The Alps and eastern Bavaria Travel Guide
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All the images that foreigners think most typically Bavarian accumulate in profusion in the region south of Munich, where “Mad” King Ludwig’s palaces preside over dramatically scenic alpine settings. Here, onion-domed church towers rise above brilliant green meadows, impossibly blue lakes fringe dark forests and the sparkling snow-capped peaks of the Bavarian Alps define the southern horizon.
Villages are tourist-brochure quaint, while traditional Tracht is by no means the fancy dress it can sometimes seem in Munich. Politically and socially, this is Bavaria at its most Catholic and conservative, though sheer numbers of visitors nowadays add a certain cosmopolitan sheen, particularly to major resorts such as Füssen or Garmisch-Partenkirchen – Germany’s highest, and most famous ski centre.
Eastern Bavaria could scarcely be more different: in place of a wall of mountains, it is defined by one of the great cultural and trading thoroughfares of Central Europe, the River Danube. Consequently its ancient cities – notably the perfectly preserved, former imperial free city of Regensburg and the prince-bishopric of Passau – bear the legacy of Rome and the influence of Italy with considerable grace, while even relatively modest towns such as Straubing and Landshut preserve architectural wonders from their distant golden ages. Only along its eastern boundary with the Czech Republic do natural wonders again triumph over cultural richness, in the vast, relatively sparsely populated forests of the Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest).
Getting around the region is remarkably easy: Regensburg, Passau, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the Berchtesgadener Land are all linked into the Autobahn network, while train services connect Munich with the major towns and reach into the Alps as far as Füssen, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berchtesgaden. Where train services end, buses take over, with services linking at least the most important tourist sites relatively frequently.
Topography has determined the character of Eastern Bavaria every bit as much as the Alps have shaped the south of the state. A vast, uninterrupted belt of forested upland – the Bayerischer Wald or Bavarian Forest – guards Bavaria’s eastern flank on the border with the Czech Republic. It’s a sparsely populated and – compared with much of the rest of Bavaria – still relatively little-visited tract, which was for decades a sort of rural cul-de-sac running northwest to southeast along the Iron Curtain. In contrast, immediately to the west of the Bayerischer Wald, the valley of the Danube runs parallel to the border, and is one of the great natural trade routes of Central Europe. Strung out along it is a series of attractive small cities, each of which has known some glory in its past: Regensburg, the largest of them, is a former free imperial city with one of the best-preserved medieval cityscapes in Central Europe; in the south, Passau is a former prince-bishopric with more than a touch of Italy in its monuments. Between the two, Straubing looks back to a distant golden age as the capital of a strange medieval Duchy that straddled Bavaria and the Netherlands. Not to be forgotten is Landshut on the River Isar, the ancestral seat of the Wittelsbach dynasty.
Capital of Lower Bavaria for the past eight hundred years and for a brief period in the thirteenth century Munich’s predecessor as the Wittelsbachs’ main seat, LANDSHUT has architectural splendours that quite outshine its present status as a bustling but essentially provincial town midway between Munich and Regensburg. Its glory days came under the so-called “rich dukes” between 1393 and 1503, when it was the seat of government for the duchy of Bayern-Landshut. The 1475 wedding of one of the dukes, Georg, to Jadwiga (Hedwig in German) – daughter of the Polish king – was one of the most lavish celebrations of the late Middle Ages, and it provides a template for the town’s most celebrated festival – the Landshuter Hochzeit or Landshut Wedding – to this day.
With a memorable – and flood-prone – location on the Austrian border at the confluence of the rivers Inn, Ilz and Danube, PASSAU has a lively, cosmopolitan feel that quite belies its modest size. A city of just 50,000 inhabitants, it has nevertheless long been an important place. There was a Roman fort on the site from around 80 AD, a bishopric was founded here in 739 AD and this was raised to the status of an independent prince-bishopric in 1217, a status it retained for centuries until, secularized and annexed, it shared the fate of the other Bavarian prince-bishoprics at the start of the nineteenth century. Passau also rates a mention in the Nibelungenlied, the epic poem that formed the basis for Wagner’s Ring, as the heroine Kriemhild is welcomed to the city by her uncle Bishop Pilgrim.
Passau’s long history of independence has left it with an impressive array of monuments gracing its Altstadt, which occupies a narrow wedge of land between the Inn and Danube. There’s a blend of Central European and Italian Baroque architectural influences similar to that other great ecclesiastical city-state, Salzburg, though here the ice-cream colours add a sunny, southern glow that not even Salzburg can match. Add to that a mighty, photogenic fortress and the buzz created by its university and the cruise ships that depart its quays for Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, and Passau is well worth an overnight stop.
The most distinctive feature of Passau’s Altstadt is its location on a tapering peninsula at the point where the Danube and Inn meet, and the best place to experience the drama of its situation is in the little park at the eastern tip of the peninsula, or Dreiflüsseeck. Almost tucked out of sight behind the fifteenth-century Veste Niederhaus – the lower part of Passau’s massive medieval fortress complex – is the Ilz, very much the junior of the three rivers, which flows into the Danube from the north just before its confluence with the Inn.
Spared from devastation in the twentieth century’s wars, timeless REGENSBURG (Ratisbon in English, though the name is nowadays little used) preserves the appearance of an important medieval trading-city better than just about anywhere else in Central Europe. It’s the only major medieval city in Germany to remain intact. The Regensburg you see today to a remarkable extent preserves its fourteenth-century street layout and much of the architecture – secular and religious – that reflects how it must have looked during its medieval zenith.
Straddling routes to Italy, Bohemia, Russia and Byzantium, Regensburg had trading links that stretched as far as the Silk Road. Trade brought cultural interchange too, and the mighty tower houses of the city’s medieval merchants – so reminiscent of Italy – are found nowhere else north of the Alps. No wonder UNESCO added the old Town of Regensburg and Stadtamhof to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2006.
Glorious though its architectural heritage may be, this vibrant city is no museum piece. What makes it particularly special is the way its thousand or so historic monuments act as a backdrop for the very contemporary tastes and concerns of its modern citizens, who include large numbers of students. For visitors, Regensburg is a surprisingly multifaceted place, well worth a stay of a few days or so.
Remarkably, the city is actually even older than it looks. The Romans founded a fort here as part of the empire’s Limes, or military frontier, in the then-uninhabited region of Donaubogen in 80 AD; it was destroyed in an attack by Marcomanni tribes in 167 AD, only to be re-established as a legion fortress under the name Castra Regina on the site of the present-day Altstadt. As the western Roman Empire died in the fifth century AD, the Roman inhabitants were gradually replaced by Germanic settlers. A bishopric from 739 AD, Regensburg also became a free imperial city in 1245.
STRAUBING stands at the heart of the Gäuboden, a rich grain-producing district that stretches along the Danube midway between Passau and Regensburg. The Lower Bavarian town experienced a relatively brief but glorious heyday between 1353 and 1425 as the capital of the lesser, Bavarian portion of the eccentric independent Duchy of Straubing-Holland, the greater portion of whose territories lay in the present-day Netherlands.
Southwest of Regensburg at KELHEIM, on a romantic bluff high above the river, the Befreiungshalle (Liberation Hall) was Ludwig’s monument to the wars of liberation against Napoleon and to the idea of German unity. It was begun in 1842 by Friedrich von Gärtner but completed after Gärtner’s death by Leo von Klenze. From the outside, the drum-shaped building looks a little like a Neoclassical gasometer fashioned from painted stucco; the spectacular interior is ringed by 34 winged goddesses of victory with the names of Austrian, Prussian and Bavarian generals picked out in gold above them. A narrow staircase ascends to an internal gallery from which you can better admire the sheer spaciousness of the hall; beyond it, a stone staircase leads to an exterior gallery, well worth the climb for the views over Kelheim and the lovely Donaudurchbruch, a narrow, cliff-rimmed stretch of the Danube to the west of the town that is one of the region’s most beloved excursions.
The Donaudurchbruch ends at Kloster Weltenburg, wedged scenically between the river and cliffs. The baroque abbey church is the work of the Asam brothers, but Weltenburg is altogether more famous for its brewery, which claims to be the world’s oldest abbey brewery and produces the excellent Barock Dunkel beer. You can sample it at the Klosterschänke in the main courtyard. The most popular way to reach Weltenburg is on a boat trip from Kelheim, but hiking trails through the gorge allow a more leisured appreciation of the exceptional landscape, which forms the Weltenburger Enge nature reserve. The closest route to the gorge follows the north bank; there’s a simple ferry across the river to the abbey at Weltenburg itself.
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.
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.
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.
A shimmering expanse of silvery waters with a backdrop of distant Alps, Chiemsee is often referred to as the Bavarian Sea. Sheer size alone would justify the claim, for the lake covers eighty square kilometres and is tidal. But its origins also make the tag appropriate, for Chiemsee is a remnant of the primeval Thetis Sea which once covered half of Europe. In summer, it’s a magnet for active tourism, notably sailing; in winter, much of the lake freezes over, particularly at the placid southern end. The lake’s most famous attraction is Ludwig II’s Schloss on the island of Herrenchiemsee, an extravagant (and unfinished) attempt to re-create the palace of Versailles in a Bavarian setting. The best place to stay for exploring Chiemsee is the spirited lakeside town of Prien; it’s connected by rail to the mountain resort of Aschau im Chiemgau to the south, which makes an excellent base for hiking across the border into Austria.
The real reason to come to Prien is to get away from it, with plenty of options for exploring the lake area. Prien’s tourist office also has information on many other activities in the area, from ballooning over the lake to Nordic walking, paragliding, rafting and canyoning.
From Prien, a cycle route – the Chiemsee Uferweg – circuits the lakeshore for 60km, sticking close to the shore and in many places passing suitable bathing spots. You can rent bikes from Chiemgauer Radhaus at Bahnhofsplatz 6 (08051 46 31) or Fahrradhaus Prien, Hallwanger Str. 22 (08051 59 34). Numerous other cycle routes radiate from the shore of the lake into the surrounding countryside.
A route for hikers, the Priental-Weg, links Prien with Aschau, and there’s another relatively short hiking trail, the Uferweg Chiemsee, hugging the western shore of the lake to the north and south of Prien. From mid-May to early October, a hikers’ and cyclists’ bus (#9586) circuits the lake daily with a trailer to take bikes.
If you want to learn to sail, head for the Segelschule Prien am Chiemsee, Gladiolenweg 3 (08051 34 38, segelschule-prien.de), which offers two-and-a-half-day practical and theoretical courses at €195.
There’s also a very fancy beach, pool and sauna complex, Prienavera, right on the lakefront at Seestr. 120 (pool Mon–Fri 10am–9pm, Sat & Sun 9am–9pm; beach May–Sept daily 9am–8pm; pool from €4.50; 08051 60 95 70, prienavera.de).
Slotted into a narrow gap in the mountains between Oberammergau and Oberau and, if possible, even more improbably pretty than Oberammergau, the tiny village of ETTAL is utterly dominated by its magnificent Benedictine abbey, Kloster Ettal.
Kloster Ettal was rebuilt in its present, showily Baroque form between 1744 and 1753 by Joseph Schmuzer, who was required to replace the still-incomplete work of his fellow architect Enrico Zuccalli after the church was devastated by fire in 1744. Despite the overwhelmingly Baroque appearance of his work, bits of the old church were incorporated into the present structure – you pass through a fourteenth-century Gothic portal on your way into the church. The domed interior is quite breathtaking, with frescoes by the Tyroleans Johann Jakob Zeiller and Martin Knoller. After you’ve admired the church, you can stock up on carvings, candles, liqueurs and Ettaler beer in the abbey shop.
Tucked into a narrow valley some 11.5km west of Ettal, Ludwig II’s Schloss Linderhof was originally a hunting lodge belonging to Ludwig’s father Maximilian II. The palace was enlarged and re-clad between 1870 and 1878 by Georg Dollmann, who was later to design Schloss Herrenchiemsee. Unlike that palace, Linderhof was actually completed during Ludwig’s lifetime. It looks relatively modest from the outside, but the elaborate neo-Rococo interiors are anything but: the riot of gold leaf reaches a crescendo in the king’s staggeringly ornate bedroom, which is the largest room in the house.
The park surrounding the Schloss is delightful, and is particularly known for its fountains, which perform every half-hour from April to mid-October. There are several highly theatrical follies in the grounds, including the Maurische Kiosk (Moorish kiosk) and the spectacular Venus-Grotte, an artificial cave with a lake, fake stalactites and stalagmites, and a golden barge with cupid as a figurehead – all inspired by Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser.
The first – or last – stop on the Romantic Road is FÜSSEN, in a beautiful setting on the River Lech at the southwest end of the broad Forggensee hard by the Austrian border. The town is dominated by its Late-Gothic Schloss Neuschwanstein and by the impressive buildings of the former Benedictine abbey of St Mang, and is much the liveliest place in the district, with a compact Altstadt that fizzes with activity at any time of year.
No mere tourist spot, Füssen is also a garrison town, home to a couple of battalions of the German army’s mountain troops. With a direct rail connection from Munich, moreover, it’s the most practical base from which to explore the sights of the eastern Allgäu, including the royal castles at Hohenschwangau. It likewise makes an ideal base for hikers and cyclists, with an extensive network of walking and bike trails fanning out into the surrounding district, including some that cross the border into Austria.
The vision of the pinnacled and turreted castle of Neuschwanstein, perched high on its crag and rising above the mist, is perhaps the most reproduced of all tourist images of Germany, a Disney-like fantasy amid a setting of breathtaking alpine beauty. Neuschwanstein is not the only royal castle at Hohenschwangau: if it weren’t literally and figuratively overshadowed by Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, in the valley below Ludwig’s castle at the southern end of the village, might be more widely famous.
Standing on a low wooded hill above Alpsee, Schloss Hohenschwangau was a ruin when Ludwig’s father, Maximilian II, bought it in 1832 while still crown prince, and had it rebuilt in a prettily romantic neo-Gothic style. Ludwig II spent much of his childhood here, and it was here that he first encountered the legend of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight; the Schloss is decorated with frescoes on the theme by Michael Neher and Lorenz Quaglio. Schloss Hohenschwangau still belongs to a Wittelsbach trust, not to the state of Bavaria, and part of its charm is that it feels altogether more homely than its showy neighbour.
For someone who was so shy and reclusive in life, King Ludwig II has achieved remarkable and lasting popularity in death. Born at Schloss Nymphenburg in 1845, he had spirited good looks not unlike those of his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, and cut quite a dash when he came to the Bavarian throne in 1864 at the age of 18. Ludwig was fascinated with the French royal dynasty, the Bourbons, to which his own family was related. This developed into a fixation with the most illustrious of the Bourbons, Louis XIV, whose absolute power contrasted so starkly with the relative powerlessness of the Bavarian monarchy after its defeat alongside Austria in the 1866 war against Prussia. Seemingly overcompensating for this political impotence, the king retreated increasingly into an extravagant fantasy world, becoming steadily more eccentric and – towards the end of his life – rather corpulent.
He was a patron of Richard Wagner, whose fantastical operas fired the king’s own vivid imagination, and though he disapproved of Wagner’s anti-Semitism he continued to support the composer financially, even planning a lavish festival theatre to host the composer’s operas in Munich, which was to remain unbuilt. A political reactionary but at the same time a romantic, Ludwig devoted his attention to fabulous but ruinously expensive projects to realize his fantasies in built form: a castle straight from the age of chivalry at Neuschwanstein, a homage to the Sun King at Herrenchiemsee and an eclectic but breathtakingly opulent “villa” at Linderhof. Eventually his spending caught up with him, as foreign banks threatened to foreclose. Ludwig’s refusal to react to this crisis in rational fashion prompted the Bavarian government to act unconstitutionally, declaring him insane and removing him from the throne. He was interned at the castle of Berg on Starnberger See, where he and his doctor were discovered drowned in mysterious circumstances on June 13, 1886. Very shortly afterwards his palaces – which had been intensely private places during his life – were opened to the paying public.
If Schloss Neuschwanstein seems too good to be true, that’s no surprise. The most theatrical of all “Mad” King Ludwig II’s castles has its origins in his desire to rebuild an existing ruin in the style of the German Middle Ages. Ludwig was inspired by the recently restored Wartburg in Thuringia; his architects, Eduard Riedel and Georg Dollmann – who would go on to design Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee – worked from drawings by theatre designer Christian Jank. Work began in 1869, the castle was “topped out” in 1880 and the king was able to move into the (still unfinished) Pallas, or castle keep, in 1884. Ludwig chopped and changed the plans as he went along, incorporating a huge throne room that required modern steel-framed construction methods to make it viable.
The exterior of Neuschwanstein, in a sort of exaggerated Romanesque, is theatrical enough, but the real flights of fancy begin inside, where the decorative schemes are inspired by Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The Byzantine-style Thronsaal (Throne Room), inspired by the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, was intended to represent the Grail Hall from Parsifal and was completed in the year of Ludwig’s death, 1886. Ludwig’s bedroom is in a heightened Gothic style, with the king’s four-poster bed more closely resembling some fifteenth-century church altar than a place in which to sleep. The highlight – and peak of the king’s Wagnerian obsession – however, is the Sängersaal, or Singers’ Hall, which occupies the entire fourth floor and was inspired by the famous hall at the Wartburg that was the scene of the Singers’ Contest from Tannhäuser.
If you’ve not seen it on your way from the bus, it’s worth strolling uphill to the Marienbrücke after the tour finishes for the dramatic views down into the Pöllat gorge and across to the castle.
As the hyphen in its name suggests, the chic skiing resort of GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN was originally not one alpine village but two, which faced each other across the Partnach stream and were united in a shotgun wedding in time for the 1936 Winter Olympics. The Games were an enormous success – so much so that the town was slated to host the 1940 Winter Games after the Japanese city of Sapporo withdrew. In the event, of course, war intervened and the 1940 Games didn’t take place, but Garmisch-Partenkirchen has been on the international winter-sports map ever since, which gives the resort a relatively cosmopolitan air. Though any clear distinction between Garmisch and Partenkirchen has long since vanished, the two halves of the town do have sharply contrasting characters: Garmisch is lively and international, while Partenkirchen better preserves its original alpine charm. Looming over them both is the Zugspitze, at 2962m Germany’s highest mountain. In summer, the town’s mountainous setting attracts hikers and climbers.
To get to the top of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, take the Zugspitzbahn cogwheel railway from the Bahnhof Zugspitzbahn alongside Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Hauptbahnhof at least as far as Eibsee, where you can either stay on the cog railway, or else transfer to the dramatic (and much faster) Eibseeseilbahn cable car, which ascends nearly 2000m to the summit in ten minutes. If you stick with the train, you’re deposited on the Schneefern glacier on the Zugspitzplatt plateau below the peak, from where you complete the journey to the summit on the ultramodern Gletscherbahn cable car. At the summit, there’s a second cable-car station – the top of the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, which ascends from the Austrian side. There’s a redundant frontier post between the two stations. Descent back to the valley is via the Eibseeseilbahn cable car with a transfer to the cogwheel railway for the remainder of the return journey down to Garmisch Partenkirchen.
From November to April the Zugspitzplatt offers Germany’s highest skiing, with powder snow, a range of red and blue runs and spectacular views, extending in clear weather as far as Italy and Switzerland. For a brief period in midwinter you can also stay in an igloo hotel (iglu-dorf.com; €99 per person per night). In summer, there is a limited selection of short hikes, including one which crosses the glacier to the Windloch observation point, from which you have good views of Ehrwald in Tyrol, 2000m below. The descent on foot to Garmisch-Partenkirchen is only for the fit, and takes seven to ten hours, though many choose to break the journey overnight at the Reintalangerhütte (refuge operated by the German Alpine Association;00821 7089743; dorm or double €13 per person; half-board €20 per person).
Nestling at the foot of the Ammergauer Alpen between the distinctive peaks of Kofel (1342m) and Laber (1684m), the highly photogenic village of OBERAMMERGAU has achieved international fame thanks to the Passion Play, which depicts the life of Jesus and is performed by local people every ten years in a purpose-built theatre; it will be performed again in 2020. It has its origins in a promise by the villagers in the seventeenth century to perform a play if God would spare them the effects of the plague, which was then ravaging the region.
Smaller and less developed than its neighbour, Schliersee has a similarly sublime mountain backdrop and clear waters, but where Tegernsee has a sophisticated air, in Schliersee cows graze in the centre of the village. Dominating the lakefront is the big modern Vitalwelt spa complex, which contains a pool, sauna, solarium, whirlpool and water slides (daily 10am–8pm; €4.50 for 90min, €8 for 3 hr, Tageskarte €10). Boats of the Schlierseeschifffhahrt depart the nearby landing stage for 45-minute cruises to the island of Wörth in the centre of the lake (hourly; €5). On the eastern side of the village a cable car ascends to the 1061m Schliersbergalm (daily: 8.30am–10pm; €7 return, €4 single) for panoramic views over the lake; there’s also mini-golf and a summer toboggan run.
The Romantic Road reaches one of its highlights at STEINGADEN, which stands in rolling countryside 21km northeast of Füssen in the placid rural district known as the Pfaffenwinkel, or Clerics’ Corner – so called because of its numerous churches and monasteries. In most respects it’s a fairly modest country town, clustering around the Welfenmünster, a handsome former abbey church that preserves its Romanesque exterior appearance and cloister but is otherwise flamboyantly Baroque.
Fine though the Welfenmünster is, this is not the church that brings visitors from across the world to Steingaden. They come instead to see the Wieskirche, or meadow church, in the tiny hamlet of Wies 5km southeast of town. In 1738 farmer’s wife Maria Lory spotted tears coming from the eyes of an abandoned figure of a scourged Christ; the site became a place of pilgrimage, and two years later a tiny chapel was built to accommodate the flow of pilgrims. Sheer visitor numbers soon overwhelmed it, however, and so the present church was begun in 1745 to the designs of Dominikus Zimmermann. It was consecrated in 1754.
Though the exterior is handsome enough, nothing prepares you for the overwhelming grace and beauty of the interior – a vision of a Rococo heaven in pastel shades, with ceiling frescoes by Dominikus’s elder brother Johann Baptist, whose work also graces the monastery of Kloster Andechs and the Wittelsbachs’ summer palace at Nymphenburg.
The church is generally regarded as one of the pinnacles of the Rococo style, and it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1983. The church is busy with tour groups in summer, but it’s a magical (if freezing cold) experience to visit in midwinter, when you might just have the place to yourself. In the summer months it is also the venue for evening concerts.
With its crystal waters dotted with boats, beautiful mountain backdrop and neat lakeside villages, Tegernsee is a classic Alpine lake resort, the terminus of a direct rail link with Munich. It’s a chic spot, its upmarket status buttressed by smart hotels and a brace of 18-hole golf courses, though it’s also popular for cycling, with an annual mountain-biking festival in the late spring and a number of biking trails in the surrounding mountains. The lake’s obvious focus is the village of Tegernsee itself, which stretches along the eastern shore. Pride of place on the lakefront is taken by the Strandbad Tegernsee, a modern bathing complex that includes a beach, café and sauna (Mon–Thurs 10am–11pm, Fri & Sat 10am–midnight, Sun 10am–9pm; from €12).
A little way back from the shore is Schloss Tegernsee, a former Benedictine abbey which is now the seat of the ducal line of the Wittelsbach dynasty. You can visit the former abbey church of St Quirinus, whose airy Baroque interior is enriched with frescoes by Georg Asam. After a visit to the Olaf Gulbransson Museum you could hire a boat from Rixner by the Schloss-Café (€5 per person for 30min) or take a lake cruise with the Schifffahrt Tegernsee (Seestr. 70a; May–Oct 10am–6.30pm, departures approx. every 30min–1hr; €12.90; seenschifffahrt.de).
North of Mittenwald, the unequal twin lakes of Walchensee and Kochelsee are connected by a twisting, scenic pass across the narrow ridge of the Kocheler Berge. The 300m difference in altitude between the two has been used to generate electricity since 1924, and there’s a visitor centre at the hydroelectric power station, Erlebniskraftwerk Walchensee (daily 9am–5pm). Walchensee is the bigger and higher of the two lakes, ringed by wooded mountains and with enough wind to ensure it’s a popular spot for windsurfing and dinghy sailing in summer. Kochelsee is altogether less wild, the mountains on its southern shore giving way to a gentle, pastoral landscape to the north.