Shaped like a figure of eight and pushing south deep into Austria’s Salzburger Land, the compact territory of Berchtesgadener Land contains some of Germany’s loveliest Alpine scenery and, in the south, its third highest mountain, the 2713m Watzmann. Reached most easily via Austria and almost walled in by its mountains, the rugged southern part of the Land has the feel of a separate little country. For much of its history it was an independent bishopric growing fat on its precious salt deposits, in many ways a smaller version of its eastern neighbour, Salzburg; their ways only diverged after the 1803 secularization, with Salzburg ultimately passing to Austria and Berchtesgaden to Bavaria. The region attracted notoriety in the 1930s and 1940s as the preferred holiday-home (and putative last redoubt) of Adolf Hitler, whose “Eagle’s Nest” has since become one of its most popular attractions. In the summer months, the Nationalpark Berchtesgaden is a paradise for hikers and day-trippers alike; in winter, there’s skiing on the Jenner, at Rossfeld and on the Hirschkaser west of Berchtesgaden, though at times the region’s scenic beauty can be wreathed in dense, icy fog. Capital and natural focus of the Land is the little town of BERCHTESGADEN itself, also known as Markt Berchtesgaden to distinguish it from the wider Land; deep eaves, chalet-style architecture and elaborate Lüftmalerei images give it a quaintly Alpine look, reinforced by the exhilarating mountain views available from much of the town. A second focus for visitors is provided by the prim spa-town of Bad Reichenhall to the north.
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Obersalzberg and the Eagle’s Nest
Obersalzberg and the Eagle’s Nest
Though its mountain panoramas are as breathtaking as any in the German Alps, Nazi associations hang over OBERSALZBERG like an evil spell from some Grimm tale. Hitler knew and loved the scattered settlement 3km east of Berchtesgaden long before he came to power; after 1933 the new regime expropriated locals to turn the entire mountainside into a sprawling private fiefdom for Nazi bigwigs, many of whom had their holiday homes here. The most notable of these was Hitler’s Berghof, bought and extended with the royalties from sales of Mein Kampf; the dictator invited diplomatic guests here – including British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at the time of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938 – to be overawed by the scenic setting and the magnificent panorama from its famous picture-window. As war progressed and Allied air raids on German cities underlined the vulnerability of the site to air attack, a vast system of bunkers was built beneath the mountainside, but in the event the feared “last stand” of the SS never happened here. British bombers destroyed much of the complex in 1945; afterwards, the ruins were largely demolished.
Close to the site of the Berghof stands the Dokumentation Obersalzberg, a fascinating exhibition on the rise, fall and crimes of the Nazi movement, its mythology and its association with Obersalzberg. As you reach the latter stages of the exhibition, you descend into a decidedly spooky preserved section of the bunker complex, which was built from 1943 onwards.
The Eagle’s Nest
Frequent buses depart from the terminus on the far side of the car park by the Dokumentation Obersalzberg, climbing the spectacular 6.5km Kehlsteinstrasse in the first stage of the ascent to Hitler’s celebrated teahouse, the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest as it is known in English, which is preserved in more or less its original condition. The ascent is very much part of the experience: the narrow, twisting cobbled road – blasted from solid rock in just thirteen months in 1937 and 1938 – ascends 700m and passes through five tunnels. The buses make the journey at a cracking pace, so anyone prone to vertigo may want to sit on the side of the bus away from the view. You alight next to the tunnel leading to the lift which ascends through solid rock to the teahouse; before you enter, you have to decide which bus you’re going to return on and get your ticket stamped accordingly.
Once you reach the teahouse itself – now a restaurant – how long you stay depends on the weather conditions: if it’s clear, the views are genuinely breathtaking and it’s worth wandering across the narrow summit for the views back to the building; if not, a quick glance at the photographic exhibition will suffice. The Kehlsteinstrasse and teahouse were commissioned by Martin Bormann as the Nazi party’s fiftieth birthday present to Hitler using funds donated to the party by industrialists, but after an initial rush of enthusiasm in 1938 Hitler rarely visited, fearing lightning strikes and attack from the air. Eva Braun used it more frequently: since she didn’t officially exist, she had to make herself scarce during diplomatic visits to the Berghof, and would come here to sunbathe.