My advice to anyone interested in visiting South Eastern Germany is to do it. The landscape is gorgeous and the people are warm and friendly (after a proper night’s rest). But first, check the weather. If the forecast is cloudy with a chance of blindness, maybe wait a few days or at least until the afternoon. Here’s how I did it:
Around 6pm, S and I load the car with our small bags, some water and snacks, and hop on the autobahn for a 5+ hour drive to Berchtesgaden. We find a good radio station and pass some quaint little farms. We’re excited for our first big European road trip together. Fast forward 5 hours, S is white knuckling the steering wheel as we make the winding, vertical ascent to our alpine hotel. It is darker than dark. Ever the conservationists, Germans in this part of the country do not believe in street lights (or any lights after 10pm, for that matter). Also, it’s pouring rain – torrential, horizontal rain. We’re also pretty sure we’re lost. And we’re pretty sure that, even if we do find the hotel, we may have to sleep in the car because our hotel’s front desk closed at 7pm. Before we left we called ahead to let them know that we wouldn’t be there until 10pm. It’s almost midnight and we’re still battling pin sharp curves in a dark Bavarian forest, squinting to see through the windshield, even though our windshield whippers are going as fast as possible, and praying that the brakes stop doing that weird thunk that they’re doing…. Did I mention it’s S’s 30th birthday?
Finally, the sign for our hotel appears in the darkness like an angel. Standing in the pouring rain, our shoes slowly filling with water, we ring the doorbell and wait.
Thank God! “Hi, we have a reservation. Sorry we’re late!”
We hear a grumble and then something in German that sounds really angry. We wait. What feels like twenty minutes later, we see through the glass door an old man coming toward us in his pajamas, hair fluffed up like a little kid woken up mid-nap. He was not happy. We quickly get our key, make our way to the room, and collapse with a huge sigh of relief. Never have we been so happy to sit down on those thin-mattressed twin beds that seem to pervade almost all European hotels.
In the morning, we awaken to a beautiful mountain view. With this, the previous night’s drive is already well worth it. After breakfast, our first stop is Kehlsteinhaus, the Eagle’s Nest, which was Hitler’s mountain retreat – built for him as a present on his 50th birthday. Weird to think that a man like that had a birthday. Due to his vertigo, however, he rarely ever visited the house.
On this rather chilly morning in July, we’re wearing our raincoats and are ready for an adventure. To reach the Eagle’s Nest, which is now a restaurant whose proceeds go to charity, you have to take a bus that leaves from the visitors’ center at the base of the mountain and then a golden brass elevator takes you the remaining 124 meters. The road that the bus follows was carved into the mountain by the original builders. The vehicles that drove on it in 1938, however, were considerably smaller than our bus. Peering over the edge of the road (which really is better described as a cliff), I was pretty sure I’d need a Valium to take the return trip down. After I sprouted three new gray hairs, the bus, thankfully, made it to the top, where we walked through a damp tunnel, feeling very much that we were in a WWII Clint Eastwood movie, and boarded the gold elevator to the summit. Standing in that elevator – the very same ridden by members of the Nazi party as they planned for war and genocide – was indescribably creepy.
Finally, we stepped out of the elevator and onto a balcony, expecting to see what is supposed to be the most beautiful panoramic view of the Alps, all we saw was white. We were in the middle of a the densest cloud to ever perch on a mountain peak.
Refusing to let condensed vapor ruin our vacation (even thought the most beautiful view in the Alps was right in front of us and we couldn’t see it), we decided to walk and climb around a little bit. To our unending glee, a hole several miles wide suddenly opened in the clouds and we got the most amazing gift of a clear-ish view for about twenty minutes. The wait made us appreciate the view that much more. It was breathtaking.
Being the history nerds that we are, we both would have liked to learn more about the history of the location. There was almost nothing. While it’s understandable that Germans would rather not talk about this period of their history, I was reminded of how lucky we are in the U.S. to have a government and a culture that so highly value freedom of speech and freedom of information (current debates over net neutrality notwithstanding).
Still hoping for the day to clear, we descended the mountain (I conquered the bus ride down even without a Valium) and headed for Lake Konigsee. As soon as we reached the shoreline, our mildly disappointing morning was all but forgotten.
The only boats allowed on the lake are electric tour boats run by the government. This keeps the lake both pristine and serene. The boats cruise over the cold waters, as the Alps rise immediately out of the shoreline. Our tour guide told us that a person can swim on the surface of the lake during warm summer months, but the temperatures even a foot or two down are so cold that it’s said that if a man jumps in, he enters a king, but exits a queen.
The boats’ first stop is the chapel of St. Bartholomew, built in the 12th century. The chapel’s priest is the only person allowed to fish in the lake and he sells the salmon that he catches on that island.
For a few extra euros, you can continue the boat ride the other side of Lake Konigsee and hike to Lake Obersee. It is so worth it. We walked down the dock at the other side of the lake, crossed a stream, and when we stumbled onto Lake Obersee, it took our breath away. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. These are totally untouched and don’t even begin to capture the beauty of the scene.
We could have spent all day taking in this beauty and hiking around Lake Obersee, but we had to catch the last boat back to the other side of Lake Konigsee (or else fend for ourselves in the Alps overnight).
Do you have any funny travel stories of near disasters that turned into a memorable trip?
Thanks for reading!