If your idea of Germany is men in lederhosen and women in dirndls, then the Bavarian Alps is the place for you. The kitsch factor can get pretty high, but it's a wonderful part of the country to see. Many people head to the area for its incredible Alpine setting—whether to ski, tour the castles or experience the region's fairy-tale beauty.
At the southern end of the Romantic Road, Fussen is near two 19th-century castles connected to "Mad" King Ludwig II—Hohenschwangau (his boyhood home) and Neuschwanstein (the product of his adult imagination). If the latter castle looks familiar, it's because Walt Disney used it as a model for Sleeping Beauty's castle in Disneyland. Expect long waits (an online reservation of a time slot to visit is highly recommended) and the kinds of crowds you'd find at Disneyland—more than a million people visit the castle every year. For a good view of the exterior, hike the short distance up to the Marienbrucke (Mary's Bridge), but the best view is from the Tegelberg farther up.
The town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is near the Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain (9,819 ft/2,962). It's the center of a popular year-round outdoor recreational area. In addition to a downhill ski area, the region has four ski jumps, casinos and facilities for skating and curling (which is sort of like shuffleboard on ice).
In summer, hikers will enjoy the 24 mi/39 km of footpaths, and more sedentary types can take the mountain railway and enjoy magnificent views. There is an exhilarating hike that begins behind the Olympic ski jump and continues into the Partnachklamm Gorge. (The trail passes along and underneath spectacular waterfalls.)
Located 56 mi/90 km southwest of Munich, Garmisch is an easy day trip from there, but an overnight stay, combined with a tour of Ludwig's castles, is an even better idea. In early June 2015, the 41st G7 summit was held at Elmau castle, a luxurious spa hotel between Garmisch and Mittenwald, a romantic Alpine town famous for its violin-making tradition.
Another scenic Bavarian town nearby, Oberammergau is home to a well-known version of the Passion play. In 1633, the town's residents promised that if the plague passed them by, they would perform a Passion play every 10 years in remembrance. They were spared, and the first performance was in 1634: Now it's performed May-early October in years ending in zero (2010, 2020 and so forth).
The play is in German (an easy-to-follow English outline can be purchased) and lasts all day, breaking only for a long lunch. The whole town is involved in its production. Arrangements to see the play should be made at least a year in advance.
In the other nine years of a decade, the village is worth a visit for its extraordinary collection of luftlmalerei, elaborate Bavarian houses covered in trompe l'oeil, of the sort you'd expect to see in a Grimm fairy tale. The Oberammergau area also offers good cross-country and downhill skiing in winter.
Located in the extreme southeastern tip of Germany, the town of Berchtesgaden was home to Hitler's Alpine retreat. It was destroyed by Allied bombing, but the area is well worth visiting for the Obersalzburg Documentation center, which focuses on exhibitions on the history of the area and the Nazi dictatorship.
One of the main attractions there is Kehlsteinhaus, located 6,016 ft/1,834 m up Kehlstein Mountain. The dramatic bus journey up the narrow road is worth the trip alone. But Kehlsteinhaus is more famous as home to Hitler's former tea house, or "Eagle's Nest." It is now a unique museum and restaurant.
Just below is the fjordlike Konigssee, one of the most spectacular Alpine lakes in the region. The lake was a popular getaway for Bavarian royals, and nowadays there are charming electric-powered boat trips across the lake and back. They run year-round, but in the summer more regularly, at half-hour intervals for most of the day from the little village at the head of the lake. Plan at least a half-day for this trip.
You can also take a tour deep into the side of a mountain salt mine called Salzbergwerk, which was the source of Berchtesgaden's prosperity as early as the 1500s. Visitors are given miner's outfits and leather seats for the long slide down a polished wooden ramp (the less adventurous can use the stairs). Berchtesgaden can be seen on a day trip from Munich or as part of a tour of the Bavarian Alps.
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