Bavarian Alps, Germany

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June 22nd 2012
Published: June 22nd 2012
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Saturday, 16 June – Berchtesgaden

One of the things I love about the northern hemisphere is the yummy yoghurts. I saw a pineapple flavour in the supermarket so I bought it home for breakfast. Upon opening it this morning, I realised it was 250g of pineapples and cream. It was delicious for sure, but I couldn’t help but feel a little defiled by all the cream after I’d finished it.

After leaving our apartment, we headed southeast towards the Bavarian Alps. We sat in bumper-to-bumper, “Sydney Harbour Bridge at peak hour” type traffic for 30km of road works, but once that had passed we zoomed towards Salzburg and the encroaching mountains. We had a cloudless day so the mountain peaks could be seen all day. It was easily the prettiest drive we’ve done on this trip, with narrow gorges, high waterfalls and sharp peaks around us.

Berchtesgaden is the main town right in the heart of the mountains. Houses dot the hillsides and peer over cliff tops. The surrounding mountains have trees about 80%!o(MISSING)f the way up and the remainder is bare grey rock to sharp peaks. It reminded me of Banff, except for the Bavarian architecture. There are a dozen smaller villages all within a 10km radius. Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest is nearby, as is Germany’s highest lake, Konigsee (607m).

We hadn’t booked accommodation and with all the “Zimmer Frei” signs we didn’t think we’d have much trouble booking at the Tourist Information. How wrong were we? The TI marked the places available on their system and then we had to drive around knocking on doors. Yet, when we turned up, they were usually booked. The TI also told us that McDonalds had free wifi so we buy a drink and guess what – it’s only for Deutsch Telecom customers. Places were either fully booked (and hadn’t taken down the frei sign), hosts weren’t home or the rooms were unsuitable for the asking price. Several hours and most of the afternoon later, we finally found a place with the Lenz Family that suited all our criteria except wifi so we had to go without that. The whole ordeal was so frustrating and the fact you can’t trust the validity of the information is just infuriating. It was not how I wanted to spend my Sabbath afternoon and could have been avoided if the TI just made bookings directly.

Sometimes Germany is hard work (although less annoying than Italy).

Anyway, once we had checked in we were able to take a quick drive and appreciate the awesome scenery at a lake called Hintersee. It’s a small lake that takes 30 minutes to walk around and it has crystal clear water fed by snow and glacial melt further upstream. It’s hauntingly quiet, which was just what we needed after all the drama. The temperature had dropped from 32C to 23C, which was a relief after such a warm day (our car was 45C when we came back after check in). The walk through the forest, the foliage, the odd tree on a tiny island in the lake and the rocky appearance of the surrounding cliffs was very similar to scenes from a walk in the Rockies called “Boom Lake”. If it weren’t for all the classic Swiss chalets, you would think we were in Canada.

I love being back in the Alps.

Sunday, 17 June - Berchtesgaden

Fog lay heavy on the surrounding peaks, which is not what one wants when going to the Eagles Nest, so we opted for a lake cruise on the fjord-like Konigsee instead. The water started out as a grey-green colour but as the morning progressed and the cloud lifted, it shone deep green when lit by the sun. Sharp peaks rose from the waterline, with some higher valleys having large snow patches still clinging to the rock. There was on-board commentary but it was in German so didn’t do us any good. At one point the boat stopped and the guide played his trumpet at the mountain walls. What echoed was a perfect rendition of his song, almost as if another player stood hidden on the cliffs somewhere.

Half way up the lake was a flat clearing with a cute church, St Bartheloma, and some buildings where a small community once resided. As there are walking tracks all around this hiker’s paradise, the majority of the passengers alighted here with their walking sticks for an adventure into the forest. We continued on to the end of the lake, Salet. There is only a small beergarden and stall selling knick-knacks including marmot oil, but we wanted to see the whole lake and with a boat every 15 minutes, we had the flexibility to look around. Just as we reached the end of the jetty, we were stunned to see a pretty patterned, 1m black snake sunning itself on a log. No one else seemed to notice but we stopped and took photos because it really was the last thing we were expecting to see in Europe. Afterwards, we wandered up to the meadows towards the tinkling of bells from the meandering cows, having our Heidi moment. One cow in particular was on the path so I stared it down - stared it right down until the horny beast started walking towards me. Then we jumped up onto a rock for safety because you can’t be too careful in the wild!

As a side note, unlike Rothenburg and Dachau, this area is completely opportunistic when it comes to tourists. There is a charge at every turn – parking, museum entry, bus tickets between the parking lot and Eagles Nest (€15.50 return!), no looking inside the Nest unless you dine at the restaurant or take a guided tour, pedestal binoculars for looking at the mountains and even wooden figurines in a glass box that will saw wood or dance if you feed it €1. One thing that is a plus here is that end- of-season outdoor clothing is so cheap. You can get a good soft shell windbreaker for €50.

Back to the rest of the day. Once we had returned to shore, we grabbed a quick sandwich and scooted up the mountain to the Eagles Nest. When we arrived at the Museum and parking lot, it was all clear and we had a wonderful view of the valleys below. We were enthused by the clarity so we paid for the bus up to the top and ascended the steep, windy and impressively built road to the top. And yea, it was completely fogged in. Doh!

Hitler was given the chalet for his 50th birthday but he was afraid of heights so was only there 14 times for state functions. His preferred location was the Berghof (his house) lower down the mountain, where the Museum now stands. Hitler had an elaborate labyrinth of bunkers, tunnels and rooms built under the Berghof and whilst they are now empty, it’s still pretty amazing to wander in and see the hard rock the slave labourers had to cut through. He had first aid rooms, air lock doors, lounges, bedrooms, offices, even a kindergarten. It was supposed to mimic the above world and looking at the plans, it was a pretty comprehensive community underground. They didn’t finish it though so it was never used.

One thing that really surprised me was the first 3 photos you see when you first enter the museum. The biggest picture in the middle is a stylised picture of Hitler doing the salute and light shining from heaven illuminating him. That was not the surprise. It was the two pictures either side of this. One showed 5 men hung from a balcony on a street. The second was of a row of hurriedly strewn bodies at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (where Anne Frank died). They were all naked and so starved that their bodies were deformed to the point where you couldn’t tell the difference between men and women. They looked like anorexic mannequins with limbs in all directions, but with their glassy eyes open and staring at the camera. I was expecting these gruesome images at the Holocaust Memorial or Dachau, but this catches you completely off guard because you’re expecting information about a building. In fact, most of the images were the most grotesque we’ve seen in any museum dealing with WWII. I find this intriguing. Why don’t they show those photos at memorials dedicated to victims, and why do they show them here in a museum dedicated to the perpetrator? A bit strange, I thought. Still, the museum was very enlightening about how the war started and who got involved when, so I certainly appreciated the educational part rather than the emotional tug of other museums.

Monday, 18 June – Garmisch-Partenkirchen

It was a cloudless day today. We could see the Eagle’s Nest as we were leaving the area. That’s irony for you.

The German Alpine road (Deutsche Alpenstrasse) has been dubbed one of the best drives in the world, up there with the Icefields Parkway and Great Ocean Road. Some reviews say it’s not well signposted, and they weren’t wrong! The drive out of Berchtesgaden was beautiful, as was the last stretch into Garmisch, but the middle was full of little towns every 5km and lots of detours that led us off the Alpenstrasse. I love a good little town, but not when I’ve already seen 20 of them and I’m only halfway to my destination. There was definitely moments of grandeur and beauty, like when we reached the highest pass behind Innsbruck with towering mountains above us. However, can it be dubbed one of the world’s best drives? Dwayne and I are divided, but I say no.

We found a four-star 14th century hotel in Partenkirchen that was offering the same rate as a guest house, so we stayed there expecting a great experience. The hotel itself was magnificent, with an original fresco on the outside and wonderful ornate design on the inside. They even had a green ceramic room heater, which we’ve often seen in castles on display but never allowed to touch. And the view to the mountains was incredible. For dinner we ate at a nearby restaurant and you should have seen our eyes pop out when we saw how large the portions were. I only ordered a salad for less than €10 but it was so big I couldn’t finish it. Dwayne had a Bavarian pancake with stewed apple. It was a little like a cross between a pancake (with raisins and almonds), and scrambled egg. The pancake mix had been mostly cooked but then pushed and pulled every which way and was heaped in a huge pile taking up the entire plate.

Did I mention that the view was jaw dropping?

Tuesday, 19 June – Breitanwang, Austria

Unfortunately the 4 star hotel in Partenkirchen was a horrible sleeping experience. The beds were like concrete and although our street-facing room was quaint to begin with, it quickly got old when the church 50m away rang its bell every 15 minutes – for the entire night!! There was no air conditioning so we couldn’t close the windows due to the stifling heat, and we even contemplated sleeping in the car in the underground car park. A thunder storm came through at 2am which would have kept us up if we weren’t already awake. So with sore shoulders and hips, and only 2 hours sleep, I complained to reception and they gave us the buffet breakfast for free (and it was an excellent spread so not a total loss).

The highest peak in Germany is here at Garmisch - the Zugspitz @ 2964m. You can spend a day catching cog wheel trains and cable cars but we opted for the Garmisch Classic trip instead, which is a train and cable car to an adjoining mountain. Alpspitze isn’t quite as high as Zugspitz, but the views are just as stunning. It was clear enough to see over 400 peaks in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. The Alpspitze soared high above our station so it was certainly imposing. We watched a group of paragliders taking off on the steep slope and soaring like eagles on the surrounding thermals. The coolest thing was the two, grated metal walkways they have built that reach out several metres over the cliff edge with a freaky view between your feet to the rocks of doom far, far below. They are not for the faint hearted and we saw one girl refuse to follow her partner beyond the cliff edge. I couldn’t stop looking down through the grates and wishing I had a bungy cord!

We hiked down from one cable car to another, enjoying the benches that are so wonderfully placed along the way. That’s one of the things I love about the Alps. All the Alpine countries have benches dotted along scenic hiking or driving routes, mostly under a tree. Whether you’re at 300m or 3000m above sea level, you’re likely to find a shaded bench somewhere. I could have spent all week there. The scenery was completely splendid and jaw dropping at every turn. I really did feel like I was in Switzerland and did not want to leave.

However, we made our way back to the car and continued the journey to Oberammergau. That was a cute little town in a wonderful location, although not much there. It’s famous for the “Passion of the Christ” play that it does every 10 years, but they put on a play every year. This year it’s Antony & Cleopatra.

The remaining 35km drive to our next accommodation was just charming, driving past mountain lakes, soaring peaks and wonderfully wooded valleys in both Germany and Austria. It was my favourite day of driving yet.

We were going to stay in Fussen, but it was expensive and we instead found a 2 bedroom apartment online for €60p/n in Austria, so we’ve crossed the border and will make the 15 min drive back into Germany tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 June – Breitanwang, Austria

Our mission today was to find the real Disney castle, Neuschwanstein. We have seen countless pictures of this magnificent fairy tale and it was the driving reason for coming to southern Germany (that and the Alpine drive).

The day was overcast and fog was around the mountains, but we were excited that this would make for great photos. You can imagine our gut-wrenching disappointment when we arrived and saw half of the outside covered in scaffolding!! Apparently 2012 is the year for the outside walls. You can only see the castles by doing a tour, and both tours were quite quick and light on for information, but you can’t go all that way just to stand outside. And boy, did we get a work-out walking up the long, steep roads to the castles. Nae - 1, jelly belly - 0! There’s a reason they have horse carriages and buses.

Schloss Hohenschwangau is where King Ludwig II (the mad king) spent his childhood. It overlooks a beautiful lake and when we arrived, the lake was shrouded in light mist. Built over 12th century ruins in the 14th century, the castle is smaller than most royal castles and has a likeable homely, yet grand feel about it because the rooms inside are more intimate. Ludwig was a sensitive soul who loved music and theatre, but his parents had no time for such nonsense and as a result he had a joyless childhood. He did have a younger brother who was concluded to be ‘mentally ill’ when he was 24, which would prove fateful later on in Ludwig’s life. I thought it was cool that this particular castle is still owned by the original family, not the state.

Neuschwanstein appears through the mountains like a misty mirage and clings to its perch in desperation, overlooking a waterfall tumbling down into a rocky ravine for a perfect postcard picture. Its stunning location makes it one of the prettiest and most impressive castles I have seen. Floors one, three and four have been finished. Floor two was never completed – work stopped on the castle after Ludwig’s death. The finished floors are magnificent. Every wall has a floor-to-ceiling mural, wooden doors have ornate carvings, the kitchen is the size of our house and there are jewels and precious metals everywhere. Money was obviously no object, however it’s not gaudy. Compared to other majestic palaces, Neuschwanstein’s decorations are more playful. Instead of carpeted walls, tapestries or gold plating on everything, he used colourful murals, mosaic floors and fake grottos. Every wall, ceiling and floor had some sort of decoration on it. He was the Michael Jackson of the 18th century – a child who never grew up and was increasingly at odds with his world.

He had a fascination with architecture and in particular, with Versailles. He built two other magical palaces first – Herrenchiemsee & Linderhof before finally partially building Neuschwanstein between 1869 – 1886. He only lived there for 170 days before being deposed as “mentally unfit to rule”, despite no medical examination taking place, and committed to an asylum on a lake near Munich. Within 6 hours of arriving at the asylum, he and his doctor went for a walk and were found drowned in waist deep water. The coroner found no water in Ludwig’s lungs and all the guards and eyewitnesses disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances shortly after. Evidence also disappeared or was destroyed so conspiracy theories abound.

After the tour we walked another 15 killer minutes up to the Marianbrucke Falls, where a suspension bridge looks back towards Neuschwanstein. This is the spot where all the postcards are taken from. Unfortunately, it started to rain and Murphy knows we left our rain jackets in the car as well! Whilst we shot as rapidly as we could, the drops got heavier and when we couldn’t stop the drops from getting on the lens, we called it a day. We decided not to wait it out but half way down to the car we wished we had of because it stopped for an hour before starting again. Doh! However, we were already quite soaked so just wanted to get home. Our first time being rained on when we wanted it dry. Oh well, we’ve been blessed so can’t complain about a little water.

I could have spent another hour here though, and I’m disappointed we won’t be seeing Linderhof but we really wanted to see this and it was worth the trade-off.

Thursday, 21 June – Freiburg

It was another sunny blue, cloudless day. We seem to have a pattern of one day sun, one day rain. Before we left Austria, Dwayne wanted to explore a ruined castle we’d seen atop a hill just outside town. After a strenuous 30 minute walk to the top we arrived at the ruins, which turned out to be a 13th century castle called Ehrenberg with a magnificent view of the surrounding Austrian Alps. It was nice to wander around with the place to ourselves. You have to love a tourist attraction that has “enter at your own risk” signs.

We continued along the Alpenstrasse, enjoying the Alps and changing scenery as we headed west towards France. Lindau is where the drive finishes and it was here we picked up the congested traffic for the rest of the drive.

Freiburg is in the Black Forest region and quite a cute little town. It has a large University population and a population of bikes to rival Amsterdam. 80%!o(MISSING)f it was destroyed in 1944 but they’ve done a good job of reconstructing their buildings true to period. It has a cool vibe about it and I really enjoyed the couple of hours we spent wandering around and sampling the local special for dinner, Flammkucken (prounounced flam-cooken).

That finalises our time in Germany. It’s been a mostly enjoyable trip, with a few frustrations thrown in for good measure. The landscapes have been varied and wonderful at every turn. There isn’t one place that we didn’t enjoy and wouldn’t recommend. It hasn’t been the driving utopia that I was expecting due to all the roadworks and detours, and the lack of English-speaking Germans is also a bit more noticeable than in other countries we’ve visited, but these little nagging things will dissipate with time and soon we’ll look through our rose coloured glasses and only remember the good things.


18th July 2012

Hmmm. About that pass behind Innsbruck... who was driving? It MIGHT just be one of the worlds best drives (if you are behind the wheel!) ;) Some really facinating stuff in this post - I think there is a lot we don't really know about European royals. Looking forward to seeing your photos. :)
24th July 2012

We were both behind the wheel at one time or another!
Seriously - too much traffic to be the best drive in the world.

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