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 Bavarian 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.