiest Christmas market in all of Germany.

To tell the truth, the carnival is also worth seeing. The Fasching, the characteristic Bavarian carnival, has very old origins, dating back to the Middle Ages. In 1829, a Carnival Corporation was even established in a vain attempt to instil a little order into this boisterous, irreverent and at times anarchic celebration. However, should you see a lady of a venerable age dressed up in strange garments, don’t laugh, because this is no carnival costume, but the Dirndl, the typical Bavarian dress. The same is true for the Lederhosen, the typical short trousers with chest panel and braces in buckskin or chamois, which are even comfortable (and amusing) for cycling, unless of course, you can’t bear the idea of giving up the classic tight-fitting cyclist look.

Landsberg am Lech: the gothic gate to Bavaria. Following the right hand bank of the river along the ancient walls of Landsberg, you’ll come across the tower of the “Bayertor”, one of Germany’s most beautiful fortified gothic gates dating back to 1425, whose gothic turrets and sculptures have been perfectly preserved. At the centre of the town square, demarcated by elegant baroque buildings, are a fountain and the town hall from the XVIII Century, whose façade is embellished with fine stuccos. Passing through the Schmalzturm, known also as the “Beautiful tower”, leads you to the oldest heart of the city. Worthy of interest are the parish church of Mariä Himmelfahrt (the Assumption of Mary), built in the XV Century and subsequently added to with baroque elements, and the Malteserkirche (Maltese church), built at the end of the XVI Century by the order of the same name and restructured in later years in the baroque style.

We continue on towards Schongau caressed by the warm Föhn, the dry wind that blows frequently in Upper Bavaria. Over the centuries, this picturesque little town has maintained its characteristic mediaeval appearance with towers, walls, gates and even a patrol trench. Schongau confirms the saying ‘good things come in small packages’, with a selection of interesting museums dedicated to topics such as dolls, rafts, carriages and the blacksmith’s art. There are also many churches, art museums in their own right that ask no entrance fee, unless of course, you decide to leave an offer. A few kilometres from here, the Via Claudia Augusta used to meet the Salzstrasse, or Salt Road, so called because it was an important route for the trade of this vital raw material, used by the Romans to preserve food and even as a means of payment.

Remaining on the subject of the Romans, between Schongau and Peiting the remains of a Roman country villa have been discovered, complete with a heated bath. One of the most interesting findings discovered here, and exhibited at the Schongau Civic Museum, are the “tablets of love”, which document a passionate relationship between a servant and what appears to be the daughter of the master – with enough material to produce a soap opera set 2000 years ago!

Oil your chain, because it’s time to set off for another picturesque Bavarian town, Steingaden. This is the site of the famous Wieskirche, the almost dazzling Rococo gem with its limpid paintings, gleaming gilding and fantastic stuccos; it’s no wonder that it has been nominated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Whether you believe in miracles or not, one happened here. In 1730, two monks built a statue of the Scourged Christ, which was so dramatic and moving that it was hidden away in an attic. Years later, the wife of a local innkeeper publicly displayed the statue, which suddenly started crying tears of blood. Today, about a million people a year come to see and venerate this miraculous statue.

Put away your rosaries and let’s move on from the sombreness of religion to the frivolity of fairytales.

Continuing along the Via Claudia Augusta, we pass through the region of Mount Auerberg. Here, at an altitude of 1055 metres, the Romans established a settlement with industrial purposes. Numerous structures have been found in this area with roofs protected by landfill and openings facing onto the road: these are workshops that used to produce vases, where glass and bronze were worked and where the laborious process of iron forging was conducted. Some of the most interesting findings are casts for the bronze cups of catapults.

Along its entire length, the Via Claudia Augusta continuously rewards the traveller with emotions and sights, in a sequence that elicits a profound sense of harmony, in spite of the varied nature of its individual elements. At Roßhaupten am Forggensee, we recommend visiting the information bureau for the Via Claudia Augusta and the Dorfmuseum (civic museum), the artistic park dedicated to the Via Augusta (Kunstpark Via Claudia Augusta) and the information centre for the Lech dam hydroelectric power station at Roßhaupten.

Suddenly, from one turn of the wheel to the next, the landscape changes and we’re surrounded by the pinnacles of the Alps. The castle of Neuschwanstein appears out of this uncontaminated landscape as if plucked straight out of a fairy tale. This was the dream of the legendary Ludwig II, the singular Bavarian monarch who has since been the subject of both books and films, and who had the castle built in 1869 to a design by his court scenographer. Just like today’s vogue for vintage, with jackets and skirts from the 1960s being dug out of attics and dusted off for new use, gothic revival was all the rage in those days and – from France to Germany – everything was done in a neogothic style, taking inspiration from cathedrals and old manors. Ludwig’s castle is a dense forest of spires and three-mullioned windows, sloped roofs and exaggerated towers, and the interior will leave you spellbound for its abundance of frescoes depicting subjects from Northern European mythology and scenes from the operas of Wagner – the king’s favourite composer.

Füssen is a holiday and health resort of international renown, and is also the home to a collection of artefacts from a settlement from the Roman era. It is believed that originally, the Via Claudia Augusta forded the river Lech just south of the nearby village Bad Faulenbach.

Where once, during the III and IV Century, there used to be a military Roman camp known as Foetibus mentioned in documents from the era, to make travelling along the Via Claudia Augusta a safer affair, there now stands the Hohe Schloss, or High Castle, the symbol of this, the highest altitude of all Bavarian towns. The Reichenstrasse, which is the main street crossing through the romantic old centre of Füssen, follows the plan of the ancient Roman castrum. In addition to the castle, whose façade is adorned with singular examples of trompe l’oeil, you must also visit the splendid baroque churches of Füssen and the Civic Museum, hosted in the convent of St. Mang.

The city stands in the heart of an enchanting landscape, not far from the Weißensee – the ‘white lake’ –, the hop fields of the Hopfensee and Lake Forggen. The latter, measuring 12 km long by 4 wide, is the fourth largest lake in Bavaria. This is an artificial lake created in 1954 by a dam across the Lech to control its flow and power a number of hydroelectric power stations. In summer, all sorts of water sports are practised here. Tourist ferries offer trips around the lake to enjoy its beauty and the extraordinary surrounding Alpine foothill scenery. During the colder months, from November to May, the waters of the lake are released and allowed to follow their natural course.

The next legs along the Via Claudia Augusta, zigzagging through Austria and Italy, deserve a good rest beforehand to be fully enjoyed. So chain up your trusty velocipede and, with a cold tankard of beer in your hand, raise a toast to the sunset. If you’re in need of more than just beer and würstel to get back on form, don’t despair: along the Alpenstrasse there are an amazing 64 spa baths to help you recharge your batteries. So, with your energies restored and your frame well polished, all that remains is to get back into the saddle and set off on a new, extraordinary adventure.

For more information visit www.viaclaudia.at

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