Berchtesgaden

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. 

Berchtesgaden in the evening

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. 

The Eagle’s Nest can be seen on top of the mountain behind the town

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. 

A chapel on the hill above Berchtesgaden

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 plateau above Lake Königssee

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 the plateau near the Eiskapelle

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. 

The view from Lake Königssee
Advertisements

München through Munich 

The snow swirled unexpectedly in cold cotton drifts.  The German gods were having some Wagnerian pillow fight in the skies above Munich as Andrew and I took our first steps beyond the hostel wall. In other words perfect beer hall weather! 

Before that it was necessary to take the pilgrimage to Europe’s most over rated tourist attraction, the glockenspiel. 

   

Marienplatz was crowded with tourists all waiting expectedly as this marvel was to unfold above us. The glockenspiel itself placed into the neo-gothic architecture of the nues rathouse (an appropriate name for a building filled with politicians) looked down upon us, it’s mediaeval romantic figures carved from wood standing ready to begin the spectacle. Then at 5pm (well, about 5:07, no auto mechanism here, it’s all reliant on someone climbing to the top and flicking the on switch) the spectacle began. The wooden figures roared into a sudden flurry of slow motion activity, before two Knights one from Baveria and the other from Austria came charging toward one another at what can only be described as a grind of hooves. The bells beating out a tune, completely out of tune, were the perfect accompaniment  to this craptacular display of clockwork. The Bavarian knight triumphant in his victory over the Austrian, it seemed like all was done. But then out of a very predictable nowhere the cooper figures below the joust began their dance to celebrate the end of the plague that had once ravished Munich. When the tiny owl above the glockenspiel finally flapped his wings, as if to say “show’s over, move along”, an inexplicable cheering and clapping erupted from the crowd. My only thought on why this happened is, having suffered through the glockenspiel together the people of the Marienplatz would now not have to endure the performance again until 10am the following morning. That’s if the operator could be arsed climbing to the top of the Rathaus to torture the unfortunates below once more. 

If there is one thing to be said about Australians and Germans it’s that we share a common love of beer. Munich is the beer capital of the world and Andrew and I both understood that some heavy drinking was about to ensue. We started with the Mecca of beer halls the Hoffbrauhaus. 

  

It certainly lived up to its reputation for rowdiness and intoxication. The warm, sweet, cosy atmosphere as you wander in combined with the oom pah pah band playing leaves you in no doubt about where you have come to. The beer in its heavy 1L stein is sweet and gentle, like many of the Bavarians we have met along the way. We eventually found our way into the infamous festall, the beer hall in which Hitler announced the birth of the NSDAP and unveiled the swastika. 

  

Munich for all its fun and frivolity makes no attempt to hide the scars of its 12 years of national socialism. It is a sobering thought that Munich with its romantic cathedrals, jovial beer halls and Bavarian kitsch was the birthplace of something so terrifying as the NAZI party. 

In Munich we also found the quiet signs of German resistance. Munich is where a small group of university students known as The White Rose Society were beheaded for distributing Anti-NAZI pamphlets. 

Also a little lane with a thin line of brass cobblestones remains as a monument to those, who seeking to avoid having to salute a Nazi shrine to the 1923 beer hall putsch, were beaten or killed for this small act of resistance. The Putsch shrine was guarded by two SS men 24hrs a day to ensure that passers by saluted as they were supposed to, an alley behind the shrine meant that people could quietly slip by without saluting, a small but important act of defiance. I was told that being aware of the alley way the Gestaupo placed a man there to catch those who used the alley more than once a day. If you got off lightly you were beaten to a pulp or sent to Dachau, if the officer was just in a bad mood you were executed on the spot. Despite all this the people of Munich continued to use the alley. A very quiet, but in my opinion, very proud and German act of defiance, lending a touch of irony to the name of the lane, which translates as “shirkers alley”. 

  

The Brass trail is a monument to the German resistance of the Nazis

 

Andrew and I did visit Dachau whilst in Munich. I won’t go into great detail aside from to say, it is a place everyone should visit. Having passed through the horror of the camp itself, when you stand inside the little low ceilinged concrete box with its fake shower heads and feel the chill that seeps into your bones, you will know that if hell had a centre you are truly standing in it. 

Below are some photos I took in the camp. I offer no commentary on them, other than asking you to take a moment to look and reflect. 

  

         

 I felt changed in some unalterable way by my experience here. There was an almost “there but for the grace of God, go I” sense. Given my political viewpoints, my love of the arts and some (1/8th) Jewish ancestry it is likely that, if I were a German or invaded by Germans, somewhere between 1933 & 45, I would have found myself in such a place. I walked away feeling saddened, but so much more steadfast in my belief that all human beings must be afforded their dignity and rights. 

As has been said before Germans make no effort to disguise their past, but having acknowledged it and continuing to do so, quietly and respectfully they are able to enjoy those things that make Germany great. 

The people of Munich are extremely friendly. On our last night in Munich, we found ourselves drinking at the Augustiner Keller. If the Hoffbrauhaus is the Mecca of beer halls then a pint from the Augustiner Keller is the holy grail of beers! So popular that allegedly it doesn’t have a marketing department, Augustiner is seldom exported beyond German borders. Sitting beneath the  budding chestnut trees, we got talking with four of the local university students. We struck up an instant friendship as we discussed Australia and Germany and our many similarities. At which point the lights in the beer garden went to black and we found ourselves locked in! 

A quick limbo under the wooden gates though and we were out! It was then decided that no trip to Munich would be complete without a visit to the old town to ride the boar outside the gaming and fisheries ministry and to pay a visit to the statue of Juliet… As in Romeo and Juliet… There is nothing stranger in Munich than the statue of a shakesperian character gifted from Verona to a German city.  

Legend has it if you touch her breast you will meet a lover that night, but if you bring her a flower your love that you meet will stay with you forever!

 

 Though perhaps here a point. Food, language, geography may change, but people remain the same. All capable of horrors, friendship, love and getting locked inside the Augustiner Keller. It is possible for us all to find the common ground and see our past not as something particular to Australia, Germany or Turkey, but a shared past, a communal pool from which we must drink and together seek a brighter future. 

The Sublime and the Cynic

Every travel narrative should aspire to have one sublime moment, a moment when the traveller encounters something so beautiful – so vast and profound – that they are overwhelmed by the experience. The spirit soars and the mind boggles. Seeking such moments is the whole point of travel.

I admit that I was utterly cynical about Schloss Neuschwanstein. Built by the mad King Ludwig II, it has served little historical significance except as a drawcard for tourists and Disney fans. I’ve seen so many photos of it – in Spring, Summer, or Winter – that I didn’t think I could be impressed. I’m always wary of such obvious tourist traps. It’s just a castle, right? 

Just another castle, according to cynical Andrew

We started the day by catching the cable car to the top of Tegelberg, a nearby mountain that serves as a launching point for hang-gliders.  After a furious (yet obligatory) snowball fight, we spent some time admiring the view. The snow-draped Alps stretched to the horizon, under a blue sky that was a checkerboard of contrails. 

On the summit of Tegelberg

We descended Tegelberg and went on to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It was only as we got closer that I realised the position it commands. It straddles a hill in front of the mountains, so that no matter where you view it from – the mountains or the valley – it’s framed against a spectacular backdrop. And as we walked up to the door of the castle, I could no longer deny that I was captivated. Here was a unique piece of architecture – a kind of fairy-tale gothic – surrounded by the sublime majesty of the Bavarian Alps. Snowy peaks rise above it, a river cuts a deep gorge alongside it. I was converted.

The best views of the castle are from the nearby bridge, Marienbrücke. It was thick with tourists – the clicks of camera shutters could be heard long before we reached the bridge. And it was a battle to push through the crowd. I’m pretty sure I’m lurking in the background of a dozen photos. 

Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke

 We climbed a little higher than the bridge and, ignoring the numerous danger signs, emerged onto a precarious ledge that overlooked the castle. It was the best view yet, and we clung to the tree roots as we leaned over the edge. Here was the sublime in its purest form – a stunning mountain panorama, with the Alps rising high above us, coupled with the danger of falling to our deaths. I felt like a character in an Ann Radcliffe novel.  

Posing on the cliff’s edge

A hike along the river finished the afternoon. A hike in the Bavarian Alps on a sunny afternoon, with the last of the Winter’s snow still melting on the ground. Our trip has been so focused on history – on the two wars that have ripped this country apart – that it was good to finally appreciate the scenery. 

 

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past

Memory plays an important role in Berlin. It serves a dual purpose: to remind us of the past, and to prevent that past from happening again. It is embedded in the foundations of the city, where brand new bars and cafés exist alongside buildings that have survived two world wars. Monuments and memorials are scattered across the skyline. And on the streets, a double line of bricks mark where a wall once divided the world.

We arrived in Berlin on Wednesday night, amidst a freezing torrent of snow and rain, dazed and exhausted after the long flight from Perth. Berlin was our first stop on our long journey to Gallipoli, and it seemed like an appropriate choice.

 

Standing at the East Side Gallery
 

Berlin occupies a unique position in the history of the twentieth century. No other city helped to shape the events of that century – and was subsequently shaped by the events – than Berlin. It was here in the heartland of Europe that the feuds and alliances that inflamed the First World War were formed. And it was here, in the decade after that war, as Germany struggled to repay its debt, that the foundations of the next war were also laid. Berlin still bears the scars of the Nazi occupation of Germany – in many ways, it defines what the city has become. For almost thirty years, between 1961 and 1989, Berlin was the physical manifestation of the divide between East and West, as the two sides faced each other, sabres rattling, over the wall. And when that wall came down and Germany was reunified, Berlin was finally able to achieve the prosperity that it long deserved.

As students of history, it was easy for Garreth and I to lose ourselves in the past of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag building. Checkpoint Charlie. The Holocaust Memorial. The East Side Gallery. Everywhere we looked, history was beckoning. And since the reason for our trip is indelibly linked with that history, we felt an obligation to explore these sights and contextualise those events. Gallipoli is still far away, but the reason why Australia went to war can be traced right here to Berlin.

 

The Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
 

There’s no escaping Berlin’s past. It follows you around whether you want it to or not. It’s the big things – the imposing stretch of the East Side Gallery, or the field of rectangular monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial. But it’s also the small things. Shrapnel damage to statues. Old facades showing through fresh paint. Those eastern industrial districts that still don’t have the affluence of the former West.

But after a few days, the sheer number of memorials and museums we had visited began to blur into one. We were always looking into the past, always seeing Berlin through the lens of history, rather than focusing on the city that currently stands. I am reminded of a city from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one that is always looking backwards, never forwards, one that is entrenched so deeply in its own history that the present has ceased to have meaning.

 

Moonrise over Friedrichshain
 

It was with great effort that we pulled ourselves away from the tourist traps and tried to seek out Berlin of today. It wasn’t hard to find. It was visible in the back streets of Friedrichshain, where a blooming art movement has sprung up around the host of small bars and clubs. It was visible in the enormous number of cranes that dotted the horizon, the number of streets that had been cut open to lay new U-Bahn tracks. And it was visible in the people we saw – the smiling football fans on the train, the bartender at the Easter Markets. 

Perhaps that’s the greatest thing about this city – no matter how dark the past, new memories are being made every day. And it this wild melange of old and new that shapes Berlin for a new century.