Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Cycling the Via Claudia Augusta - with bronchitis

It is surely the dream of every cyclist to ride downhill uninterrupted the whole day long. Well, it’s a dream that came true for me on my recent trip from Munich to Venice.

Easiest?! Well, maybe if you catch the bus (see below)

This journey was, in a sense, a continuation of a trip from Prague to Munich I did two years ago with the same two friends - Ciaran and Ryan. Last year we did Prague-Berlin. Who knows what will happen next year, but one option would be to go from Berlin to Hamburg. Then we could say we’ve crossed Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic by bicycle. Well almost, since we didn’t quite make it all the way to Venice this time, as the following paragraphs will reveal.

Official start in Munich: (left to right) me, Ryan and Ciaran

The week started with filthy weather, which, as regular readers of this blog will know, has been the story of my summer. After rendezvousing in Munich, my two “fellow sufferers” and I spent the first day of our holiday cycling in the rain to Kochel am See, a lakeside town in southern Bavaria which has an excellent museum devoted to the short life and work of expressionist artist Franz Marc. By the end of the day Ciaran was developing a sore throat, but none of us paid it much heed at this stage.

The shore of Kochelsee

On day 2 we lunched in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the shadow of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. We then crossed into Austria via the Fernpass, a long, tough climb made all the worse by my poor navigating, which took us several miles in the wrong direction up a steep and slippery mountain track. Exhausted, we freewheeled down the other side in a bone-chilling downpour and took refuge overnight in the small town of Nassereith.

The Zugspitze shrouded in cloud

By now we had joined the Via Claudia Augusta, a superb long-distance cycleway that follows the route of an old Roman road through the Alps. It starts in Donauwörth in Germany and heads south through Austria into Italy. At Trento it splits into two branches, one of which goes to Ostiglia via Verona and the other to Venice via Feltre. The sections we travelled along were well signposted and well maintained, running mostly on dedicated cycle paths away from motor traffic. Dotted along the way are information boards telling you about the history of the route.

Nassereith in the morning

Day 3 dawned wet and cold, but the weather slowly improved as the day went on. By the time we started the big climb up the Reschenpass it wasn’t even raining. The peaks on either side were still snow-flecked. As Ryan said, Austria would probably be the biggest country in Europe if you flattened it out. Ciaran in particular suffered badly on the nine-hairpin-bend climb. His throat infection had moved down to his lungs and he was having trouble breathing, but he soldiered on heroically. We spent the night 1400 m above sea level in the ski resort of Nauders.

On the short Swiss section of the climb to Nauders

Day 4 started with a trip to the local bike shop for new brake blocks for two of the bikes. There followed a short uphill stretch to the top of the Reschenpass, at 1515 m above sea level the high point of our trip. We were now in Italy, which gave Ryan - official Expedition Entertainment Officer - the opportunity to burst into song at regular intervals. Unfortunately it was always the same song. Even more unfortunately the song was “That’s Amore”, and Ryan ain’t no Dean Martin.

A semi-submerged church tower scrapes the sky above Reschensee

From here it was downhill all the way - literally - through German-speaking northern Italy. It’s a superb, exhilarating, car-free descent alongside lakes, past castles and through vineyards and orchards. We stopped for lunch at a cafe in the little town of Laas, where we stripped off several layers of clothing and daubed ourselves in sun cream. We cycled on in the afternoon sunshine down the River Adige until we reached Meran. After the trials and tribulations of the Alps it had been a great day’s cycling - the best we’d ever spent together. We felt privileged to have experienced it. The only cloud was Ciaran’s deteriorating state of health.

Fürstenburg castle at Burgeis under a clearing Italian sky

On day 5 we awoke to sunshine for the first time. We rode along the widening valley past Bolzano and on towards Trento. There were lots of locals out cycling here, most of them clad in Lycra and riding state-of-the-art road machines. As the day went on the wind picked up and turned against us. We rode in single file in close formation, with Ryan and I taking turns at the front to shelter our ailing friend as much as possible from the wind.

Yours truly en route from Meran to Bolzano

Ciaran came down to breakfast on day 6 in a bad way and immediately broke the news that he couldn’t go on. We decided there and then to halt the ride; it was a case of all for one and one for all. While he went off to the local hospital for treatment, Ryan and I explored historical Trento. Later in the day Ciaran texted us to say he’d been diagnosed with bronchitis. Plan B swung into operation: we would catch the train down to Treviso that evening and stay there overnight. As Ciaran put it, we moved from a state of doing (cycling) to one of being (on holiday). And no bad thing either. Before that we’d been constantly playing catch-up with our own, over-ambitious schedule. Now we could kick back and relax for the rest of the week.

No more cycling: outside our hotel in Treviso

We arrived in Treviso just after Italy had lost to Slovakia and been knocked out of the World Cup, and the locals were looking suitably shell-shocked. We had a good night out in the historical walled city, ending up at an Irish pub where Ronnie Wood had jammed just two weeks earlier. The next day we boarded the train again for the short journey to Venice, where we spent a day and a half exploring the streets and canals.

St Mark's Campanile in Venice

The Via Claudia Augusta is a real cycling treat. Everywhere we went the locals were friendly and helpful. The hotels are very reasonably priced and cycle-friendly, the food is great and the scenery is spectacular. There are even buses that will take you and your bike to the top of both the Fernpass and the Reschenpass, making the route suitable for cyclists of all abilities. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Anonymous said...

When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie that's amore...

That's a great overview of the trip Simon. Well done!

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Oh God, I think I recognise that baritone!

Robicku said...

I stumbled across your blog from another I follow and really enjoyed reading your posts.

Circuit Rider CZ said...

Thanks Robicku, I'm really glad you like the blog.

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