Travelling in The Alps: Septimer Pass

If you want to get the feeling for how the ancient Roman travelled, the Septimer Pass is the road to travel. The Septimer Pass lies in the Canton of Grisons in Switzerland and connects the Julier Road to the Bregaglia Valley south of the Alps. You’ll have to travel it as the Romans did, though, on foot. 

Like the Julier Pass, the Septimer Pass starts in Bivio at 1769 m (5800 ft.). Bivio translates to crossroad; here, travellers have to decide if they want to follow the Julier Pass going east or the Septimer Pass leading south. The Septimer Pass culminates at 2310 m (7600 ft.) and ends in Casaccia at 1458 m (4800 ft.). The culmination of the pass marks a European water divide. Water running down the north slope will eventually join the North Sea; water running down the south side will eventually join the Mediterranean.

The Septimer Pass was in use during the Bronze Age, and the inhabitants of Bivio are mainly immigrants from the Bregaglia Valley coming over the pass through the ages. While many passes in the Alps take their names from important mountain peaks nearby, the Septimer Pass was named by the Romans. Or rather, it wasn’t really named but was the seventh (septimus) pass mentioned in the list of alpine passes. It offered the most direct route from Italy to Germany at the time.

In 15 BC, Empress Livia’s sons Tiberius and Drusus conquered the region stretching from the middle Alps into the adjoining lands to the north. Archaeological finds of Roman lead slingshots show that some parts of that army passed over the Septimer Pass. These same slingshots continue to puzzle historians at the same time; they show inscriptions from the III, X, and XII legions while it had always been assumed that the army had consisted of the XIII, XVI, XIX, and XXI legions.

The Septimer Pass remained just as important in medieval times. King Otto the Great and Queen Adelheid of Germany travelled over it in 961 when going to Rome to be crowned Emperor and Empress. Otto gave the pass and the Bregaglia Valley to the bishop of Chur as a fief; on these lands between Chur and Chiavenna the fortune, power and influence of the bishops would be based for centuries.

In the 14th century, the Lords of Castelmur built a road over the SEptimer Pass on the behest of the bishop. And in 1646, a hospice was built near the culmination of the pass. But the Septimer Pass was steadily losing in importance to other, newer passes, and by 1840 the hospice was abandoned and subsequently fell into ruins. With the road built over the Julier Pass opening in 1826, the Septimer Pass lost most of its traffic for good.

This almost complete shut-down has made it possible for today’s travellers to walk on the Roman and medieval roads and bridges and to get a first-hand feeling for the travels of our ancestors. The distance between Bivio and Casaccia is only 10 km (6 miles) and can be mastered by anybody who likes hiking. The road over the pass is well looked after and open all summer. All you require is a pair of sturdy boots, food and drink, and the stamina to walk 6 miles up and down hill. The road is also a favourite run for mountain bikers. 

Further reading
History in The Alps: Bernina Pass
History in The Alps: Fluela Pass
Livia, First Empress of Rome