For some of us, the word association with “Bavaria” is BMW and autobahns with no speed restrictions. For others it’s the alps, the forests, the castles and the quaint villages.
Visiting for the first time? This is a picturesque side of the countryside everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime. Here’s why.
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The German Alpine Road, the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, that hugs Germany's southern border swoops and soars, opening up to grand alpine panoramas then dives like a startled mouse into tiny village streets, all the while leading travellers through some of the most picturesque areas of Europe. In effect, it takes you from the Lake Constance past Bavaria's royal castles and onto the Austrian border near Salzburg. The whole route is an idyll for the leisure traveller with time to spare.
Unlike the autobahns’ near racetrack conditions, the alpine road is for those who wish to appreciate the journey – not merely arrive at Point B in the shortest possible time. In a way, this dramatic difference is typical of Germany that presents a split personality to visitors.
View of The Watzmann moutain in Bavaria
While the brochures extol the wonders of castles, cathedrals, and ancient wooden houses that look like music boxes, much of Germany is contemporary and looking towards the future. It's a series of ancient vignettes linked by super-fast railways and freeways. The challenge for visitors is finding traditional Germany and avoiding the bits that look like the most industrialised parts of Australia.
Black Forest detour
The Black Forest, in the south of Germany is not in Bavaria but if you wish to complete a drive along the country’s southern border it’s worth the drive and definitely fits into the rustic ambience side of the equation.
It is a low mountain range covered in dense conifer forests. It's not really large – about 170 km long and 60 km wide at best – but the crisp mountain air, the alpine streams and cool walking trails are in great contrast to the industry and patchwork fields elsewhere in the country. The drive from Hinterzarten to Lake Constance is beautiful. There are clear views across the lake to the snow-capped Swiss alps.
The picturesque Black Forest, in Southern Germany
The starting line
Lindau, the start of the 450km Alpine Road, is a quaint old town on an island in the lake. The nearby farmland is the heart of Germany's cheese industry. Lindenberg can be an early stop as it’s regarded as the sunniest place in Bavaria and is a health resort and the home of German hat making.
Wending your way from here towards Salzburg along the oldest touring route in Germany is likely to take about three days with the requisite stops along the way. One interlude no-one is able to resist is the Disneyesque Neuschwanstein Castle of King Ludwig II.
But, while this is the best-known, the whole area near Fussen is known as Konigschlosser or Royal Castles. One of the main sights is Hohenschwangau Castle, a pinnacle of excess winning out over good taste as oriental kitsch battles Gothic grandeur.
The Hohenschwangau Castle set amongst the breathtaking Bavarian countryside
The mountain forests of Bavaria are within three parks to make up the largest forested area in Europe. They have excellent walking trails.
Down the road is the small village of Oberammergau, the home of the “Passion Play”. In 1633, the village's prayers were answered when a bad plague failed to reach it. In gratitude, the village has performed a religious play every ten years since then (the next one is in 2020). The plays run from May to September and each lasts all day. In the lead-up years visitors are likely to see villagers growing their beards for their roles as apostles and other biblical figures.
So one rolls into Garmisch-Partenkirchen. For many years, this alpine resort town was dominated by the presence of the US Army recreational facilities. Now that role is reduced and it has again become a German ski resort in winter and a hiking base in summer. The mountain setting is superb. The ski season endures because you can take the cog-railway to the high Zugspitze snowfields. The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest mountain at 2962 metres.
In summer, the mountain trails are filled with locals wearing lederhossen and braces, and clutching serviceable walking sticks. At the end of a successful walk, you can purchase a small silver plaque. Some walking sticks are so plaque-laden that they resemble ceremonial silver maces.
Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze, provides a beautiful view year round
You can drive on through the grand scenery to the termination of the Alpine Road at Berchtesgaden. This has long been an important trade area because of its salt mines. At the top of the Kehlstein which looms over the town is the restaurant and beer garden that was once better known as Hitler's Eagle's Nest. The main chalet was reduced to a few bare walls by allied bombing in 1945. The Konigsee here is a beautiful alpine lake.
At Garmisch, many veer off the Alpine Road towards Munich. For many tourists, Munich represents the best of Germany and it is the nation's most popular destination. The Bavarian capital has a wealth of atmosphere – from ancient churches and the grand town hall (the evocative German word is “rathaus”), to legendary beer halls where the rafters are a thick as the huge beer glasses that the buxom waitresses somehow can lift and carry in bulk to their ever-thirsty patrons.
Munich's historic town hall, the Neues Rathaus
Munich's city centre is, in old terms, only a mile square so it's easily explored on foot. There's a wealth of things to see and do and even more opportunities to eat and drink in this flamboyant city. Bavarians love machinery: everyone stops in the grand Marienplatz to view the Rathaus Glockenspiel, the chiming clock that performs an elaborate 15 minute routine each day at 11 am, as it has done since 1908. On the outskirts of town, near the Olympic Park, the BMW museum reveals the development – and future – of the automobile in intricate displays.
There are many other towns and cities worth visiting in Bavaria, of course. Passau’s perfect streetscapes, the violin-making museum in Mittenwald, the imperial city of Regensburg with its stone bridge, Aschaffenburg with the forboding presence of Schloss Johannisburg and Bamburg with its historic cathedral.
No matter which direction you go, the key to Germany is to leave the cities behind for at least a day or two. Eating lunch in a sunny outdoor cafe, drinking local wine (or cider) and watching a river flow past, you realise that Germans have a fine appreciation of the good life. As a Bavarian friend once told me: “art isn't just in museums. It's found in a good sausage, too.”
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