11 July 2009

Berchtesgaden: A Getaway to the Alps

Berchtesgaden was a place that I had been wanting to visit since my return to Germany. Since the first week of my arrival I had been casually bringing up the town and region in conversations hoping to find someone else with the enthusiasm to go. With it rated too high on my list of potential destinations though, I planned to go in June, with or without a travel companion. Fortunately, my French friend Julie eventually expressed interest in going and the trip was set. From June 12 to 14 we took in the natural beauty and historical mystique of Berchtesgadener Land.

Even for Bavarians and Germans this region possesses a certain allure. Berchtesgadener Land, the name for the region, finds itself in the extreme southeastern corner of Germany and, as such, the state of Bavaria, like a thin patch of splendid Alpine scenary sewn onto the rest of the German quilt. In a matter of minutes you would enter Austria were you not paying attention to the road signs. The region consists of a handful of municpalities, included in which is the town of Berchtesgaden, home to less than 8,000 residents yet at least twice as many scenic views. The community rests at the foot of the towering Watzmann mountain, Germany's third tallest mountain reaching 8,901 feet at it's highest peak.

The legends and lore of Berchtesgaden begin with its fabled mountain, the Watzman. Several stories exist to explain its origins. One says that angels charged with disbursing natural wonders around the newly created Earth were startled by God's command to hurry up, and dropped the remaining marvels in Berchtesgaden. Another, more common story tells of an evil king who once ruled over the land of present-day Berchtesgaden. Finally having enough, God turned the king and his family into stone, creating the Watzmann and its several peaks. Since then the landscape has appealed to countless travelers and visitors so much so that Germany declared the southern most portion a national park in 1978.

The legends of Berchtesgaden added a darker chapter when Adolf Hitler fell for the region's beauty and opened an official Nazi goverment compound and office near the town. The base could have acted as a southern headquarters if need be, but mostly served as a location of retreat for Hitler, his guests, and other top Nazi officials. For his fiftieth birthday, the residents of Berchtesgaden presented Hitler with a lodge perched high on a mountain slope. Known in German as the Kehlsteinhaus, in English this home became more commonly referred to as the Eagle's Nest. Whatever the name, from its windows one has a clear view of the source of Berchtesgaden's original lore, and my main reason for the trip: the Watzmann.

On the first day of our arrival, Julie and I checked into our hostel, and then took to seeing the sights of the town. The first stop was the Salzbergwerk, a tour through an old but still operating salt mine deep into the ground below Berchtesgaden. A picture of the buildings of the salt mine, next to the river of fresh snowmelt, is below.

In the caverns of the mine we descended down long wooden slides and even over a shallow lake, a byproduct of the mining. While an educational component of the mine and its operations was presented, most of the tour consisted of light and music shows to entertain the average tourist. The next image is a view of the underground lake.

Later in the afternoon and into the evening we walked the streets of the town. In the following picture you can see a view of Berchtesgaden's train station in the foreground, and in the background to the right, watching over the community, is the Watzmann.

The streets of the old town provided an environment much like other southern Bavarian towns. Quaint buidings painted light pastel color lined the sidewalks. Murals and other decorations covered several walls along public spaces.

We eventually found a local brewery and sat down for dinner. As deep as we were in Bavaria, the menu included several regional specialties that one cannot even find in Eichstätt. Determined to try something new, I selected a dish called Beuschel after asking the waiter to explain to me exactly what it was . The bowl that arrived is pictured below. The large round object is a bread dumpling, nothing new or exciting for me, but the rest is a stew-like mixture with the main ingriedent of pig lungs. After a first few cautionary spoonfuls, I continued to finish the bowl.

The next morning we check out of the hostel, we wouldn't need it for that night, and visited the sights of Berchtesgaden's Nazi past. The first was the Documentation Center Obersalzburg, an excellent museum depicting the Nazi history in the community, World War II, and the genocide. The exhibit includes noteworthy treatment on Nazi propoganda and Führer mythology. Examples of photographs on display are one of Hitler wearing lederhosen and another of Hitler using a pair of reading glasses, a fact of his life that government workers kept secret from the public because it could hurt the image of a strong and powerful leader. A recent extension of the museum includes underground bunkers built to withstand Allied bombings. One of the bunker tunnels is seen below.

From the museum we took a bus to the end of a steep and twisting road. Next, a tunnel led us into a mountainside and to an elevator. A short ride brought us to the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle's Nest. This building was one of the few to survive the Allied bombing raids during the war and subsequent demolitions. Counting as good irony, Hitler rarely visited the house because of his problems with vertigo and fear of heights. The first photograph below shows a view from the Kehlsteinhaus toward the Watzmann, while the second is a look at the house itself. Incidentally, little of acutal historical value remains at the house; it now functions as an over-priced restaurant.

Following our descent from the house, and a quick visit to a grocery store, the highpoint of the trip began. As I had wanted since last October, we set out to hike to the top of the Watzmann.

The journey started from a parking lot trailhead in the nearby village of Ramsau. Within minutes the trail pulled to a steep incline and rarely leveled out for the rest of the day. We had officially entered the national park, and the father we walked, the deeper into a natural and bucolic atmosphere we went. The trail led past mountain huts and cow pastures, and through thick evergreen forests. The following pictures offer some glimpses from the trail. In the third image you can see the Watzmann summit still far away in the background.

After almost four hours of ascending, we reached a wide meadow just below the mountain lodge we would call home for the night. I would say that the views were breathtaking, but that could have been a result from the steep hike that lay behind us rather than the scenery. Below is a photograph of some of the Watzmann summits as seen from the meadow, and then a video clip that takes in the 360 degree elegance. In the opening shot of the video you can see a smaller peak in the middle; on that outcropping of rock stood our lodge. As the camera pans to the left the next large snow-covered peak that comes into view is the summit to which we would hike the next morning.

During the hike on that day and the next, we encountered dozens beautiful, unique, or attention-grabbing forms of life on the mountain. Here are several shots of this diverse flora and fauna.

With a chunk of storage capacity lost on both memory cards of our cameras and our breath regained, we pushed on for the final section of the day's hike. The lodge at the end of the trail was a rewarding sight after nearly five hours.

We entered the building, placed our packs in a hallway, took off our shoes as instructed, and found ourselves in the company of dozens of hikers and climbers. Of course, what better a way is there to rest after such a tiring day than with a cool glass of local beer brought up from town and a large plate of Kaiserschmarrn, a dessert of shredded pancakes, cinnamon, and apple sauce.

Soon after we finished eatting, we returned outdoors to watch the sun set over our Alpine surroundings.

The natural show ended, and we were ready to end the day. Think of this mountain lodge, called the Watzmannhaus, like a rustic hostel. For twenty euros a night, anyone can receive shelter after his or her day of hiking. Because the lodge is below a mountain summit though, you shouldn't expect luxury conditions. For one thing, only a few lucky guests get a single bed. Instead, most people sleep on oversized mattresses and bunks. Each mattress fits up to six people sleeping side by side, whether you know your bedmate or not doesn't matter. Additionally, also due to its isolated location, no showers are available in the lodge. Guests are asked to restrict their use of this resource as the melting snow is the only supply for it.

We awoke in the morning to clear skies and the rest of a mountain to conquer. An almost 2,400 feet difference in elevation still remained between us and the summit. The photograph below shows the trailhead for the summit path in front of the lodge. The three main summits of the Watzmann are the Hocheck (8,697 ft), Mittelspitze (8,900 ft), and Südspitze (8,897 ft). Our goal was to reach the first of these three, the Hocheck (which literally means High Corner). The bottom posted sign seen in the photograph reads something to the effect of, "Alpine experience, steady footing, and a lack of fear of heights are essential."

The trail started steep, but straightforward. Other than the occasional boulders lying in the path, we encountered few obstacles to slow our progress. Eventually the trail became rockier and its gradient incresed ever more. A sudden loss in balance could easily send one of us rolling down the mountain slope. In the second picture below you can see Julie navigating the terrain.

Around two hours into the hike, the trail turned far steeper than I had expected it would. We came face to face with nearly verticle ascents. Using our hands and feet became necessary as the hike turned into a scramble. In places a steel cable bolted to the rock provided some extra support. The farther the trail led, the more difficult it turned, likewise the more amazing the scenery became. Losing sight of the actual summit behind the sheer mass of stone before us, we pushed on to reach our goal. In the following photograph you see the moutain dropping below Julie, the lodge a distant speck far below, and the forested valley even farther.

At last we reached the summit and took several minutes to rest. To our backs and to the south we could greet Austria. In front of us Bavaria spread out to the north. A couple other climbers set out to reach the next summit, Mittelspitze, with the aid of climbing harnesses and other gear. Feeling content with our accomplishment, and of course with none of the necessary gear on hand, we began our descent to the lodge. In all, the hike, or climb as it might better be called, to the summit from the lodge took almost four hours. The total hike from Ramsau to the summit was an elevation gain of a little more than 6,600 feet. Here are a few views from or near the summit.

Once we had returned to the lodge, we gathered our belongings and descended the rest of the mountain. From the parking lot we could look up to the Watzmann's summit high in the distance. With a little time left in the afternoon, we drove to the Königssee, a deep and long pristine lake in the shadows of the mountains. The cruise ferries had unfortuanately already stopped service for the day, but the views from the docks were nice nonetheless.

After a quick dinner we started the drive back to Eichstätt. Our weekend enveloped by the bewithcing natural beauty of Berchtesgaden had come to an end. Other than a small salt shaker included with the tour of the salt mine, the only thing either of us left with in addition to what we had brought was the desire to return someday.


Anonymous said...

forget a memoir...write a travel guide! your shots are amazing, the descriptions captivating--I can't wait to see these things myself!

Nick O. said...

Laura: Thank you for the compliments and encouragement! I hope you will enjoy my further posts as much. And congratulations on the new job!