Exploring South-East Germany
29.07.2011 - 31.07.2011 21 °C
One of the many advantages of being in one’s thirties is that embarking on a road-trip with parents is no longer embarrassing. To the untrained eye, this might even seem idyllic. In reality, neither my age, nor living almost 800 kilometres away from my parents has made me immune to their unique talent. They are in possession of a skill to wind me up at record speed with seemingly innocent comments, generally centring around stating the obvious. Having said that, my dad is a meagre beginner compared to my mum, who is a defending black-belt champion. Not only has she had the opportunity to fine-tune this skill over the past years, she relished the challenge and tirelessly practice on her four children on an almost daily basis, making her the true master of this art she is today. Whilst I cannot help but feel tiny bit guilty at mentioning this (and proud as I take 25% credit for her achievement), my parents know how much I love them and would be the first ones to put their hands up and say – yup, works every time. Not to mention I am confident my mum is not the only mum skilled in this category and many of you will be able to relate to it (hopefully).
So here I am, sitting with the Duke on train to Salzburg, about to be picked up by my parents to spend a weekend exploring the border area of south-east Germany.
Where do we actually want to go: First of all we want to see Berchtesgaden with the famous diplomatic house of Adolf Hitler – Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus) – and its apparently stunning views. Then Schwangau and the magical Neu Schwanstein castle and last but not least the town of Stuttgart, before making our way back to Dusseldorf on Sunday evening. We might be tiny bit ambitions but lets see how we get on.
How: Train to Salzburg on Friday evening and then be chauffeured around in my dad’s car the entire weekend.
Accommodation : Book hotels in Berchtesgaden and Schwangau - check. The high season and potential lack of last minute rooms were one reason I pre-booked. The other, more preventative reason, was to avoid getting in a situation where the only available room is one last 4-bed room. Love my parents but might need some time-off in the evenings to recuperate.
Before we start, I would like to mention that our first experience of the trip was sitting on the train, revising the intro of this blog post with the Duke. Irritation kicking in already. Note to self: no joint blog entries.
The train ride got progressively better and after a piccolo bottle of Sekt (German champagne), we were ready for the weekend ahead. My dad materialised at the platform just as our train was approaching Freilassing (last stop before Salzburg) and after another half an hour in the car, we made it to our hotel short before midnight. With my parents driving from the south of Czech the same afternoon, they already checked us in, which was just as well as the reception was completely deserted when we arrived.
Given the late hour and absence of a hotel bar (yes, we could have gone out but …), everything was pointing to an ‘early night’. Being the hero my dad is, he quickly saved the situation with a few bottles of home-imported warm (very) beer, a basket of peaches and three Tupperware boxes of berries - all home grown except the beer. Needless to say our sleep was delayed by a couple of hours, whilst we drank beer from weird-shaped hotel glasses, nibbled on berries and talked about the weekend ahead.
Despite the relatively late night, we managed to get out of bed early enough for a breakfast buffet, before making it to the station to catch the first bus to the Eagle’s Nest.
But first a few words about the hotel. We stayed in Hotel Wittelsbach in Berchtesgaden. The rooms were reasonably priced and the included breakfast buffet was good. Hotel was clean and staff friendly, even though it sits just by the main road, making it a bit noisy at night. Especially so last Friday night, when some rowdy crowd leaving nearby bar decided to organise wolf-style howling competition directly underneath our window. Leaving the vocal quality of performances aside, it didn’t exactly lend itself to good night sleep. But other than that, we all agreed the hotel was good and we would recommend it to others.
As I already mentioned, to get to the Eagel’s nest, you need to take a bus from the Obersalzberg ‘Abfahrstelle Kehlstein’, which is approximately 10 minutes drive from Berchtesgaden. We arrived at the parking lot before 9am, which gave us just enough time to park, buy tickets and get a bus to the top. The weather was wet and foggy, but we were hopeful it would clear by the time we got there. And we were wrong.
Already the first part of the trip, the mountain road to the Eagle’s Nest was an absolute highlight. It is considered one of the most scenic mountain roads in Europe, if not the world. Built at the same time as Eagel’s Nest as the only way to access the house outside of footpaths, it was closed for private cars in 1952 and is now solely used by buses. The road is an engineering marvel and views from the bus are spectacular, despite the occasional low-hovering cloud trying to obscure our views. At places it seems the road is hanging on the edge of the mountain with hundreds of meters drop on one side, which was accentuated by being higher on the bus. My mum found this a bit too much at times and kept looking into the mountain on the ‘safe’ side. Needless to say after twenty five minutes we made it safely to the next station. I am deliberately not saying ‘to the top’ as to get to Kehlsteinhaus perched high on a mountain, second part of the journey is done in a lift running through the core of the mountain. This just shows how inaccessible Eagles’ Nest is and the ambitious scale of the project.
After arrival at the Lift station, we had to book a return bus journey to avoid queues building up on the top, before walking through a long tunnel to a spacious brass lift. Generally, two hours stay is recommended, which we found just right for the weather we had. There is also a number mountain paths that lead up to the Eagle’s nest from Berchtesgaden so if you feel energetic, you can walk-up without taking the bus and the lift, although it is quite a steep climb at places.
Once we reached Eagle’s Nest, the weather did not improve so we were quite happy the house is now used as a restaurant. Before making the use of it though, we visited the co-located picture gallery which provided an excellent overview of the history of the house, including old black and white pictures. The only downside was that it is all written in German. But with the Duke’s linguistic powers and my snail-speed improving German, we found out Eagle’s Nest was:
- A gift to Adolf Hitler by the NSDAP (Nazi party, project initiated by the architect Martin Bormann) for his 50th birthday
- Hitler preferred his old house in Berghof (not far from Berchtesgaden but demolished after the war) – he found Eagle’s Nest too exposed and was scared of lightning and using the inside-mountain lift
- Hitler visited it only once after the WW2 started
- It took 17 months to complete the house and the road – extremely ambitious given the settings
- 3500 workers worked here with 20hours long workdays
- 10 people died during the construction
- Americans suspected there were bunkers underneath the house – proved to be wrong
- It was used as a diplomatic house, with the most important negotiations taking place in Hitler’s Berghof
- Evan Braun used to spend more time there with her family. Although she lived in Berghof for years, it was not made official so she had to clear off when Hitler had meetings
- During the World War II, 400 British and 80 American bombers bombed Eagle’s Nest and Berghof – Berghof was severely damaged but Eagel’s nest was not hit once
- After the War, French forces entered the house a few hours before Americans
- Soldiers looted the place and took ‘souvenirs’ away with them, leaving only the biggest peaces of furniture
- Germans could not access it until 1960 (it was an exclusion zone), giving the American’s many years to do what they do best - create myths and stories about the house and Hitler’s stay in there. One such story is that during particularly dramatic negotiations, Hitler got so angry he bit a piece of his carpet. This was to explain a missing corner in one of the carpets in the house. It later transpired, one of the American soldiers cut off the corner as a souvenir.
Despite the weather, brief spells of receding clouds offered glimpses of the spectacular view below. When sunny, the Alp panorama is supposed to be visible but we had no such luck, although we saw the town of Berchtesgaden and nearby Königsee lake . There is also a 45 minutes round walk starting at the top above the house, giving a good opportunity to explore the mountain, although it was too wet and the visibility was too poor to tempt us. Not to mention I was actually wearing high heels. Oops. Always the lady. We all want to come back one day to try our luck at better weather.
After a tea in the restaurant and one last look around, we dashed to catch our bus down. By the time we were leaving, the place became significantly busier and this was also clear from the massive queue by the lift at the bottom. So one tip: get the first bus up to avoid the crowds. The ticket office on Obersalzberg offers information about other sights in the area, which led us to our next stop – Saltmine in Berchtesgaden (Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden).
The mine was ten minutes drive from Obersalzberg and by the time we queued up for the tickets, it was chucking it down so being deep in the mountain seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately we were not the only ones who thought this so the tickets we bought were valid for a tour starting only an hour later. Given that it was lunchtime already we used the time to checkout Bistro across the road. A coffee and a soup later amidst the crowds, we were ready for our next adventure.
The salt mine tour was definitely worth the wait. For non-German speaking peeps, audio guides were available in multiple languages so even my parents really enjoyed it. Before hopping on a mine train and having picture taken from a friendly looking lady, everyone got a fashionable dark blue overall to protect our clothing from the ever-present salt. And as we later found out, to make our behinds consistently smooth when hurling down a wooden slide to reach a lower level of the mine. Twice.
The tour comprised of a train ride through narrow tunnels to get deeper into the mountain, exploring sections of the mine on foot, a couple of slides to reach lower levels and a boat-ride to cross one of the old salt-brine chambers. All in all it was very informative and fun tour with overview of salt-mining techniques, history of the geological origin of the area and even salt-brine tasting experience. The tour was also very child friendly and they even have blue overalls for babies!
An absolute highlight was a long wooden slide used to descend to a lower level of the mine. Whilst the Duke and I were excited by the prospect, my dad made a point of picking on my mum for looking rather nervous. Contrary to her reservations though, everyone enjoyed it and when we faced second slide, it was business as usual. The picture evidence taken by an automatic camera during our first slide unveiled my mum laughing and looking like a pro, with my dad hanging off her shoulders and looking positively terrified. The picture was such a success that my mum purchased a copy and didn’t miss the opportunity to show it to my dad at each available opportunity. Go mum!
At the end of the tour, everyone got a small package of locally mined salt as a parting gift and off we went. Next item on the agenda was a trip to Schwangau, over three hours drive westwards.
Our pad for the night, Hotel Schwanstein, was a friendly family-run hotel with fantastic views, parking, good-sized rooms and yummy breakfast buffet. Whilst also located by the main road, it was a little bit offset with good double-glazed windows, making it nicely quiet at night. The staff was very helpful and took pride in good customer service creating nice atmosphere. Our rooms were on the second floor with balcony, sporting fantastic views of the Neu Schwanstein castle and my parents could also see the castle Hohen Schwangau. This location was particularly convenient as the ticket office for both of these castles was 5 minutes drive from the hotel.
By the time we arrived around seven o’clock in the evening, the weather greatly improved. Despite having a restaurant in the hotel, we decided to explore the area and head out for a walk to the nearby lake Forggensee on a mission to find somewhere to eat. The walk took twenty minutes through well-maintained residential area with great examples of Bavarian architecture. Forggensee looked very inviting and if we had more time on Sunday, we would have hired a boat. This was unfortunately arecurring theme the whole weekend and it became clear very early on, both Berchtesgaden and Schwangau have enough to offer to justify spending there a few days. Which we didn’t have. Already on Saturday evening we decided Stuttgart was indeed a bit ambitious and would render another visit.
For Saturday night, we anchored in a hotel restaurant Gasthof am See set directly by the lake. This turned out to be an excellent choice. The food was simply delicious, atmosphere very cosy and despite the service being done only by one lady, she was a super-woman and never failed to smile with the waiting times being surprisingly short. After having had loads to eat and just the right amount to drink, we strolled back to the hotel for a good night sleep.
The thing about Schwangau and its two famous castles is that they lie at the beginning of the ‘Romantic Road’, running from Reutte in the very south of Germany northwards to Würzburg. The Romantic Road is a 350 km long stretch of roads connecting over 15 historical towns hosting plenty of picturesque castles. You might think this would make it very popular with tourists from all over the world as well as Germans, meaning that the height of the summer season is likely to be a little bit busy. You would be right. Although we arrived to the ticket office reasonably early, the queues were already building up.
After waiting ten minutes, we got ourselves combi-ticket for both, the Neu Schwanstein and Hohen Schwangau castles. Although there are guided tours in all the main foreign languages, my parents don’t speak any of them so we got ourselves audio-guide tour tickets. The downside of the audio guides is that they do not come in German or English. No challenge is too big for the Duke though so he decided to try his luck with Dutch. What a soldier! Not only did he not understand most of it, but his audio guide somehow shortened each section by 50% so whilst our Czech speaking walky-talkies were happily bubbling along for minutes no end, the Duke spent most of the time patiently waiting for me to convey the most interesting information to him.
The tour of Hohe Schwangau took 30 minutes and we spent the same amount of time exploring the castle gardens and souvenir shop. The castle, just like the gardens, is beautifully maintained and despite the second castle on our agenda (Neu Schwanstein) attracting majority of visitors, Hohe Schwangau is an absolute must-see. The walls in each room are painted top to bottom with colourful expressions from Wagner’s operas and ancient myths and the furniture and other artefacts are in excellent condition. From there it was around 15 minutes walk back to the town, where we treated ourselves to a horse-drawn carriage ride to Neu Schwanstein. Whilst a pleasant ride and a must-do with my parents, if you are reasonably fit you’re better off walking up the hill to avoid the long wait.
The Neu Schwanstein castle is not the most popular German castle for nothing. As one of many extravagant medieval style castles, it was built but never finished by the eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer who admired the medieval way of living with its brave knights and spectacular castles and used his considerable wealth to recreate this in the Schwangau area.Neu Schwanstein is a Disney-style castle with many towers, spacious courtyards and even more impressive interiors – not surprisingly its nickname is the Fairytale castle. Although Ludwig lost the throne due to apparently being mentally ill, his suspicious death by drowning in a lake a day later with waist-deep water and his non-disputed lack of interest in stately affairs might speak against the official suicide verdict.
Having arrived a couple of minutes before the start of our tour, before exploring the outside of the castle we let ourselves to be entertained by the castles enchanting rooms, all beautifully decorated with colourful frescoes and fantastically preserved furniture. Once again, Ludwig’s admiration to the composer Richard Wagner was apparent from the themes depicted on the walls and one of the most impressive rooms was the Concert Hall. It felt strange leaving the castle through some of the unfinished rooms, knowing, that Ludwig II himself only lived here 170 days between 1884 and his premature death. After the tour, we decided to walk towards the bridge Marienbrücke around 10 minutes walk up the hill from where the castle can be admired from afar. The sunny weather has unfortunately turned cloudy again so our hopes of seeing the castle in the sun-light did not materialise. It was an impressive sight nevertheless, even though the narrow bridge over a deep craves looked too flimsy to hold the crowds who all decided to take exactly the same picture of this fairy-tale landmark.
With the clock approaching 4pm and a seven hour drive back to Dusseldorf ahead of us, it was time to head back. We were all leaving with plenty of impressions and a definite plan to come back one day to not only tempt our luck at good weather but also to explore some of the other parts of this south Germany we did not manage to fit in this time.