“I’m down in Berchtesgaden and Cara… we seriously live in the most beautiful country.”
Well. I don’t know if it’s really the most beautiful country (Alaska wins that hands down… even though it’s not a country). However, the sentiment stands. Germany is really beautiful, with soaring majestic mountains, deep glacial lakes, bucolic rolling hills, vast stretches of forest,a rugged coastline with windswept beaches and forlorn islands, and charming medieval villages and vineyards dotted about the countryside. It’s glorious. Really. So when you’re heading out on your perfect, romantic vacation to France or Italy, I cannot reiterate often enough how you ought to point your steering wheel in the other direction and continue on to Germany… okay, probably time to get off my soapbox and pass the baton over to Mike. He has generously volunteered to write this guest post on Berchtesgaden while I am off playing around in yet another set of mountains on the other side of the world… (hola Argentina!)
I'm writing now from the flat, rainy port city of Hamburg, up near the Danish border. But last weekend I was in the extreme opposite end of the country (both geographically and in other senses): Alpine Berchtesgaden.
It wasn't a planned trip. I woke up early Saturday morning, fully dressed and on a couch that wasn't my own. The night before my friends had hosted a cookout party that had turned into a impromptu sleepover, the end of which I couldn't exactly remember. I was the first person up and all I wanted to do was go home, take a shower, and sleep my headache away in my own bed. I tiptoed around the other partygoers, cleaned up some, left a note, then drove myself home. Shower accomplished I lay down in bed ready to conk out...but it wouldn't take. There was no way I was going to fall back to sleep. I looked at the time: not even 9am on a Saturday morning. The whole weekend was still ahead of me.
Now, often enough after that kind of a Friday night I'm more than happy to spend the rest of the weekend relaxing at home, eating take-out food and watching TV. But I'm still new enough in Germany to feel guilty about wasting a whole weekend like that, aside from which I needed some kind of greater remedy than a quiet weekend at home would afford.
I'm not by nature the most out-doorsy of guys, usually preferring the city life with at most a few natural elements thrown in. (Munich's Englischer Gartens are the perfect thing of that sort, to my tastes.) But as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling the thought occurred to me that nature - big, clean, and pure nature - might be just the thing to cure what ailed me.
And when you live in Bavaria, there's nothing bigger, cleaner, or purer than the Alps. Of course! To my shame I hadn't been once since I moved to Germany. It was about time to rectify that.
And that's all there was to it. I threw a change of clothes in a backpack, grabbed a big bottle of water, locked my apartment, headed back down to my car, and set the GPS for Berchtesgaden.
A couple hours later the mountain peaks started coming into view, looming and obviously huge, especially when my GPS told me I still had almost an hour to go before I arrived. (I should mention that unlike Cara I live in northern Bavaria, so for all the Müchners out there it's an even faster trip.) Almost instinctively I started whistling songs from The Sound of Music. I was feeling better already.
I was nearly done with the whole score when I pulled up to the Hotel zum Türken, which I'd read online was a classic prewar hotel of its sort, and which is located halfway up the mountain just outside Berchtesgaden proper. I had blithely set out with no reservation and was slightly worried when I tried the front door and found it was locked tight. But the sign said to ring the doorbell, and when I did a trim, middle-aged woman promptly appeared. In my best German I asked if she had a free room, preferably an Einzelzimmer ohne Bad, a single room with a shared bathroom on the hallway, which I'd read was the cheapest option. She did, and as she led me to it she informed me that she had just opened for the season, and that I was one of only four gentlemen in the hotel.
She handed me a heavy, old-fashioned key (again:classic pre-war hotel; none of this magnetic key card nonsense), then left me alone. Once she was gone I dropped my bag then stepped out onto the little balcony connected to my room. It looked directly out at the mountain rising steeply above me. White clouds drifted slowly over the green, craggy landscape, and there was nothing to be heard but the soft blowing of the wind and the chirping, trilling song of what must have been scores of unseen birds. I took a deep breath of clean mountain air. My head felt wonderful, I was happy, and all I could think was, God, I love Germany!
Berchtesgaden is in the extreme southeast of Germany, in a little peninsula of mountainous land almost completely surrounded by Austria. The town itself is not big; when I headed down the steep mountainside from my hotel later that evening I was able to walk the length and breadth of it in just an hour or so. But of course the town itself is mostly beside the point: the starring attractions here are the natural beauties, and they are simply everywhere.
The mountains are omnipresent. I’ve heard a theory that the reason people like being near the ocean is because the sound of the waves brings up subconscious memories of the sounds one hears in the womb. Who knows if that’s true, and even if it is I’ve never heard any comparable Freudian theory as to why people enjoy being on or near mountains. But there you have it – it’s just fascinating, and relaxing, and somehow even enriching to be in that environment. Maybe it has something to do with the altitude.
I hadn’t brought hiking shoes (I don’t own any), but I was able to get a close-encounter with the mountains via a ride up the Jennerbahn, which I highly recommend. This is a ski lift directly up the side of the mountain that in 20 minutes brought me from a sunny and unusually warm April day down in the valley to the top of the mountain and what may as well have been early January. On the patio outside the little café and gift shop a father was pelting his teenage daughter with snowballs.
From the base of the Jennerbahn it is only a 10 or 15 minute walk to the Koenigsee, an incredible lake surrounded by mountains on all sides. There are ferry trips across the lake which stop at picturesque monasteries, though I decided to save that for next time.
There is one other element to Berchtesgaden that can’t go unmentioned: the association with the Third Reich. Yes, Kehlsteinhaus (usually known in English as the Eagle’s Nest) was Hitler’s retreat, and is located just above the town. This has become a major tourist attraction in its own right, and though it was still closed for the season I did visit the nearby Documentation Obersalzberg, a sleek new museum that exposes the region’s Nazi past and the progression of WWII in general.
I don’t know if I’d recommend it. It’s sobering and serious and the information it covers is important, but I’ve been in at least a half dozen museums in Germany that cover the same material in very similar ways. There are better places to think about that period (i.e. Nuremberg), or maybe just better frames of mind than what I was willing to let myself get into at that moment.
There was also a personal bias: at the end of the exhibition there was a brief display on what had happened in the area since 1945. One item was a sign decorated with an American flag that pointed the way to the “General Walker Hotel.” This, the caption said, was a resort that the US military had used until handing it back over to the German government in the mid-90s. It was a beautiful pre-war complex which had interesting historical associations, and I had stayed there myself several times as a kid and had fond memories of it.
I decided to ask where it was – my whole time in Berchtesgaden I’d kept wondering when I would stumble across it. “The General Walker?” the woman at the information desk said. “It used to be over there!” She pointed directly out the window at…the parking lot. Yep, they tore down a building full of interesting WWII-era history, and built in its place a completely nondescript museum dedicated to…WWII history. So yes: I’d say skip it.
All that aside, Berchtesgaden was wonderful and well worth the trip. Cara, I have never been to Alaska, but it has a lot to live up to! Thanks for letting me guest post on your blog, and have a wonderful time on your trip!
P.S. - I did not have the foresight while there to take many pictures but here are some of a waterfall just over on the Austrian side of the border. Enjoy!