We left Murnau am Staffelsee, where the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter lived and worked, which had served as our base for several days. Our next stop was a two-hour drive to the east. A tiny part of Bavaria surrounded on three sides by Austria, Berchtesgaden National Park is an untouched and stunningly beautiful alpine region.
The area has a rich history, which includes royalty, writers, artists, and musicians, along with a well-known connection to WWII. Berchtesgaden was a Nazi retreat and the site of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Very little of the Nazi settlement remains today, but like most other WWII sites, it serves as a place of reflection and a reminder of what should never happen again. The region is also famous for its salt mines, which date back hundreds of years and were partly responsible for making nearby Salzburg a powerful trading city. You can visit the mines – the tour is supposed to be fascinating and is high on our list of places to visit – but with a day that was even more perfect than the previous six, we opted to head straight for the park.
When we arrived at the Königssee, or King’s Lake in English, the parking lot was already full, so we hurried down to the boat dock to buy tickets for the trip across the lake. Before long, we boarded an electric tour boat and were gliding silently through the water.
The Königssee is considered the cleanest lake in Germany and was easily the most pristine lake I’ve ever seen. The only boats allowed are the electric tour boats, so the lake is remarkably silent and still. Steep cliffs plunge straight down to the emerald green water, making it inaccessible, except by boat. Mountains ring the Königssee, towering over it majestically.
Halfway through the 30-minute trip to the church of Sankt Bartholomä, the boatman cut the motor, took out his trumpet, and climbed to the roof. He began to play, stopping after each measure so we could listen to the music as it bounced against the steep rock face. It sounded like 5 trumpets, and for a moment, it seemed there might be hidden trumpeters on the cliffs. The echo is hauntingly beautiful, and it sends chills down your spine.
Our next stop was Sankt Bartholomä (St. Bartholomew Church), with distinctive wine-colored onion domes. The church was built as a monastery in the 12thcentury, remodeled in the 16thcentury, and used as a hunting lodge by Bavarian royalty.
We opted to stay on board the boat, continue to the end of the lake, and visit the church on the return trip.
In ten minutes, we arrived at the small hamlet of Salet at the end of the lake. From there we set out on the easy ten-minute walk to the Obersee – or upper lake in English. A huge landslide in the 1100’s cut off the upper part of the Königssee to create the smaller and more remote Obersee.
Along the way, we greeted the resident alpine cows enjoying their summer pasture on the banks of the lakes.
In early October, the farmers bring their cattle back to land, crossing the Königssee aboard special wooden boats. Each cow is decorated with a magnificent headdress called a “Fuikl,” that has been handmade by the farmer. The annual event is called an “Almabtreib,”or coming out from the pasture, and is an old rural tradition in much of Bavaria and the Allgäu.
We followed a well-worn path hugging the rocky edge of the Obersee for about 30 minutes. At Fischunkelalm, an alpine hut that serves food and drinks, we stopped to rest, wade in the lake, and admire the stunning scenery. With a cloudless and windless sky, the lake was like glass and perfectly reflected the surrounding mountains.
On the return trip, it was getting late, so we made a quick stop at Sankt Bartholomä Church. After a short 45-minute drive, we were in Salzburg, just over the German border in Austria.
One of the highlights of our stay in Salzburg was seeing the city by bike. With its wonderful network of paths, biking is a great way to explore Salzburg. While there are many bike trips available, we ended up on a “Sound of Music” tour. Our guide quizzed us at every stop, and though we weren’t up to date on our “Sound of Music” trivia, the tour was a lot of fun and very entertaining. We rode through the Altstadt and then headed to the outskirts of town along the Salzach River, through meadows and down the tree-lined and traffic-free Hellbrunner Allee to the beautiful Hellbrunn Gardens and Palace.
Later, we visited Augustiner Bräu, Austria’s largest beer garden and a very popular spot. The brewery is located in a monastery at the foot of the Mönchsberg, a mountain in the center of the old city where you get some of the best views of Salzburg.
It is a bit of a hike, but worth the effort. When you arrive, you choose a beer stein off a large wooden shelf, rinse it in a huge stone trough nearby, pay the cashier, and give your receipt to someone who draws your beer directly from wooden barrels. As we wandered through the lovely garden outside looking for a table, a group from our bike tour earlier in the day noticed us and invited us to join them. We sat in the shade of the tall trees in the warmth of late afternoon enjoying frosty beer brewed by the monks, amongst a lively and friendly crowd.
The next day, we woke to rain, but it soon ended. Lee led an in-depth tour of Salzburg on foot before we left in the afternoon.
Our base for exploring Munich was Landshut, 45-minutes from the city by car and not well-known to American tourists. The city has a beautiful Renaissance town center, a medieval castle, and the largest brick Gothic church in Bavaria.
Landshut is most famous for the Landshuter Hochzeit – or Landshut wedding – a multi-day pageant held every four years commemorating a medieval wedding of the daughter of a Polish King to the son of a Bavarian Duke. When we visited, there was a much smaller festival taking place. We strolled the historic center enjoying music, acrobats, and mimes on a warm mid-September evening.
On the following day, the last day of the trip, we drove to Munich. Christiana led a walking tour of the city focusing on the city’s history, along with its cultural and religious background. We ate lunch in Munich’s famous fresh food market, the Viktualienmarkt, visited some of the city’s beautiful churches including the Frauenkirche and the amazing and eye-popping Asamkirche, climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Tower for a view of the entire city, took a stroll through the Hofbrauhaus, and arrived at Marienplatz, the main central square, in time to join the crowd waiting to hear the famous glockenspiel, a huge cuckoo clock with bells and life sized figures that perform daily. And those were just the highlights! It was a full day in Munich and a perfect place to end our tour.