Around the time when Jesus walked the earth, the Romans spent 60 years transforming an age-old pack animal trail into a road over the Alps. It led from the lowlands of the Po River valley and the Adriatic sea, all the way to the areas of Noricum and Rhaetia, which we now call Austria and Bavaria.
When it was finished, the Emperor Claudius used the road to secure the Roman frontier and press his military might against the tribes of the north.
Over the next two thousand years, it became a vital trading route between the regions. Today, the Via Claudia Augusta route has been converted into a cycling and hiking path that crosses the Alps from Germany to Italy.
Biking the Via Claudia Augusta wasn’t actually my first choice. I’d wanted to ride the Timmelsjoch pass, which climbs through the Ötz valley in Austria and tops out at 8,117′, before dropping into Italy.
However, our schedule for getting away and going to Europe this year didn’t quite coincide. After setting my heart on the Timmelsjoch and drooling over pictures, I found out that it doesn’t usually open until mid June. In fact, when we flew over to Germany, I read that they were still plowing through ten meter high snow drifts at the top.
Denied. I’m already back and it’s still closed.
Ok, hang on a minute. Let me take a bit to fill in the back story.
I like to ride my bike. Always have. Ever since my dad took my training wheels off and sent me down our gravel driveway hill in Evergreen, Colorado when I was about 4, I’ve been hooked. When I look back on all the other sports and activities that I enjoy, like rock climbing and skiing, bike riding always ranks at the top.
How do I know this? Because if I had to give them all up and only keep one, I wouldn’t part with the bike. To me, my bike has always symbolized my own sense of freedom and adventure and I’d never willingly give it up. When I was a kid, there was no worse punishment than losing my bike for the week. My mom totally nailed that one. Of course, now that I’m big, no one can take my bike away anymore. Well, almost no one. I’ve had a few bikes stolen, but that’s different. That’s the worse thing ever.
Anyway, I’ve done some pretty fun stuff in my life, but exploring on my bike holds a special place in my soul. Traversing new roads through territories unknown to me, pedaling up and over high mountain roads and cruising through narrow medieval streets in remote villages and unpaved trails- yea that’s totally for me.
To date, I’ve ridden my bike in eight countries on four continents. I’ve pedaled over the highest road in the world in Ladakh, India. I’ve ridden the northern California coast. I meandered for six weeks around Andalucia in search of tapas and good olive oil one time in an attempt to mend a broken heart. (It worked.) I’ve ridden 100 miles on frozen rivers in Alaska and watched the midnight sunset during an all night bike ride through Denali National Park.
I long to ride interesting, scenic routes and explore the great route of the world on two wheels. In some ways, bike touring with my camera is the most fulfilling thing in the world for me, and for all the riding I’ve done, I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. I have a very big list that keeps growing: Norway. Iceland. Chile. Mongolia. Tibet, and of course, the Timmelsjoch pass.
A month ago, I’d never heard of the Via Claudia Augusta. We were planning on heading over to Europe for a two week vacation and to visit some family who were also vacationing in Germany and some we were on holiday in Italy. Rather than just take the train around, though, I came up with the idea to take our bikes and ride over the Alps. You know, make it interesting. Make it more challenging. Make the food taste better.
A few hours of research poring over Google Maps and I found a small road the heads up the Ötzal valley in Austria; the Timmeljoch. Of course, a little bit more research would have told me that it was not an option this time of year. I didn’t find that out until about a week before we were set to leave.
Back to the drawing board. I did some more research and stumbled across the Via Claudia Augusta. I discovered that it not only went from Germany, through Austria and down into Italy, it’s almost entirely bike path away from the main roads. In facts, there are hundreds of miles of dedicated cycling trails through the Alps. Apparently, German speaking people love to go bike touring.
Let’s see- Historic route over the Alps through three countries and countless tiny European villages and towns, and no cars? The gods have indeed smiled on me. Here we go. For camera gear, I packed a Fujifilm XE-1 the Fuji X20 and a Nikon P7700, as well as an iPad. Read a detailed post about my camera gear setup for this trip, and see my iPad travel photography work flow here. I found this setup to be extremely workable for a lightweight bike tour like this.
The Ride, Part 1: Kaufring to Füssen, Germany
After flying over Greeland to Iceland, Copenhagen and then Germany, we spent a short weekend of sunshine in Munich …wait for it… drinking beer and doing some general sightseeing.
I also found a copy of the Bikeline Via Claudia Augusta biking guidebook. It’s all in German, but has great maps that proved useful in the first few minutes of the rid, and many times afterwards. If you do the route, I’d highly recommend getting the book. The route is pretty well marked, but it was nice to have the book and see where we were every day. It also has a list of hotels and pensions that accommodate bikes.
On Sunday, we assembled the bikes, hopped a train for for the small town of Kaufring and started riding south. The route actually starts in Donauwürth, but since we had limited time, I figured that we’d cut out some of the long flat sections in the beginning and head straight for the mountains. You know, jump right in.
Not thirty minutes after we set out from Kaufring, we came across the official Via Claudia trail and turned south. That’s when the rain started. Yep, we got right in it alright. Within a few miles we were soaked and ready to call Day One a very short day and find some place to stay.
In Erpfting, we found a very nice B&B, but they apparently didn’t have any rooms available. Not for two wet cyclists, anyway. Who could tell? Mein German es nicht sehr gut.
So, on we went under spitting rain and a strong west wind that made those few right turns painful on our faces. Ellighofen, had two places, one that was closed and the other that was full.
However, the nice innkeeper assured us that if we rode up this very steep hill, we’d find a town only 4km away that would have rooms. Sure we would. Up the hill. Out the way. What choice did we have?
He was right. Gasthof Zur Post. Quaint little place in the tiny town of Waal, where few people spoke any English. Of course, I took four years of German in high school and college, but that was a long time ago. Before now, I’d never actually been to a German speaking country. Whenever I travel to foreign countries, I keep a Lonely Planet Phrasebook in my right pants pocket all the time. Go Lonely Planet.
We got a room in Waal, dried out and ate früdlesuppe and käserspätzel (pancake soup and German mac and cheese) from a very nice innkeeper who wore a bright red traditional Bavarian dress. Went out for some end of the day photography under clearing skies and then slept well, only we got woken up by the 48 church bells that went off at midnight in the four churches in town.
The second day of riding better. Less rain. Some sprinkles in the afternoon, but nothing like yesterday. Flat farmland and small towns slowly turned into rolling meadows, occasional forest lined gravel paths and clearings that gave us our first views of the Alps. Awesome quality riding. Even some dirt and double track trails, and almost no cars. Sometimes tiny European cars use the wide bike paths as narrow roads between village, but compared to riding on busy main roads and highways, it was pretty dreamy.
We passed through Unterdießen, Oberdießen, Asch, Leeder, Hohenfurch, Schongau, and Lechbrook, where we stopped for cake and beer at a local cafe, then through Ehrwang and Eshach. By the end of the day, we found ourselves at the base of the Alps under menacing thick gray clouds, which is where I caught my very first glimpse of that mysterious white building across the valley.
It was but a childhood dream to lay my eyes upon the greatest and most magnificient castle in all the world. I’ve remembered its name ever since I was but a boy. At the end of the afternoon, we rode our bikes into the town Füssen and, booked a room at the Gasthaus Forggensee, then pedaled past throngs of international tourists all the way up the the thousand foot climb to Neuschwanstein the castle in the pouring rain.
We passed underneath the massive wooden entryway and marveled at the majestic beauty of this spectacular building from another time. I gazed with my childhood awe at massive stone turrets jutting up into the fog and the brilliant white limestone walls, some of which are carved directly out of the steep cliffs that are perched high upon the Bavarian mountainside.
In the course of my lifetime, this was a day to remember.
Read Part 2: Not Enough Days in Austria.