“Laptop and Lederhosen” is the expression Germans use to explain the Bavarian paradox: the unlikely combination of social conservatism and business acumen that has made it a powerhouse of the European economy. Nowhere is the contrast sharper than in its capital. Munich is much loved by the cashmere-clad Schickies (yuppies) for whom it is, self-evidently, the “northernmost city in Italy”. Yet to detractors it’s also the beer- and sausage-obsessed Millionendorf – a village with a million inhabitants. Beyond Munich, the urbanized and industrialized heartlands of Bavarian Swabia and Upper Bavaria display similar contrasts, with perfectly preserved old towns alongside world-beating manufacturing industries. This is not yet the Bavaria of popular cliché: there aren’t even any mountains.
It is, above all, a region of urban glories. As capital of the Duchy that Napoleon expanded and raised to the status of a kingdom, Munich has the air – and cultural clout – of a capital city to this day, though its heyday as capital of the kingdom of Bavaria lasted little more than a century. To the west, the Swabian city of Augsburg has far older claims to urban greatness, which have left their mark in the city’s splendid Renaissance core. In the north, Ingolstadt balances respect for its history with pride in its industrial prowess, notably as the home of the car manufacturer Audi. Smaller towns too retain memories of past glories, from the picture-book Residenzstadt of Neuburg an der Donau to the little ecclesiastical city of Eichstätt. Only south of Munich does the landscape come to the fore, in the rolling lakeland of the Fünf-Seen-Land, where the Alps are at last a discernible presence, if only on the horizon. Yet even in the south, Landsberg am Lech provides a glorious urban counterpoint to the approaching mountains.
Getting around this densely populated part of Bavaria is relatively straightforward, with Munich’s suburban rail system extending far out into the surrounding countryside and the other major population centres linked to it by Autobahn and rail. Moreover, Munich’s airport – Germany’s second busiest after Frankfurt – ensures it couldn’t be easier to get into, or out of, the region. Yet even here, the Bavarian paradox holds true; the efficient modern airport is named after one of postwar Germany’s most reactionary politicians, the long-time Bavarian premier and leader of the conservative CSU party, Franz Josef Strauss.
Munich’s efficient public transport network stretches far into the surrounding countryside, making day-trips relatively straightforward. By far the most sombre, but also the best-known destination in the city’s hinterland is the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, north of the city. Also to the north, but altogether more light-hearted, is Oberschleissheim, with its palaces and aviation museum. To the south of the city, the lakes of the Fünf-Seen-Land are an obvious lure in summer, given added lustre by the monastery of Kloster Andechs and by a remarkable art collection at Bernried on Starnberger See.
In contrast to the Nazis’ extermination camps in Poland, the former concentration camp at Dachau, now the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau, was no secret. Established on the site of a redundant munitions works in March 1933 and a model for all subsequent camps, it was highly publicized, the better to keep the Third Reich’s malcontents in line. In its twelve-year existence more than 200,000 people were imprisoned here, of whom 43,000 died. It was finally liberated by US troops on April 29, 1945.
You enter the camp through an iron gate into which is set the Nazis’ bitter joke against its victims – the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “work makes you free”; here, as in so many other camps, hard work was no guarantee even of survival. Much of the camp compound now consists of the empty foundations of the old barrack blocks, but two have been reconstructed to give an idea of what conditions were like, and how they deteriorated during the course of the war as the camp became more overcrowded. The SS guards used any infringement of the barracks’ rigid cleanliness regime as an excuse to administer harsh discipline; nevertheless, when the camp was finally liberated typhus was rife.
A place of remembrance as well as a museum, the site is peppered with memorials: there are Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic memorials at the fringes of the camp, and an expressive international memorial in front of the maintenance building.
The maintenance building
An exhibition in the former camp maintenance building describes the full horror of Dachau, including a graphic colour film shot at liberation and grisly details of the medical experiments conducted on prisoners, including hypothermia and altitude experiments conducted on fit young male prisoners in order to determine how long downed Luftwaffe pilots might survive in extreme circumstances, as well as others in which inmates were deliberately infected with malaria or tuberculosis.
The camp prison (Bunker)
Behind the maintenance building, the camp prison (known as the Bunker) contained cells for important prisoners who were kept separate from the rest of the inmates; these included Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, and Richard Stevens, one of the two British secret agents kidnapped and smuggled across the border from the Netherlands the following day in the notorious Venlo incident.
The gas chamber
Though it wasn’t an extermination camp Dachau did have a gas chamber, screened by trees and located outside the camp perimeter. A crematorium was built in the summer of 1940 because of the rapidly rising numbers of prisoner deaths; in 1942–43 a larger one was built, and this incorporated a gas chamber. Though it was never used for systematic extermination, former prisoners testify that it was used to murder small groups of prisoners. As in other camps, the fiction of it being a shower room was maintained. A plaque in the crematorium commemorates four women agents of the British SOE murdered here on September 12, 1944.
To the south of Munich, the region known as the Fünf-Seen-Land provides a tantalizing glimpse of alpine beauty as well as wide open waters for recreation right on the city’s doorstep. Of the two large lakes, Starnberger See is known as the Princes’ Lake and has the opulent real-estate to prove it; it was on the shores of this lake that “Mad” King Ludwig II and his doctor met their mysterious deaths one night in June 1886. The other large lake, Ammersee, is known as the Farmers’ Lake, which reflects its somewhat simpler style.
The region’s natural centre is STARNBERG on Starnberger See. The town, which is on S-Bahn line #6 from Munich, is one of the wealthiest communities in Germany, and the lakeshore is lined with expensive villas. The town itself has a rather suburban feel, albeit with a stunning setting at the north end of the lake, and a backdrop of distant Alps.
Housed in a beautiful lakeside building designed by Günther Behnisch, the Sammlung Buchheim or Museum der Phantasie in Bernried looks from the outside more like a luxurious spa than a museum. It houses the varied collections of the artist and writer Lothar-Günther Buchheim, best known as the author of the book on which the hit film Das Boot was based. The museum is built along a central axis, which allows the various departments to branch off independently – a clever solution to the problem of displaying a collection whose constituent parts never really make a coherent whole: roomfuls of applied art and unlabelled ethnographic objects feature, along with a good deal of Buchheim’s own work, but the core of the collection is a stunning selection of classic twentieth-century German art. Lovis Corinth is represented by his Dancing Dervish of 1904, Max Liebermann by some of his lovely drawings, while a few very early works by Max Beckmann contrast with his more familiar, later style. There’s a caustic Otto Dix portrait, Leonie, as well as works by the Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Alexei von Jawlensky.
Where art presides at the southern end of the Starnberger See, beer and religion reign supreme on Ammersee, where the Benedictine monastery of Kloster Andechs crowns a hill top on the north side of the village of Erling. The monastery has for centuries attracted pilgrims to see the relics supposedly brought to Andechs by Rasso, an ancestor of the counts of Andechs, in the tenth century. These days it’s just as famous for its Benedictine beers, which can be sampled in the monastery’s Bräustüberl restaurant. The abbey church, which is not at all as big as its mighty onion-domed tower might lead you to think, makes up for its modest size with the exuberance of its Rococo decoration by the ever-industrious Johann Baptist Zimmermann. Buried beneath the Rococo swirls are traces of the fifteenth-century Gothic church, which was struck by lightning and largely destroyed in the seventeenth century; the Heilige Kapelle still retains its Gothic appearance.
Proud AUGSBURG may only be Bavaria’s third-largest city, but it’s the state’s oldest, tracing its origins to the Roman fort of Augusta Vindelicum founded in the first century AD. The largest city of Bavarian Swabia – a western region linguistically, and historically quite distinct from Bavaria proper – it was one of the wealthiest financial centres in Europe during the Middle Ages, helped by its position on the route south to Italy. Its traders and financiers – the Fuggers and Welsers – were the Rothschilds or Vanderbilts of their day, with business connections across Europe and beyond. Augsburg was renowned for its craftsmanship, above all in metalwork, and it also produced the father-and-son artists Hans Holbein the Elder and Younger. The city reached a peak of magnificence during the Renaissance, from when much of the city’s most impressive architecture dates, notably the splendid Rathaus by Elias Holl, who was the municipal architect.
An imperial free city, Augsburg took centre stage in the religious controversies of the sixteenth century. The city, though with a Catholic bishopric, nevertheless strongly favoured Luther. In 1530 the Augsburg Confession – one of the founding documents of the Lutheran faith – was formulated here and presented to the Emperor Charles V at an Imperial Diet. At a subsequent Diet, in 1555, the Peace of Augsburg initiated peaceful coexistence between the religions, in imperial free cities at least, though Ferdinand II attempted to overturn it with his Edict of Restitution in 1629 in the thick of the Thirty Years’ War. This had the effect of reversing the power balance between Catholic and Protestant in Augsburg, and the city remains largely – but not overwhelmingly – Catholic today. Augsburg became Bavarian in 1806, and in the following century grew into an important industrial centre. Firms such as MAN and Messerschmitt ensured it attracted Allied air raids during World War II, yet the scars were successfully repaired afterwards, and the glory of Augsburg’s history is evident to this day in its Altstadt – whose architectural splendour is reason enough for the city to be a worthwhile stop on the Romantic Road.
Augsburg’s biggest folk festival is Plärrer (plaerrer-online.de), a combination of funfair and beer tents held twice each year, in spring and autumn. From mid-July to mid-August the Internationaler Augsburger Jazz Sommer (augsburger-jazzsommer.de) brings a varied line-up of international jazz acts to the city. Augsburg’s annual Christmas market, the Augsburger Christkindlesmarkt, takes place in front of the Rathaus from late November until Christmas Eve (augsburger-christkindlesmarkt.com).
Few places illustrate more graphically the contrast between the capital-city airs and country-town scale of a minor German Residenzstadt than EICHSTÄTT, tucked into a loop in the Altmühl River in the region known as the Franconian Jura, south of Nuremberg. Even today, the little cathedral and university city is no bigger than a small market town, with a population of less than 14,000. Yet for five centuries, from 1305 until secularization at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its prince-bishops held spiritual and temporal power over a diminutive territory on Franconia’s southern fringe. A Catholic stronghold during the Thirty Years’ War, it paid for its piety when it was sacked by the Swedes on February 12, 1634. The Baroque reconstruction by the Italians Giacomo Angelini, Mauritio Pedetti and Gabriel de Gabrieli created the capital-city-in-miniature that delights visitors today.
The meandering valley of the River Altmühl threads its way from west to east across the three-thousand-square-kilometre Naturpark Altmühltal, one of Germany’s largest nature reserves. Its Jurassic geology not only yields the remarkable fossils that are on display in the Willibaldsburg’s Jura Museum, but also produces fascinating, sculpted landforms, such as the Zwölf Apostel at Solnhofen west of Eichstätt. The region’s blend of scenic and cultural attractions makes it a popular destination for hikers and cyclists alike, and it is crisscrossed with hiking trails and cycle paths. The classic walk is the 200km Altmühltal Panoramaweg, which follows the course of the river, linking Gunzenhausen on the edge of the Altmühlsee in the west with Solnhofen, Eichstätt and Kelheim in the east. The gentle 166km Altmühltal Radweg for cyclists follows a similar route from Gunzenhausen to Kelheim. From May to October Freizeitbus services with bike trailers cover the region between Eichstätt and Regensburg; Freizeitbus #2 (day-ticket with bike €10.50; day-ticket without bike €7.50) follows the central sections of the Panoramaweg and Radweg. Altmühl itself is one of the slowest-flowing rivers in Bavaria and consequently highly popular with canoeists: Johann Gegg in Dollnstein west of Eichstätt rents out canoes by the day (from €17; 08422 691, boots-verleih.com). For more information on activities and accommodation in the Naturpark, contact the information centre in Eichstätt .
With a strategic location on the Danube midway between Nuremberg and Munich, for centuries INGOLSTADT was a formidable fortress and from 1392 to 1447 the capital of the Duchy of Bayern-Ingolstadt. Yet despite a rich legacy of historic monuments it’s a bustling and remarkably down-to-earth place, with none of the preserved-in-aspic feel that sometimes plagues smaller, more tourist-dominated Bavarian towns. Its streets are tidy and handsome, but the feeling is of solid prosperity rather than overt wealth, with an economy buttressed by oil refineries and by the town’s status as the home of the Audi car plant.
Ingolstadt’s Altstadt – entirely surrounded by greenery on the site of its former defences – is an enjoyable place to spend a day, while beyond the centre are the contrasting delights of the Audi Forum and the Ingolstadt Village outlet mall.
Landsberg am Lech
South of Augsburg on the Romantic Road, the handsome little town of Landsberg am Lech makes a worthwhile stopover on the way to the Alps. It has gone down in history as the place where Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, during his absurdly short stretch in prison following the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The prison – which after 1945 held high-ranking war criminals – still serves its original purpose. For much of its history Landsberg was a border town on Bavaria’s western fringes, which helps explain the sheer size of its surviving medieval fortifications, including a number of impressive gate towers.
Neuburg an der Donau
Despite its name, which means “new castle on the Danube”, the delightful little town of NEUBURG AN DER DONAU, 21km west of Ingolstadt, is scarcely new, though it was only after the foundation of the principality of Pfalz-Neuburg in 1505 that it really gained any importance. The “official” quarter on a bluff high above the river has a dolls’ house prettiness, with stately seventeenth-and eighteenth-century gabled houses lining the main street, Amalienstrasse, and the principal civic buildings – including the late Renaissance Hofkirche – grouped around a handsome central square, Karlsplatz. The town is utterly dominated by its impressive Renaissance Schloss, which is the main reason for a visit. If you’re in Neuburg in the spring be sure to try the locally grown Schrobenhausen asparagus, which is considered a great delicacy.
Neuburg’s magnificent Renaissance Schloss was constructed from 1530 onwards for Pfalzgraf (Count Palatine) Ottheinrich, the principality’s first ruler; the splendid arcaded courtyard is decorated with elaborate sgraffito, while the chapel was the first purpose-built Protestant church in Germany and has beautiful frescoes by Hans Bocksberger dating from 1543. Highlights of the Schloss’s interior include the Rittersaal or Knights’ Hall in the north wing, with its mighty columns and wooden ceiling. A Baroque east wing was added in 1665 to 1670, complete with two round towers that dominate the river and town. The Schloss’s west wing contains the Bayerische Staatsgalerie Flämische Barockmalerei, with a hundred and twenty works of Flemish art by masters including Rubens, Van Dyck and Bruegel.