Published: August 24th 2011August 16th 2011
I left Munich in a torrential thunderstorm – not a good sign given that I was heading into the mountains. I was trying to get to the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, nestled in the Alps near the Austrian border. Unfortunately there was a rail replacement service in operation, so I had to take a bus for half of the way then catch a train. The bus was 15 minutes late arriving and the connecting train for some reason didn't wait for all of its passengers, so I had to wait an hour for the next train. (I envisaged German public transport as being incredibly efficient, cheap and clean, but with the exception of the express trains, there really is no difference from the UK – trains seem to be quite often late and a lot of their trains seem to be a of a fair age). I didn't mind waiting to get to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in any case as by the time I arrived, the weather had begun to clear up. Garmisch-Partenkirchen turned out to be a really amazing town, or rather the scenery that surrounds was amazing. The town itself (its actually 2 towns merged together) was nice enough but nothing special.
At one end of Partenkirchen is the Olympic Stadium and ski jump, where the 1936 Winter Olympics were held. The most well known attraction in the town is the Zugspitzbahn, which is a cog train and a cable car which link the town to the top of Zugspitze – the highest mountain in Germany (just short of 3000m). I didn't do this as a) it wasn't clear on top of Zugspitze, and b) the €48 cost of a ticket was rather off putting. I instead made my way to Partnach Gorge, which was just a short walk past the Olympic Stadium. This gorge was absolutely beautiful – very narrow, with a pathway cut in the rock above the Partnach river as it forces its way ferociously through the hard rock. The path was very busy, unsurprisingly, and I got very wet, but it was a truly wonderful experience. At times it felt like looking over the top of a waterfall. I emerged at the other end of the gorge not knowing exactly where to go next. The whole area is filled with a network of walking paths, so I choose one that didn't look too challenging but not really knowing
where I was going. I ended up climbing a lot more than I intended, all the way to a small mountain called Kreuzack, which is the top for one of the town's many cable cars. The views of most of the nearby mountains were obscured by cloud, though the view 900m down to Garmisch-Partenkirchen was quite impressive. I made by way back down to the town, with the sun beginning to emerge from behind the clouds and illuminate the majestic mountain backdrop. In the early evening and the following morning it was really quite beautiful, as I'm sure the photos convey.
After Garmisch, I wanted to go to the other big tourist town in the Bavarian Alps, Füssen. I was quite surprised that there were no train or bus connections between the 2 towns (they aren't that far apart really) but I managed to get there by changing bus in Austria. Füssen lies at the southern end of Bavaria's “Romantic Road”, which links some of the state's most picturesque attractions. And Füssen is definitely a fitting end for such a route. The town is home to not one, but two royal palaces, both situated in spectacular alpine scenery right
on the border with Austria. I was a bit later arriving than I had anticipated, and by the time I had checked into my hotel I had missed the hourly bus to the palaces, so ended up walking the 5km believing I had to get there before 3pm in order to visit the palaces that day. The place was unbelievably crowded, but I managed to get a ticket on one of the last tours of the day (7:15pm!), leaving me 4 hours to explore the grounds. The 2 palaces are very distinct, the first, Hohenschwangau, is a more or less “conventional” 17th century palace with lovely views over the Alps and adjacent to Lake Alpsee. 25 minutes uphill from here is the second palace, the one I wanted to visit, Schloss Neuschwanstein (New-swan-stone Palace). This was built by King Ludwig II in the mid 19th century as his interpretation of a medieval castle – it's definitely the most famous castle/palace in the whole of Germany, and although you probably don't recognise the name, I imagine you may have seen photos of this fairytale castle before. It is said to be the inspiration for the Disney castle.
The four hour
wait to the guided tour of Neuschwanstein passed very quickly. I had a look around the outside of Hohenschwangau and then climbed up to Marienbrucke – a bridge offering fabulous views over Neuschwanstein. The bridge was absolutely packed (not surprisingly) but the path on the other side of the bridge was relatively quiet, so I decided to follow this for a while and see where it went. It kept on climbing until there were fantastic views of both palaces as well as half a dozen lakes. I kept on going up as the views kept on getting better (and I though the top of the hill was close) until some people coming down told me I was still 3 hours away from the very top and that I had already passed the best viewpoints. The views from said viewpoints were stunningly beautiful – the photos I took (looking into the afternoon sun) didn't really do justice. The tour of the inside was, in contrast, slightly disappointing. King Ludwig was deposed (and drowned under mysterious circumstances the following day) before the interiors could be finished, and they subsequently never have been, so the tour only goes through the 18 or so
finished rooms. There were so many people on the tour, and big groups right behind and ahead of us, that it was at times impossible to actually hear the guide. The interior has to be the strangest palace interior in the world. King Ludwig was an obsessive Wagner fan so nearly every room is based upon a scene from a Wagner opera. The throne room looked like a kitsch reproduction of a medieval hall, with fake gold and jewel decorations as well as a gigantic chandelier in the shape of a crown. Even more strange was the room which had been made to look like a cave – and it was actually very convincing! The top floor houses the biggest room – a large opera room with yet more Wagner-inspire wall murals. Unfortunately photos are not allowed inside so you'll have to take my word that the interior was simply bizarre. But that's why everyone wants to see it – its different from your run-of-the-mill royal palace. By the time I got back to Fussen after the tour (having missed the last bus back) it was dark, meaning I didn't really get a chance to see much of the town,
which is a shame as it looked like a really nice medieval town, complete with walls and a gigantic ecclesiastical complex of some description. The river running through the town had such a coppery blue/green colour that I've never seen in a river before.
The few days of glorious weather I had been enjoying came to an end the following day, but as I spent most of the day on trains and buses, I didn't really mind. After catching a very early morning train from Fussen, where I was surprised (and delighted) to find a bakery open at 5:45am, I arrived in Lindau, which is a city on an island in Lake Constance. The lake, part of the River Rhine, is one of the largest in Europe and marks the border of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Lindau itself turned out to be very nice, and not just because of its lake shore and Alpine views. It was a very charming town, which was quite surprising as it wasn't at all touristy. It was a bank holiday Monday as well, meaning all of the normal shops were shut, but the town was hardly busy with tourists either. Lindau was my
last proper stop in Bavaria and in Germany. I have been very impressed with what I've seen so far (especially Bavaria) – it's definitely high up on my list of places to return to in the future.
From Lindau I caught an Austrian train that took me the ten or so kilometres to the Austrian regional capital of Bregenz which similarly sits upon Lake Constance. Bregenz is more touristy than Lindau, but I really didn't like it as much – the town had little character and just wasn't as nice. From Bregenz I caught another train thirty minutes south to the preserved medieval city of Fedlkirch, which looked pretty nice, but as it was pouring with rain for the few hours I was there I probably didn't get a fair impression. There were plenty of medieval buildings, a disappointing cathedral and a modest 13th century castle overlooking the town, so it was pleasant but not overly memorable. And absolutely everything was shut and deserted, giving the city an eerily quiet feel. When I passed through Feldkirch a few days later in the bright sunshine, it did look a lot nicer in all fairness. In any case, I was only
ever really passing through Bregenz and Feldkirch – I was heading for Liechtenstein and Feldkirch is located right on the border with the tiny principality. I suppose I wanted to visit Liechtenstein more out of curiosity than anything else, and also because it is definitely off the beaten track. I was confused getting on the bus in Feldkirch when I asked the driver if I could pay with Euros (Liechtenstein uses the Swiss Franc), him replying no and then just him letting me on for free. When I got to my hostel I found out that it was actually the Liechtensteiner national day and all buses were free. In any case, the bus system is weird – it's actually quite hard to buy a ticket as the driver lets you on at the rear or middle door than speeds away from the bus stop before you can make your way to him to buy a ticket. Most people just get on without buying or showing a ticket and no-one ever checks so it must be very easy to travel for free. Liechtenstein still operates border controls on its Austrian borders but we were waved though without any passport checks. There
was a long line of lorries queueing though. The bus dropped me off in the county's largest “city”, Schaan, which has a population of just short of 6000 people. Schaan was essentially a transport hub and not much else, though it did have open shops unlike anywhere in Germany or Austria, which was most welcome. However everything was so expensive! The Swiss Franc is so strong at the moment so even the most basic foodstuffs were ridiculously expensive. I walked to my hostel from Schaan, which was located roughly halfway between Schaan and the capital, Vaduz, but no more than a 15 minute walk.
I made my way to Vaduz in the early evening to see what celebrations were under way for the national day. The police had closed down the whole of the city centre (both roads), though as one is pedestrianised anyway it probably wasn't too difficult. There were buses pouring in from everywhere in the country with keen Liechtensteiners, and the festivities seemed to be in full flow by the late afternoon. They had 3 or 4 stages set up with a variety of bands performing, a giant beer garden set up on the roof of
the multi-storey (2 storey) car park. There were of courses lots of food and amusement stands around as well, though the highlight was probably the fireworks in the evening. There was also a bobsleigh competition with the national team! None of this was what I had expected of Liechtenstein – I clearly timed my arrival very astutely.
The next day Liechtenstein reverted back to its normal, quiet self. It does have a population of only 35,000 but it's not as small as you might think – it's 81 times the size of Monaco in fact, measuring 25km from north to south and 6km across. The Rhine marks the border with Switzerland and Alpine peaks mark the border with Austria – nearly all of the towns are located on the flat Rhine valley. A couple of interesting facts I learnt whilst there - Liechtenstein is one of only two double landlocked countries in the world (surrounded only by landlocked countries), has the second highest GDP per capita in the world as well as the lowest external debt. I did find it interesting finding out about the country's history, its politics etc. as it is certainly different from all other countries
in Western Europe (the prince still exerts power over government for example).
Vaduz itself was quite a nice city, even if it does feel more like a congested village. With a population of just over 5000 people, it must be one of the smallest capitals in the world. Looming above the city is Vaduz Castle, which is the residence of the Prince and his family. There are only two main streets in the city, which contain all of the city's main attractions. It seems that the Post Museum is the the most popular place to visit, as apparently Liechtenstein attracts rare stamp collectors more than any other type of tourist. There were a couple of museums which I didn't go into, the cathedral (more reminiscent of a small parish church) and the minuscule parliament building (it looks like a small barn). The western part of the city is much older and more attractive, with historic houses and several vineyards (most belonging to the prince) all with Vaduz city itself. From here I climbed up to the castle – you are not allowed inside, but the views of Vaduz made it worthwhile, even if the castle is really the only
interesting building in the city. The views of the Swiss Alps and the Rhine Valley beyond Vaduz were more attractive than the city itself. The path from the city to the castle was also interesting as it was filled with boards explaining the history of the country and royal family, and why indeed it is actually a country.
The best views were however from another castle in the far south of the country (6km south of Vaduz). The town of Balzers is right on the Swiss border and its castle, Guttenberg Castle (though I prefer the Nintendo-esque name Balzers Castle) has terrific views over pretty much the whole country, from the Swiss Alps and Rhine Valley in the west to Vaduz and the Alps on the Austrian border. It really was a breathtaking view. The castle isn't open to the public but there's a path up the hill to it and you're allowed in the small grounds where the viewing terrace is. There was no-one else around so it was incredibly peaceful. And that's about all I got up to in Liechtenstein. A surprisingly nice country, with lovely scenery but yet distinct from both Austria and Switzerland. I'm glad
The view from Marienbrucke that everyone is trying to see!
I made the effort of visiting.
Next stop – Salzburg in Austria. I went via Germany, which took a lot longer but cost about a quarter of the price (Austrian trains seem to be super expensive). My first impression of Salzburg – disappointment. It's not an unpleasant city, but given its international reputation, I was expecting more. There really wasn't a great deal to see or do; on the other hand the natural setting in the Alps was spectacular, and some parts of the city itself were unquestionably beautiful. Salzburg (meaning Salt Castle in English), Austria's fourth largest city, was its own nation-state up until the beginning of the 19th century. Up until then, it was ruled by Archbishop-princes who left castles and palaces galore, many of which were made famous worldwide in The Sound of Music. The 11th century Festung Hohensalzburg (fortress), which stands on a hill dominating the old town, was definitely the most interesting site in the city. It was a bit of a climb up to the top, but the views over the whole of the city and the River Salzach made the climb worthwhile. The audioguide in the state rooms of the fortress explained
the history of the city and the fortress – more importantly the tour inside offered a respite from the 30 degree heat outside. I didn't find much of interest in the old town. The palace (The Residenz) was a very forgettable building adjacent to the cathedral. There were a couple of ornate churches, one completely covered in scaffolding, a nice riverside promenade and the Mozart Museum, situated in the house where the man himself was born. On the other side of the river is the Schloss Mirabell (Palace) – the summer residence of the Archbishop-princes (even though it is only a 15 minute walk to either the Residenz or the fortress), which had very beautiful gardens with a nice view over the old town. High up above the river is a Capuchin Monastery, built upon a hilly outcrop, from where the views of the city were probably the best. There were a few other nice sites, and many of the winding tourist-filled streets were quite interesting, but that's about it. Although I liked Salzburg, it can't really compare to Vienna or even Munich, both of which I found much more interesting and beautiful. Luckily the area surrounding Salzburg is rich
I spent a day visiting the small Austrian town of Hallstatt – to get there I took a bus which went through many of the small picturesque lakeside towns that form the bulk of the “Sound of Music tour” before changing to a train which left me on Lake Hallstatt on the opposite bank to the town. The ferry ride across offered the best views of this town, which is built on the steep edges of a glacial lake. The town itself is very touristy yet very charming. If you can like somewhere when it is pouring down with rain, as it was when I was there, then it must be nice. Like Salzburg, Hallstatt made its fortune in the salt industry (Hall meaning salt in Celtic), and there are historic salt mines open to the public just outside the town. Whilst I didn't visit these, I did visit ice caves similarly just outside Hallstatt. The Dachstein Icecaves, some 800m above the lake (via a cable car) are some of the largest ice caves in the world, with the temperatures inside ranging from -3 to +3 degrees. Going in from the 30 degree heat outside to the
freezing interior was a surreal experience. Inside there were many interesting ice formations, including frozen waterfalls and a 9m ice stalagmite. It was equally interesting understanding the geography behind the caves' formation and the fact that the ice is still growing every year.
From Salzburg I also visited the Bavarian town of Berchtesgarden, which is only 45 minutes away from Salzburg and turned out to be a lot more interesting and beautiful than Salzburg. The town itself was quite nice, with medieval streets, impressive churches, a palace and Alpine views, but I was really there to visit Kehlsteinhaus, known as The Eagle's Nest in English. The Eagle's Nest is a mountain-top chalet that was built in 1937-38 as a gift for Hitler. The engineering achievement in building a house on top of a mountain, as well as constructing a winding road up a solid rock face, both in only 13 months is an impressive feat by itself. The most impressive feature of The Eagle's Nest however is the views it offers over the surrounding Bavarian Alps. It was slightly cloudy when I visited, but I liked seeing the clouds move so quickly from one side of the mountain, engulf
the house, and then down the other side. There were a few trails to follow at the top, but not much else; the house itself has been turned into a restaurant, so there was nothing at all of historical value to see on the inside, which was a bit of a disappointment. I didn't stay at the top for too long before heading back to Berchtesgarden.
The following day I had to come back to Berchtesgarden as I simply had enough time there. I walked a short distance along a beautiful riverside trail until I reached Lake Königssee, one of the deepest and the clearest lakes in Germany. There's a reason why Königssee (King's Lake) is one of the most visited places in Germany (principally by Germans rather than foreign tourists) – it quite simply has a beautiful and natural setting. As the lake is surrounded by high mountains (some over 2000m), by boat is the only real way to appreciate the lake. For over a century only electric boats have been permitted on the lake to preserve the cleanliness of the water (it didn't look overly clean to me – certainly not drinkable as it is reputed to
be). As Königssee is so popular, there are boats leaving every 10 minutes, though unfortunately the guide only seemed to give commentary in German, so I only understood a small percentage of what he was describing. The boats were also incredibly packed – we were all crammed in with little space, but as there is only 1 company operating boats on the lake, there was not exactly much choice. In the middle of the lake the pilot turned off the engines and the guide picked up a trumpet and started playing – the echo of the music from the surrounding hills was incredibly clear – after every line the guide paused for the echo to come back, and it was nearly as loud as the original line.
There are only a few places where you can actually get off the boat on the lake. The first is the most popular – the beautiful Saint Bartholomew’s Church, from where lakeside paths extend both ways (packed with hundreds of people) as well as hiking trails going up into the mountains. After enjoying the lakeside, I saw a sign for “Eiskappel”, and although I had no idea what the “Ice Chapel” was,
I thought I'd find out. After a fair old climb there was another sign announcing the end of the trail and saying “Danger: Ice field. Enter at your own risk”. Under the scorching sun I couldn't really believe there was any ice nearby, but I kept clambering over boulders until this cave in the mountainside appeared. As I got nearer and nearer the temperature kept dropping – I eventually got to the mouth of the “Ice Chapel” and it was quite a sight to see. Besides the refreshingly cool temperatures, the ice formations inside were truly beautiful – I've no idea how there was still ice there in August, but I'm certainly glad I got to see it. I walked inside a bit, but it was like walking in a very cold shower, as the ceiling was constantly dripping ice cold water over me. A truly spectacular sight and not one that I had expected to see. I made my way back to the boat and to the far side of the lake, where there were more picturesque views and a trail leading up to a second, much smaller lake (Obersee). This second lake reflected the surrounding cliffs and mountains
beautifully, and even though there were people everywhere, it still felt like a tranquil spot. I had to get the boat back before too long, though there was a fair-size queue at the jetty. Despite taking the first bus from Salzburg in the morning and getting the last one back from Berchtesgarden in the evening, I still didn't have enough time – it just goes to show how special a place this part of the world is. Salzburg was my last stop in the Germanic countries. I've only got 2 countries left now – Slovenia then Croatia – my next stop is Bled in Slovenia's Julian Alps. The next blog will come from there.
There are more photos below