Berchtesgaden and the Watzmann

Travel after the pandemic #6: Berchtesgaden, Germany

War and peaks

We knew a fellow, an Englishman in fact, who once, standing amidst the magnificent mountain scenery of Austria, uttered the scornful observation that “Once you’ve seen one alp, you’ve seen them all”. We had him shot next day for naked cynicism and forgot about the incident until recently when we thought it would be opportune to visit Berchtesgaden again.

Berchtesgaden is actually in Germany but in that knob of southern Bavaria south of Salzburg that sticks into and is surrounded on three sides by Austria. To the casual eye it doesn’t make much difference anyway, because here the snowy peaks and lush meadows of Germany and Austria are interchangeable and offer equally stunning alpine surroundings.

It’s a magnificently beautiful area, then, perhaps one of the most scenic in the world, but also suffers the notoriety of once having been home to some of the most evil men in the world, in the form of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. Both sides of the coin can have considerable interest for the visitor.

We drive in via the motorways from Budapest to Vienna and Saltzburg, the latter less than 30 kilometres from the market town of Berchtesgaden, population below 8000. The economic mainstay there is tourism, courtesy the superb surroundings, including the mountains Watzmann (2713 metres), Untersberg (1973 metres) and Kehlstein (1834 metres), the breath-taking alpine lake Königssee, mountain-climbing and skiing facilities, hiking and saline baths.

The Watzmann is the “star” of the area as it towers above the valley and lake. Well-marked walking trails in and around the town cover every level of fitness and are ideal for connecting with pristine nature and exploring the spectacular Bavarian Alps. Half-day or full-day walks take in lovely meadows or challenging rocky ridges with glorious views.

Lake Königssee in the heart of the Berchtesgaden National Park is 7.7 kilometres long, a clear emerald green and absolutely silent, surrounded by towering rock cliffs and set in one of the most impressive landscapes in Germany. Only electric boats are allowed and during the crossing to St. Bartholomew’s pilgrimage chapel the boatman momentarily breaks the quiet by playing his trumpet, or flugelhorn, to lure out the famous Königssee echo from the steep rock face. The echo can be heard to reverberate up to seven times, and the trumpeter plays along with it so that there can seem to be as many as seven players.

St. Bartholomew’s is world-renowned for its baroque shape and wine-red onion domes. Its oldest parts go back to the 12th century. It was not until 1522 that it was dedicated to this patron saint of alpine farmers, herdsmen and shepherds. In the late 17th century the striking baroque towers were added. This solitary sign of human presence on the undisturbed lake is among the 10 best-rated tourist attractions in all Germany.

The Königssee sits at the foot of the imposing eastern wall of Mount Watzmann, and Malerwinkl, the so-called painter’s corner, is the only point easily reached on foot on the lake’s banks. The steep mountains surrounding the water forbid the development of any adjacent trails or roads, making it unique among Central Europe’s larger lakes. The Königssee is advertised as the cleanest lake in Germany.

Next to St Bartholomew’s is Luitpold of Bavaria’s former hunting lodge, where nowadays refreshment can be found. It is well worth boating on right to the end station of the lake at Salet. A 20-minute walk leads to the much smaller Lake Obersee where the view stretches across to the Röthbach Waterfall, Germany’s highest at 470 metres.

The Königssee lake area of Berchtesgaden was a favourite destination for Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun on a sunny summer day. Hitler’s home, the Berghof, sat in the mountain retreat of Obersalzberg, overlooking the town. Braun particularly liked a small waterside site where she practised gymnastics, as seen in photographs. The view is practically unchanged today. The spot near the base of the Königsbach waterfall, which forms a natural water tank at the bottom, and its remoteness allowed Braun’s family and friends to bathe in the nude, again as seen in photos.

Back to the town  for a moment, medieval landmarks at Berchtesgaden include the Stiftskirche, or Abbey Church, on the site of the 12th-century basilica, and the Royal Castle, which was originally the residence of the provosts who ruled the town from 1300 and later the summer residence of the Bavarian kings. It now houses a museum.

St. Bartholomew’s Church on Lake Königssee

A leading sight is the town’s salt mine, which goes back to the 12th century and where one of the 14-ton bronze pumps can be seen. The course of the brine pipeline can be followed on the beautiful hiking path from Berchtesgaden to Ramsau in Austria, all 60 kilometres of it.

Hitler began visiting the area in the 1920s, and he and his leading Nazis had retreats at Obersalzberg, which became the southern headquarters of the Third Reich. At the Documentation Centre, which opened in 1999, you can find out how the Nazi leaders terrorised their fellow Germans in the area with an offer they couldn’t refuse: sell your house to us. If you didn’t, you suddenly lost your job. Still refuse to sell? Well, we have these things called concentration camps.

Neighbours for miles around were bought out, including families who had lived on the mountain for generations. The owner of the Hotel zum Türken spent three weeks in Dachau before “agreeing” to sell. The hotel was severely damaged in the April 1945 bombing attack, being immediately adjacent to the Berghof, but has been rebuilt and is popular today, one of the few original buildings remaining.

Hermann Göring, Albert Speer and Martin Bormann had chalets here, with air-raid shelters, SS (Schutzstaffel) barracks and various installations. At Hitler’s Berghof, meaning “mountain farm”, his friends and the Nazi elite enjoyed the terrace and its sweeping view over to the Untersberg, straddling the Germany-Austria border, relaxing between the industrial-scale slaughtering.

In February 1938 Hitler compelled Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to accept the German domination of Austria at the Berghof. In September that year he met British prime minister Neville Chamberlain there for their first face-to-face talks on his demands on Czechoslovakia.

Hitler’s Berghof in 1936

The Berghof was destroyed in an Allied air attack in April 1945, and its ruins were levelled by the Bavarian government in 1952 and trees planted. The site is just a few minutes’ walk from the Documentation Centre and only a rear retaining wall remains. It is possible to wander the original bunkers under the Documentation Centre, bolt-holes for the human rats above.

The Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, way, way up on Kehlstein, is one Third Reich-era edifice that remains. It was presented to Hitler on his 50th birthday as a retreat and place to entertain friends and visiting dignitaries. Today it is open seasonally as a restaurant, beer garden and tourist site. It can only be reached by taking a special bus (or a strenuous three-hour walk) from the Documentation Centre to an elevator shaft set deep in the mountain.

The British had a plan, Operation Foxley, to smuggle in a sniper to pick off Hitler on his daily walk from the Berghof to his favourite teahouse, the nearby Mooslahnerkopf (again demolished), but didn’t go through with it because, for one thing, suppose somebody more competent took over the running of the war?

Here, in the invigorating air of beautiful Bavaria, the Führer could have been content with Eva Braun and Blondi, his German Shepherd, which would have saved millions of lives. It is all food for thought on a visit to the beauties of Berchtesgaden and the pathetic wreckage of the Thousand-Year Reich.

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