How to retrace Richard the Lionheart ’s journey across the Alps

 It hardly needs saying, but retracing the journey Richard and his companions made in disguise in December 1192 is not an exact business. There is only one town – Friesach – which the original sources are unambiguous that he went through. But still, for reasons partly set out in Chapter 6, that is not quite the end of the story. For some of the journey, geography – and a sharp eye on the spot – dictates at least a likely route.

So if you have enough interest and time to follow in the Lionheart’s footsteps, I suggest that you start on the Adriatic coast in the estuary of the Tagliamento – perhaps near Marano Lagonare. It is impossible to know the exact spot where he was shipwrecked, or precisely which roads he made for Aquileia, or if he went there or Gorizia for his first encounter with Count Engelbert. The castle walls above Gorizia are the same ones Richard would have seen, and where he sent one of his companions for the fatal interview with Engelbert.

Assuming he did head for Gorizia, again it is not clear whether he headed from there to Cividale or Udine, but the roads seem to imply it was Udine. So take what is now the SS56 and onto the main SS352 road north to Udine, a depressing journey past warehouses, supermarkets and drive-in sex shops.

At Udine, take the Caval Cavia across the railway line and along the Viale Ungheria towards the medieval gateway into the old city – the Via Aquileia is blocked off – and through the gate (built after Richard was there) into the ancient square below the castle, where we might imagine Richard and his followers encountered the soldiers sent by Meinhard of Gorz.

Then out of town via the Piazza Marconi and the Via Mazzini, studiously ignoring signs to the new motorway, and take what is now the SS13 but which was once the Roman road known as the Via Julia Augusta, heading for the snow-capped mountains in the distance to the north.

As the road snakes into the Val Canale, with the mountains soaring on either side, past the old fortified town of Venzone with its impressive medieval walls, you will see the monastery of Moggio – where I imagine Richard and his companions may have found the temptation for rest too much to resist – away across the river to the north.

After Moggio, it is impossible to be precise about which of the various tracks through the Val Canale that Richard took. The motorway was opened in 1986, but even the older main road is too modern. There is an abandoned railway that snakes along with the main line down the valley – low enough for to give horses access to water, but high enough to avoid the torrents of melting ice in the spring – and that shows signs of having used an earlier road, perhaps the one that Napoleon’s troops used as they marched this way.

There are glimpses of the original road, in other words, but also some monuments that Richard would have seen – like the church at Pontebba, marking the ancient border between Italy and Austria – before you reach Tarvisio and the modern border. Then take the small Austrian highway 83 through Arnoldstein and Lind, crossing the river Gail perhaps at Fürnitz or perhaps at Müllnern and into the city of Villach.

There they would perhaps have stayed another night, waking the next day to cross the River Drau at the place now marked by the Stadtbrücke and crossing what is now main railway station and along the north side of the Ossiacher See, towards Feldkirchen – then continuing along highway 94 to St Veit.

After St Veit, the road is obliterated by the motorway 317 but it looks clear that the original line went via Althofen, past the Schloss Pöckstein and from there along the small older road vaguely following the River Metnitz and into Friesach, over the moat and through the medieval walls – and into the town square where Richard’s followers were chased by Freidrich of Pettau.

The old road here went straight through the town, between the two rocks with medieval towers that dominate Freisach – along what is now a footpath, and down the winding road on the other side of the hill – with the amazing medieval tower of Schloss Geyersberg ahead, and rejoins the modern road at the foot of the hill. After Friesach, the remaining three of them forced the pace, and we can keep to the main road (still 317), but stick to the older detours through villages like Wildbad Einöd across the deep valley and into Neumarkt. But then leave the road, turn left and through Hoferdorf and Adendorf, crossing the river Mur from south to north at Teufenbach. From there via Niderwolz and Lind, and Nussdorf, crossing back again at St Georgen ob Judenburg.

At Judenburg he would have crossed back to the north side of the river again. Judenburg, Zeltweg and Knittelfeld are now almost one long industrial city, and Richard would have gone through the middle, crossing back to the south side of the river at Knittelfeld and through the villages of St Margaret, St Lorenzen and crossing back again at St Stefan before going through what is now the industrial town of Leoben.

From Leoben, take the older smaller road through Kapfenberg – with the ancient monastery perched on a peak above the road – and along a ridge above the river Mürz to Mürzzuschlag. From there, leaving the river to the north, strike off on the Austrian highway 306 through the old village of Spittal am Semmering and down the winding valley with the mountains of Krummbachstein and Klosterwappen towering snowy in the distance to your left as you descend anything up to a thousand feet. Again, it is impossible to know which of these ancient wooded tracks was then main highway then, but they all lead to Gloggnitz, Ternitz and the Roman road from Neunkirchen and what is now Wiener Neustadt.

Wiener Neustadt was built with money from Richard’s ransom, so that city would not have been there, but there is another Roman road north from there (highway 17) through Sollenau but from there the trail has to go cold in the modern plethora of highways leading into Vienna. We might assume he carried on north along what is highway 17 before at some point skirting round Vienna and ending up near the river in what is now Vienna’s 3 rd district, by the Donau Kanal (the original navigable part of the river) in Erdberg.

The traditional site of the inn where Richard was arrested is now marked by a plaque (jnside the front door) at 41 Erdbergstrasse – now an Edwardian block of flats complete with sushi bar – but it seems likely that he was nearer the river than that, perhaps a few streets to the north down Lowenherzgasse (Lionheart Street) at the alternative site at 16 Dietrichgasse, somewhere near the presumed site of Leopold’s Rudenhaus (see Chapter 6). From there it is a short walk along Erdbergstrasse to the Rochusmarkt where the boy was seized and from where presumably Richard caught his first sight of the city under captivity.

But no journey retracing his footsteps would be quite complete without continuing along the Danube to the West, past the ancient town of Krems, to see the extraordinary ruin in the Wachau Valley, high above the Danube, which marks the spot above the town of Dürnstein where Richard first found himself in prison. “The story has always sounded too good to be true,” said Patrick Leigh Fermor, describing Blondel’s singing in A Time of Gifts , “but on the spot it’s impossible to doubt it.”


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