The German Alpine Road
The Alpine Road, the Deutsche Alpenstraße, winds for 280 miles (450 kms) through the Bavarian Alps, from Lake Constance in the west to Königssee in the east, and traverses a unique landscape. But for many tourists travelling by bus from Friedrichshafen airport on the Allgäu-Walser-Express, their journey will end almost before it has begun, at Oberstaufen in the Allgäu Alps, one of the most famous health resorts in Germany. Spa holidays are a strong feature of German life. Around Oberstaufen alone there are 80 hotels offering ‘wellness’ and beauty treatments. Today’s luxurious spas have their origins in spartan regimes, and a certain rigour is still maintained.
After Oberstaufen, the B308 road leads past Immenstadt, through lush, green forests and pastures, with the 4,000-foot peaks of the Voralpenland (Alpine Upland) forming a guard of honour. It skirts the lake of Grosser Alpsee and continues to Oberstdorf, Germany’s most southerly village. Of some interest is the barracks at nearby Sonthofen. Built in 1935, it’s now a base for the British Army’s alpine exercises. Every year, 5,000 soldiers tackle a fortnight’s adventure training. What works so well for the military is also popular with civilians.
The Alps are an adventure playground. In Oberstdorf, for example, for £30 you can walk a high-wire 100 feet up between the towers of the ski-jumping arena where Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards famously came last out of 98 competitors at the 1987 Nordic Skiing World Championships. You can even emulate Eddie, if only from the smallest ramp, which in itself requires courage. Jumpers have to be capable skiers, with experience of pistes designated blue (for advanced abilities). A one-day workshop costs about £50 (Skywalk Hochseilpark: www.impulscompany.de).
The local massifs are a boon for climbers. At one of Germany’s oldest mountaineering schools, the Bergschule Oberallgäu, expert Bernd Zehetleitner teaches routes and climbing methods using secured ladders and steel ropes. A popular, fixed-rope climb is up the Hindelanger, along the Nebelhorn ridge, to the 7,300-foot high Grosse Daumen. It takes a day. Prices start at £33.
Another popular adventure is hiking from Oberstdorf to the Kleinwalsertal, or Kleinwalser Valley. The Kleinwalsertal is an oddity: strictly speaking, it belongs to Austria and is subject to Austrian law, but it’s administered by Bavaria, with a German customs and postal service (albeit with Austrian stamps). Historically, it was settled by the Walser, emigrants from what is now Switzerland, and women still wear old-fashioned black dresses and brown fur hats.
Sport of ‘canyoning’
The Breitachklamm (German only), possibly Europe’s most beautiful gorge, is another natural marvel. It’s deep, often narrow, and the tumbling waters of the Breitach are tempting for brave, or mad, rafters. Only slightly safer is ‘canyoning’ – tracing the course of the gorge on foot, often swimming or abseiling. As the natives of Oberallgäu say, ‘A moards Göude’ – ‘have fun!’ Canyoning is practised only in the Schwarzwasserbach area (www.bergschule.at, German only), which also has a bike park with ramps and seesaws for the more daredevil jumpers. Extreme mountain biking is very popular in Bavaria, but there’s also a lovely, easy 40-minute ride on flat, asphalt roads, from Oberstdorf along the Iller valley to Fischen. You can hire a bike for as little as £5 a day. Fischen itself, a pretty little place on the B19, is one of five beautiful villages in the Hörnerdörfer or ‘horn villages’, a few kilometres north of Oberstdorf and the Kleinwalsertal. Obermaiselstein and Ofterschwang are renowned for their pure mountain air and water, while Balderschwang – reached via Germany’s highest road, the Riedbergpass – is a favourite of skiers and mountaineers because snow is guaranteed there throughout the winter. In Bolsterlang, the fifth village, you can drink and snack very well indeed on mountain cheese. The Hörnerdörfer also have one of the longest toboggan runs in Germany, at a mildly terrifying 3 kms.
Back on the Alpine Road, head for the neighbouring health resort of Bad Hindelang, another important spa town (bad means ‘bath or ‘spa’). Spiritually and physically rejuvenated, the traveller can then permit him- or herself a little self-indulgence. There is only one place for this: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany’s leading ski resort, 80kms southwest of Munich, which sits at the foot of the Zugspitze, its highest peak, on the B2 road. The two towns joined together for the 1936 Winter Olympics, and have distinct characters; Garmisch is swanky and expensive, Partenkirchen a little cheaper and more traditionally charming.
Friends in high places
While Garmisch is fun, no one should leave without having ascended the Zugspitze, and the journey is an experience in itself. A cogwheel-driven railway, the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, takes you up to the top of the Schneefern glacier, where the Schneefern cable car will transport you to the summit, and then the Eibsee cable car, with spectacular views of the Eibsee lake, will bring you down again. But dress warmly; even in summer, a cold wind blows over the ice, and it can reach minus 30°C in winter. From the top, you can see Austria, Italy and Switzerland. You can also send a postcard from Germany’s highest post office – and you can even get married up there.
From Garmisch, the Alpine Road continues on through Oberbayern (Upper Bavaria) to Bad Toelz, past lakes where you can boat and fish, so bring your British fishing licence with you to show the officials.
End of the road
A few miles on, in the Chiemgau Alps, is Ruhpolding, famous for trout fishing and winter sports, particularly biathlons, the cross-country contest involving skiing (or running) while shooting at targets. The steep slopes above Ruhpolding are also good for hang-gliding and paragliding. For the less energetic, there are 40 golf courses in and around the town. But most visitors are attracted by the mountain paths, particularly the Nordic Walking trail along the banks of the Traun, past traditional mountain inns and all the way to the peaks of the Bavarian Alps.
You may see a golden eagle on your walk, soaring over Berchtesgadener Land, which is among Germany’s grandest landscapes. Berchtesgaden, which has a glorious national park, was once a state in its own right. There is a castle here, the Wittelsbach Schloss, which houses the collection of Crown Prince Ruprecht, son of the last king of Bavaria, who lived here until 1955. Berchtesgaden’s power and wealth came from its salt (‘white gold’), and the salt mine, the Salzbergwerk, can still be visited. Tourists, wearing special protective trousers, travel by wagon one kilometre deep into a great vault winking with salt crystals, and then further down, via a chute, to a black, underground lake, where a boat awaits to take you back to the surface by means of a lift and train.
It’s an experience as impressive, in its own way, as the peaks and crags, high above, on the Alpine Road.
Touristikverein Deutsche Alpenstraße c/o
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