Monthly Archives: October 2013

Bavaria – Part Two

We nearly had a disaster the next day. Nearly, but not quite. The Hotel Muller obviously knew the routine. Eight o clock in the morning, sun shining, sky blue, scenery spectacular, and we were fully rested and replete with a magnificent Bavarian breakfast. A young hotel employee met us in the foyer and drove us by limo’ to the correct meeting place and dutifully put us on the bus. Except it was the wrong bus. Of course we didn’t know it was the wrong bus until it stopped at Füssen, the next town, and everyone else got off. The driver spoke no English, we spoke no German. We knew we were meant to stay on the same bus until Augsburg and felt very confused. Luckily I pulled the bright yellow itinerary out of my bag and the driver immediately nodded towards a bright yellow bus pulling out of the bus station on the opposite side of the road. He ran and flagged the vehicle down and we were duly invited on board. This was the right bus – the Romantic Road bus – and the driver was just coming to collect us (he had our names on his itinerary). He was furious with the hotel and rang them immediately (apparently driving while using your mobile phone isn’t frowned on in Germany). Well it could have been a disaster but it wasn’t. And as we were the only passengers that day to board the luxury, fifty-six seater coach we were treated to a personal tour.

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After Germany became a FederalRepublic in 1950 the country sought many ways of reviving its tourist industry. The idea of a romantic road wasn’t new, but allied soldiers posted to Germany in the aftermath of the war began exploring the region’s ancient towns and cities, popularizing the notion. Nowadays the Romantic Road bus travels the whole 350 kilometres everyday, south to north and north to south. You can book to board the bus without taking any overnight stops, or you can take a bike and cycle some sections, or you can take your time and stop as long as you like at any of the many interesting places along the way. I’d specifically booked our tour to fill the four days and nights before the figure skating competition began in Oberstdorf. And after a morning drive through picturesque countryside and right into the heart of medieval towns like Schongau and Landsberg, we arrived at our next overnight stop at lunchtime.

Augsburg was once occupied by Romans, almost certainly due to its strategic position at the confluence of two rivers. By the middle ages it had developed into one of the richest, most powerful cities in Germany. And due to this prosperity it also became one of the most cultured in terms of art, philosophy and architecture. We visited a couple of the city’s museums, all very fascinating but particularly the Martin Luther exhibition. Because Augsburg was a FreeImperialCity it barely resisted the notion of reformation and many of Luther’s pamphlets and books were printed here. There are many other gems tucked away, including the oldest social housing in the world – the Fuggerei. Jacob Fugger, who became banker to the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperors and Henry VIII, founded the ‘village’ in the 1520’s and it is still occupied, although it currently provides affordable homes for pensioners. Residents are still obliged to pay one guilder a year rent (currently 0.88 Euros), following on the original concept to help artisan families down on their luck. One famous resident was Mozart’s great grandfather (a master mason) and his extensive family. Consider how different Amadeus’s life might have been if his forefathers hadn’t been rescued from poverty? 

But this is really the kind of city where the best thing to do is find a place to relax and watch the world go by, preferably with a large cup of coffee. Next morning we boarded the bus in the forecourt of Augsburg’s art-deco railway station and began the most nostalgic phase of our journey.

When we first travelled the Romantic Road, in 1973, my husband and I were both studying at Art College and had little experience of foreign travel but my brother-in-law had just finished his first degree (Geography) at Cambridge and was about to begin his masters at Sheffield so we left all the planning (and driving) to him. Dave died suddenly last year (aged 61) so we felt this journey was a sort of tribute to the dreams we once dreamed with him. And Rothenberg ob der Tauber lived up to those enchantments. If you’ve seen the film Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang you will probably recognise it, because these are the streets where the evil child catcher searched out his prey. Nowadays every sturdy mercantile house is decked with flowers and lines of bunting and the cobbled city streets are packed with tourists. However, once you leave the main thorofares behind, you meet a quieter city, and it is both extraordinary and captivating.

A taxi collected us from the bus and took us through the labyrinth of narrow streets to our hotel. The front door being locked we rang the bell and after a couple of moments a lady dressed in traditional costume of red dirndl skirt and black tight-laced bodice wandered up the lane to greet us. After a brief introduction she handed us a key (which apparently opened every one of the hotel’s doors) and gave us our room number without even entering the building. Once inside we found our room, on the third floor, and although the winding staircase had warped dangerously after six hundred years of use we embraced the experience of staying in such an ancient building. It was charming and we couldn’t have been better entertained.

We did so much walking around the walls and streets of Rothenberg that afternoon the soles of my shoes wore out but it isn’t often I get the opportunity to experience a city locked in a virtual time warp and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

We didn’t meet the hotel’s octogenarian owner until next morning, when he was directing all his guests to eat a hearty breakfast. Bavarians take their food very seriously. After handing us a platter that contained enough cold meats and cheeses to last a week he told us that when we went home we would dream of this moment! And he was right.

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Taxi to the Top

Taxi to the Top

Squeezing in for a cosy ride.

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October 21, 2013 · 4:03 pm

Bavaria, Part One

 

We’ve just returned from a short holiday in Germany. I can see by the look on your face you’re wondering ‘why Germany?’ but when I say ‘Bavaria’ you may be more enlightened. We actually had two reasons for going, the first being that my son and his partner (pairs figure-skaters) were taking part in what could be said to be the most important competition of their lives in the South Bavarian town of Oberstdorf. But the other reason was rampant nostalgia, re-visiting roads first travelled in 1973 when, as impoverished art students, we toured Europe for eight weeks in a battered and ancient Morris Minor. During that visit our budget for the entire trip was £50 each, reason for much nostalgia because in 2013 that sum barely covered the cost of an evening meal!

 

I’ve always been wary of re-visiting the past because it disturbs the primary memories. However my husband had set his heart on touching those same places and to avoid the added stress (and the hassle of driving on the wrong side of the road) I booked us onto a self-managed tour for our first four days. It’s amazing what you can achieve on the internet these days, even in rural Cumbria.

 

The tour began in Munich where Oktoberfest, an annual festival that celebrates beer and everything Bavarian, was just about to

begin. I say BavarianImage with conviction because the first thing any Bavarian will tell you is that they are ‘Not Germans but a separate race with brown eyes and dark hair who have nothing in common with Germans’. Hands are solemnly slapped if you voice such assumptions.

 

That first morning after we arrived my main concern was locating the correct point of contact before our tour departed at 8am. Perhaps I should have been warned by the way the taxi-driver smiled when I handed her the address but it seemed half the population of Munich had come to that very same place that particular morning. As we joined hundreds of ‘foreigners’ clamouring to board a fleet of luxury coaches we were distinguishable because we had brought luggage when everyone else was clasping a mug of beer. Apparently we were the only people not looking to kill time before full Oktoberfest began next day.  

 

The party atmosphere on-board escalated as people began to socialise and it was clear that for these Americans, Canadians, Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, Chinese, Argentineans, Brazilians, Russians and Poles (some preferred to remain anonymous) seeing the Castles of Bavaria was entirely superflous. After an initial introduction the Bavarian tour guide gave up trying to make herself heard over the speaker-system and resorted to speaking to each member of the tour individually. It came as no surprise to find the bus driver was licensed to sell beer and by the time we made our first stop at Linderhof most occupants were too blissfully drunk to take an interest in culture or scenery.

 

We were ordered to be back on the coach by 10.45. Linderhof is a very small castle, renovated in Neo-Rococo style by King Ludwig II and invoking all his fantasies. We gathered some facts from the guided tour and ran back to the coach (having been threatened with abandonment if we dared be late) only to sit waiting ages while our guide tracked down the missing. A clipped announcement followed – anyone supping beer in local hostelries must be sure to settle the bill and return to the coach within the given time. The sombre silence lasted all of five seconds.

 

As the coach meandered along increasingly narrow roads and the soft rolling hills became snow-capped mountains there was a strong sense that we were abandoning the present for the past. This region has been the setting for so many myths and fairytales there is a sense of being locked in an enchantment. Local architecture helps bring those images to mind as the walls of many traditional houses are painted with murals depicting characters such as Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Bavaria is in the world of Grimm.

 

And this atmosphere of other-worldliness increased as we made our way to Oberammergau, home of the famous Passion Play. Performed by its inhabitants every ten years since 1632 as a way of showing their thanks for escaping an outbreak of plague, the town has become an important centre of Christian pilgrimage. Apparently the local brew is also worthy of pilgrimage and many of our fellow passengers decided to forego the rest of the tour in order to savour the experience. As our tour guide counted heads her manner seemed resigned.  

 

By the time we reached the village of Hohenschwangau the idea of entering a fairytale world wasn’t in doubt. Set on a spur of the dramatic mountains dividing Bavaria from Austria Schloss Neuschwanstein is so perfect it became the model for Walt Disney’s magic kingdom. Built in 1867 it was the stage-set for a very real Gothic tragedy because King Ludwig II had barely taken up residence when his government declared him insane and the very next day he was found drowned in the shallow waters of a lake. The verdict was suicide, despite Ludwig being a strong swimmer. Perhaps more damning was his doctor’s body lying dead beside him but it seems the truth will always remain a mystery. The famous castle is his epitaph and although never finished (his many building projects bled the treasury dry) each room had been crafted to encapsulate Ludwig’s love of myth, folklore and Wagner.

 

Barely a month after Ludwig died his family opened the castle to the public and it soon became one of the most visited castles in Europe, despite the long climb to the entrance. The narrow road winding up through the forest is quite magical and if your health doesn’t extend to a steep incline you can always squeeze onto one of the frequent horse-drawn carriages that plod to the top (any hint of the modern age is carefully manicured out of the experience).

 

It was our turn to abandon the tour. Our itinerary led us to spend the night in a pretty, geranium bedecked hotel in the heart of Hohenschwangau with sweeping views of the castles high above. Yes two castles.  Ludwig’s family, the Wittelsbacks, still live in the older fortification which sits on the opposite side of the village. And their castle can trace its foundations back to the Middle Ages. It seems however that the majority of visitors prefer the mystery and make-believe of Neuschwanstein to this square and practical Schloss. And the deeper you go into Bavaria the more you are drawn into believing its myths and legends.

 

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