Below are entries from my travel journal that I kept during my year abroad. I’m dusting off my passport and heading back to Germany tomorrow for two weeks, and it made me think about my trip to Berchtesgaden:
Train: Würzburg to Berchtesgaden
Well, I find myself again on a train, heading into the deep south of Germany. I’m three weeks in to my semester break and when I was making my list of places to visit, I noticed that almost all of them were in the south of Germany. I want to see the north too – and at least I’ve seen Berlin and I plan on going to Dresden – but I just can’t help it; the south is just so beautiful.
This time I’m heading just about as far south as you can go and still be in Germany: Berchtesgaden. None of my friends had ever heard of it when I told them I was going. And that’s one reason I chose to come; it’s definitely not one of the top international tourist spots. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a picturesque town in a valley in the German Alps. The pictures I’ve seen are beautiful and there is a pristine lake, the Königssee. And I’ve always wanted to see the Alps, so I’ll finally get that chance. But of course, Berchtesgaden has a Third Reich history that’s also leading me there. It’s the town where Hitler had his private residence, the Berghof. The Berghof is now destroyed, but a smaller building, which was given to Hitler as a birthday gift, is still there: the Eagle’s Nest.
So, I’m excited to see Berchtesgaden, but I had been looking forward to, and am now enjoying, the trip itself. I’m finally taking a “Jake Trip” – a trip by myself. When I went to Nuremberg alone back in November, I loved it, so now I’m taking a three-day trip by myself.
I’ve now been underway for 4 hours and still have about 4 ½ to go. But I’m not dreading it; on the contrary. I’ve enjoyed every bit so far. I’m not on the slow, regional trains. I’ve already traveled part of the way on an ICE (Inter City Express, a “bullet train”). I’m now on an IC, one step down from the top-notch ICE.
The luxury aside, I’ve had (and will have) a lot of time to read. In the past week, I’ve essentially been a hermit – just staying in my room and reading. It’s been SO nice! I’ve already finished two books, and have brought two more with me.
Most people in my dorm have already gone home for the break, and those that are still here have papers to write; so it’s been pretty quiet.
Okay, even though the seat in front of me has a table that I can use to write on, the train is still wobbling and making it harder to write. So, I’m going to get back to reading…or maybe just sit and watch the landscape as we go rushing by.
Hotel Hoher Göll, Berchtesgaden
The first stage of this trip (actually getting here) went very well. The second phase (time actually spent in Berchtesgaden) however, didn’t get off to a great start.
It quickly became apparent, while still on the train, as we entered the region that the weather was not going to be the most cooperative. The mountains, which I had traveled so far to see, were completely hidden behind the low clouds. There was/is about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and that wasn’t going to be fun to walk around in.
But I was excited to arrive and got off the train with a smile. Uncharacteristically of Deutsche Bahn (the German railway company), their info desk in the Bahnhof was closed, so I made my way to a tourist info shop. I just needed to know which bus was the best to take to my hotel. A bulletin board outside caught my attention, so I stopped to read it. The first notice that I saw read: “Starting at the end of October, the Eagle’s Nest and the road leading there will be closed.” My heart sank and I frantically looked for more info. My eyes fell upon another notice: “Due to the lake freezing over, no boats are allowed on the Königssee.”
I couldn’t believe it! The three things that I came to see: the Alps, the Eagle’s Nest, and the Königssee Lake, had all been blocked in 5 minutes of my being here!
I was so flustered that, when inside asking for directions, I stumbled over my words so badly that the woman ended up speaking English to me. Then I realized that I didn’t have any cash to pay for a taxi or a bus ticket. So I had to walk what seemed like miles uphill into the Altstadt to find an ATM.
The whole time I was fuming mad. Mad at myself. First off, mad for not remembering to withdraw cash in Marburg. But mainly I felt stupid for coming here. I just felt so naively excited to come here, expecting magical, breathtaking views, that I never once stopped to think that I was coming during the beginning of March – still heavy winter here in the Alps valley – which meant that of course the lake would be frozen over. And given Germany’s tendency to be drearily overcast during the winter, I should have known that the mountains would be blocked from view.
Instead, I did what I always do: hop on a train with essentially no plan. And normally that works out for me. And I’m sure there was somewhere on the Internet that, if I would have looked deep enough, would have told me that the Eagle’s Nest was closed due to the winter. But as far ahead as I got was booking rooms and checking the weather. Luckily it did say that there’s supposed to be a little sunshine tomorrow; I sure hope so.
By dark, I finally found a taxi and was brought to my hotel, which is essentially a large bed and breakfast. It’s got about ten rooms and a married couple runs it. I ate in their restaurant downstairs and Oh my God was it fabulous! (Of course good food would cheer me up!) The decorations were great: all old wood, with old farm equipment and other things like beer mugs on the wall; it was all lit with candles and lanterns. The wife cooks everything herself and I had the house specialty: Spareribs. Yeah, I know, so traditionally Bavarian, right? But several people recommended them to me and they were Fantastic! The sauce was, of course, homemade and delicious, although it was definitely unlike any Southern spareribs I’d ever had before. They were served with warm bread and homemade garlic butter, a salad, and an ear of corn. I was given a knife and fork with the ribs (which seemed like half the pig!) and I thought “Oh no; they expect me to eat these with utensils!!!” But then the husband sat down another china plate with a moist towelette. “That’s for your fingers after your done,” he told me. Alright! There was my permission! Needless to say, I ate until I thought I was going to die.
And now, I’m up in my cozy little room, unwinding for the day. I still feel like I “wasted” a trip to Berchtesgaden since I came at apparently the most inopportune time (and had I checked it out further, I probably would have found out that summer is the best time to come), but I’m feeling a lot more optimistic now. Just because the Königssee is frozen over and I can’t take a rowboat out on it doesn’t mean that I can’t at least go see it. And the weather does call for some sun tomorrow, so just maybe I’ll get to see the Alps after all.
I just know that, even though the circumstances might not be the best, I’ll enjoy myself still by making the best of the opportunity.
Hotel Krone, Berchtesgaden
This morning I woke up, warm in my big comfy bed, and I thought to myself, “Well, it’s going to be easier to be optimistic today!” And then I pulled back the curtains to get a look of the day. Oh. The fog was so thick that I could see the road, and that was it.
I got up, got dressed, crammed all of my stuff into my backpack and then went downstairs for breakfast (which the wife of course cooked herself), even though I was still full from last night. Because of the bus schedule, I had to eat quickly, which I never enjoy. After that, I said good-bye to the owners, both of whom have thick Bavarian accents.
I put most of my stuff in a locker at the train station because I knew I didn’t want to lug it around all day. Since the fog was so thick that I could only see the base of the mountains, I decided to go to a museum up on the Obersalzberg mountain. The museum/info-exhibition was all about Obersalzberg/Berchtesgaden during the Third Reich.
The right bus didn’t come for another hour, so I headed up to Berchtesgaden’s Altstadt, which really could be called the Oberstadt, like Marburg’s, since it is literally over the rest of Berchtesgaden. After walking around a little while, I found a church and decided to sit in there until it was time for my bus.
Whenever I came out, I stopped on the sidewalk, but it took me a second for me to realize what seemed out of place: I was squinting. The sun was shining! I looked up and there was a big patch of blue, with the forecasted sun pouring through. I still couldn’t see the mountains, but a little sun was a good start.
But, in the 15 minutes that it took me to walk down to the Bahnhof, ALL of the fog had burned off and that’s no exaggeration.
And MAN, what a sight! Berchtesgaden really IS in an Alps valley! I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. It seemed so strange that the fog would burn off so quickly. Not being able to see the mountains yesterday and then having the sky open up like that was like opening a present…a really huge present!
I was grinning from ear-to-ear as I put on my sunglasses (something that I hadn’t done in a long time) and I wasn’t sure where to look first…so I just walked around in circles for a while, trying to take it all in.
The bus ride up the Obersalzberg mountain was intense; partly because I was still breaking my neck trying to see all of the German Alps around me; partly because the road was so steep, narrow, and winding.
The museum, or Documentation Center as it was called, was actually very good (and of course, free for students). It didn’t have the usual generic information about the Nazi Regime, but instead highlighted the particular Nazi connection to Berchtesgaden (especially Hitler’s act of choosing it to be his private retreat and 2nd headquarters of the Third Reich). The “finale” of the center was the fact that visitors could go down into the vast network of bunkers deep inside the Obersalzberg. Not all of the bunkers were completed, but you could still see where large generators, bathrooms, and communication centers were once located. It was damp and cool. It was strange being there, knowing that it was built to protect people like Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels.
After I finished in the bunker, I asked the Frau at the front desk if it was possible for me to see where the Berghof once stood. If the Eagle’s Nest was closed (which, as it turns out, was rarely visited by Hitler), I at least wanted to see the remains of the Berghof, Hitler’s large villa located on the Obersalzberg.
I was told that I could take a small path through the woods and I’d see a sign; it shouldn’t take but about five minutes. I was ecstatic because I thought I’d probably have to take another bus somewhere; I didn’t realize I was so close. So, I found the path, which was now trampled snow, and headed out. I had to be careful, because it was apparent that other people had taken the path, compacting the snow, and thus making it really slippery. I reached a point where most of the footprints stopped (all but two pair, it looked like).
With the next step, I sank up to my knee in the snow. As a reaction, I brought forward my other leg, and it too sank up to the knee. Not thinking, I put my arm down to push myself up. Of course, it sank and all I got was a face full of snow. Obviously, at that point I thought about going back. But I knew that I was over half way there, and plus, the snow was not wet, slushy snow like in Marburg or Berlin; it was dry, fluffy mountain snow.
So, I barreled my way through, trying not to sink, but to no avail. I stopped and rolled up my jeans, thinking I’d keep them from getting wet. Bad idea. Apparently snow on naked skin burns (something my raised-in-the-South-never-seen-snow-before upbringing didn’t teach me)! Every time I took a step and sank, the cold snow would just rake against my legs (Now on both legs, up to my shins, looks like I got a bad case of poison ivy!) Needless to say, I ended up putting my jeans back down and sacrificed them being wet for the sake of my legs.
The whole time, I just couldn’t help but laughing: yesterday I was some super-grouch, thinking I wasn’t going to see the Alps. And today, there I was knee-deep in snow, searching for some crumbled walls of a building that were probably hidden under snow. The whole situation was just so ridiculous! (Though, I like the German word for ridiculous, “lächerlich” which has its roots in the word “lächeln” which means to smile)
I finally found the site of the former Berghof and saw that it once had a magnificent view of Berchtesgaden below and of the other mountains across the valley. The only thing remaining of the Berghof were some foundation walls, and that was it. By that time, I was freezing but my shins were on fire. I finally saw the end of the “trail” and I wanted to run, but by that time I was sinking up to my thighs, so I just slowly trudged on through.
When I made my way out, I wasn’t real sure where I was (and I definitely wasn’t going back the way I came), and even after looking at my map, I still wasn’t sure how to get back to where I needed to be. I saw one building, but it said “Private Property” so I stayed away from there. I found a dry patch of ground (it had obviously been cleared for something), took off my shoes and sat down in the sun to eat one of the sandwiches that I packed.
I sat there, with the Eagle’s Nest up on the mountain behind me, for a while before deciding to try and find my way back. I knew it couldn’t be far, so I started walking down the little mountain road. Every now and then a car or a truck (once a bus!) would drive by and glare at me, as if I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there. After some winding, I finally found a bus stop and took a bus back down into the city.
On my journey down the mountain road, I noticed that clouds were starting to fill the sky. So, I decided not to take a break and instead head straight o the Königssee (Kings Lake). I knew I wouldn’t be able to take a boat ride, but I still wanted to see it while there was still sunshine and blue skies.
The bus ride there itself was memorable, but once I got off, I made my way down the street lined with shops and restaurants, and arrived at the mouth of the lake, and I was blown away.
Gigantic, rocky mountains towered over the icy lake on all sides. It made me feel miniscule; but not in a threatening or overpowering way. It’s just that I became awesomely aware of Mother Nature’s grandiose presence.
The lake was crystal clear – or at least the parts which weren’t covered by ice and snow. I would have loved to travel by boat down the mountain valley. I got to the lake just at closing time for the shops, so the chatter of people was soon replaced by the sound of ducks looking for food around the edge of the lake.
I will not try to further describe the lake and its surroundings, because I know that by trying to put it into words, I’ll be denying the reality of it. But I will say that it was one of the most deeply beautiful and awe-inspiring places I’ve ever seen in my life.
I quietly walked back up the street, not wanting to leave. But the sun had dipped behind the mountains and darkness was coming.
I made a stop at the Bahnhof to get my things out of the locker (and thought I was going to pass out after I smashed my head on the door) and then caught a bus to my hotel. Back when I was deciding where to stay, there were two hotels that I couldn’t decide between. So, I just decided to stay one night at each. This new room is nicer, and the view from the balcony (yes, I have my own balcony!) is awesome! Directly across from me is the Obersalzberg, with the Eagle’s Nest perched on top. And the mountains, of course, stretch all around, and I just stood there and stared for a while. I just had supper in the restaurant downstairs (Nuremberger sausages, sauerkraut, bread and beer – pretty German!) and now I’m dead tired. My legs are sore from walking/climbing, and they burn from the snow “attack.” My train back tomorrow isn’t until three o’clock, so I’ll have some time to really see their Altstadt. But I better go get some sleep and save up some strength. Gute Nacht!
Room # 229, Marburg
Well, I made it back to Marburg but am just too tired to write about today. The trip back from Berchtesgaden, though actually one hour shorter, seemed much longer than the trip there; I’ll write more tomorrow.
Room # 229, Marburg
Now, after a good night’s rest, I feel more like writing.
I’m glad that I got to have a full day of good weather on Wednesday because yesterday the weather got ugly again. But that’s alright; it gave me an excuse to stay inside cafés and bookshops all morning.
I had breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and then headed to Berchtesgaden’s Altstadt. It’s honestly not all that spectacular (I think I’ve been spoiled by Marburg’s Altstadt), but then again, people don’t go to Berchtesgaden for the architecture. The sky had returned to the familiar German dreary gray, and it was drizzling. I had five hours until my train and I spent it strolling around, stopping in shops where something caught my attention. (I somehow managed to go into a bookstore without buying something.)
Speaking of books, I’ve been reading Harry Potter in German the last few days. I finished the first one last week and was able to read half of number two on my trip. I chose that series to read in German because, since I’ve already read them, it’s okay if I don’t understand every single word (I also chose them because I just wanted to read Harry Potter again!). But I’ve been surprised at just how much I do understand. It’s so exciting to sit there, reading a book in another language. On Wednesday night I also read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I have to say that it’s a very creepy story. The way Stevenson writes is just chilling. I actually had to watch some TV before I went to sleep after reading it. Silly, I know, but the story gave me the creeps. It was an excellent book.
While the train ride to Berchtesgaden was the best trip I could have asked for, the train ride home was less than ideal. For the longest leg of the trip (Munich to Frankfurt), I was stuck next to three businessmen, all noisily typing away on their laptops and making phone calls. The train was full so I couldn’t move anywhere else. It was an ICE, however, so we were able to make the trip pretty quickly. At one point, the screen said we were going 300 km/h (187mph)!
So even though it was really too loud for me to get some good reading done, it did give me some time to think back on my trip. One of my favorite moments of the trip was on Tuesday when we neared Berchtesgaden. I noticed that my train had slowed way down and so I pressed my face to the window. My heart skipped a beat; we had reached the Alps. We had slowed down because the train had to start winding its way up and through the wooded mountain pass into the valley where Berchtesgaden was located. It was so exciting to be slowly going through snow-white forests with mountains all around. It was almost as exciting yesterday – except for the fact that I was leaving instead of coming.
I realized this morning that while on the trip, I only heard English twice: at the information center, and once very briefly on a bus. That was so different from the other places I’ve been, where you hear groups of tourists speaking English all the time. All of the tourists in Berchtesgaden were German, there to see the scenery or to go snow skiing. Something about only hearing German (even, or especially, if it was the thick Bavarian accent) made the town seem more authentic.
After being there, I can see why Hitler chose Berchtesgaden as his private retreat and second seat of power for his Reich. The town is quiet and small, today with a population just under 8,000. The Alps surround the town and allow you to feel removed from the outside world. The tie to Nature there seemed to be closer. So that would have appealed to someone like Hitler. But now I see that he didn’t just choose some place with a pretty landscape; he chose to be surrounded by massive, towering, seemingly powerful mountains. It makes me wonder if that’s the feeling that Nazi architecture was trying to recreate.
I’m glad I got to take that Jake Trip and see the things I did. Berchtesgaden is beautiful and I’m glad it was one of my stops during this year, while I’m leading this pampered life of an American student in Europe.
However, I’m glad that my next few trips will be with someone. It is great to travel alone and get some time to yourself, but it’s also great to share those moments with somebody. Because as much as I can tell people about the trip, it’s not the same as being able to talk about the view, or the taste, and hear how they felt, or what they were thinking.
So, my trip to Berchtesgaden was great, and I’m already looking forward to next week: ISTANBUL !!! (Read my post about Istanbul here.)