After five nights in Munich, it was a relief to escape to somewhere less crowded. Our time in Munich can only be described as a Hedonistic divulgence in drinking and eating. Each night found us at the local beer hall, drinking the famous litre steins and devouring pork knuckles or curry wurst. I’ve never been so full in my life. So we were both feeling a little haggard by the time we left the city, and were looking forward to some time in the mountains.
Berchtesgaden is a picturesque Bavarian village hidden in the Alps. The mountains rise above the valley, rocky grey summits appearing to slash at the sky. Forests blanket the slopes, their trees changing colour as the sun dips towards the horizon. And even though it’s halfway through Spring, there’s still plenty of snow around: many of the roads above the town are still closed. This isn’t my first time to Berchtesgaden. I came here a few years ago and fell in love with the mountains and lakes. But for all of its beauty, Berchtesgaden is a town with a dark past.
Hitler was incredibly fond of the area, having owned property on the Obersalzburg mountain since the 1920’s. After he came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party began to occupy the Obersalzburg mountain, buying up property for party leaders and driving out the locals. In fact, Berchtesgaden was so beloved by the Nazis that it became their southern headquarters. German tourists would flock to Berchtesgaden in the hope of seeing their leader in his Alpine haunt. It was a valuable military target. An extensive bunker system was constructed beneath the Obersalzburg in case Berlin was lost. A fog machine built into the mountain could create a thick cloud that could hide the mountain from enemy aircraft. Most famously, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was built on the summit of the mountain. It’s still quite visible from the streets of Berchtesgaden, a grim reminder of the town’s past.
Berchtesgaden wasn’t bombed during the war, so many of the buildings built by the Nazis are still standing. The train station, in particular, still bears the angular lines and symmetry of Nazi architecture. Built in 1937, there are still recesses in the walls and above doors that once housed swastikas.
Berlin and Munich had been full of memorials and museums dedicated to the two world wars that had shaped the country – they offered insights into the past, along with the aim of preventing it from happening again. It some cases it was overwhelming, with the sheer number of casualties or the heart-reading stories of persecution and mass murder simply beyond comprehension. But in Berchtesgaden, we saw how a small community was impacted by war.
There’s no doubt that the people of this town suffered under the Nazi regime. The cemetery here is full of memorials to fallen soldiers from both wars. It was strange to see memorial plaques to soldiers who had fought for the Nazis. We’d spent the last couple of weeks being taught that the Nazis were the epitome of evil, yet here were their memorials, still lovingly maintained, with haunting epitaphs from grieving mothers who had lost their sons. In some cases, two or three brothers from the same family were on the same plaque. These children were so young; their boyish faces in the faded sepia photos knew nothing of the horrors of war. It was staggering to see how many of them lost their lives in April 1945, during the last weeks of the war. These kids didn’t look like the epitome of evil. They’d been caught up in the manipulations and oppression of a totalitarian regime. It brought home the fact that the first country invaded by the Nazis was Germany itself.
At night, the cemetery was lit by a field of red candles, forming rows of flickering light that flanked the dead.
We wanted our time in Berchtesgaden to be more than simply visiting the sites of past oppression. One of the highlights of our time here was the hike we did from Lake Königssee to the Eiskapelle (ice cave). Setting out from the shore of the lake, we climbed through Alpine forest up the side of a ridge. It was a crisp morning, with a few clouds breaking against the crest of the mountains.
The top of the ridge was covered with snow – sporadic patches at first, but soon becoming deeper, until we were trudging through calf-deep drifts. The plateau on the other side of the ridge was nestled between the mountains, and the biting wind rushed down their flanks, a remnant of Winter even in the middle of Spring. The snow was deep here. Our shoes weren’t made for this type of terrain. We could hear streams rushing beneath our feet, with the realisation that one misstep off the side of the narrow path could end in disaster.
The Eiskapelle itself was inaccessible, buried beneath the snow. So we stood on a rock at the centre of the plateau and watched the myriad small avalanches in the mountains around us. They sounded like the waves breaking on Cottesloe Beach.
On this remote mountain plateau, the only other hikers we encountered were also Australians. Typical! So as we descended down towards the lake, we shouted out the occasional “coo-ee!” and laughed when we heard their response.