It’s not often that you cross a country border underground. Not legally at least. We were travelling from Stuttgart to Garmisch-Partenkirchen near the Austrian border where we planned to spend a few days. Due to the intransigence of mountain passes in ignoring man-made political boundaries, we crossed from Germany into Austria through a long tunnel under a mountain then, a few miles later, back into Germany. Both countries are in the Schengen zone so the border post building at the end of the tunnel was closed and abandoned.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a German ski resort in Bavaria. It lies near Zugspitze, the country’s highest peak at 2962 metres. Anybody hoping for a spot of skiing during the current August heatwave would be disappointed although there were patches of snow high on the mountain tops and in shaded ravines.
Garmisch (in the west) and Partenkirchen (in the east) were separate towns for many centuries and still maintain quite separate identities. Hitler forced them to unite in 1935 to prepare for the 1936 winter olympics. The International Olympic Committee was concerned that there were not enough hotel rooms in Garmisch so they were made, unwillingly, to combine and create a larger single town with more rooms. That they are still combined may say something about the Bavarian psyche.
We came out of the tunnel into bright sunshine. Rolling verdant green hills surrounded the high rocky snow-tipped mountains. Sparkling fast-moving streams ran alongside the road. It was all astonishingly beautiful. I half expected Julie Andrews to come over the hill singing ‘The Hills are Alive’, followed by a cow with a bell around its neck.
Imagine the joy in opening your curtains every morning and seeing that view. Unless it is raining. Or snowing. Or blocked by inconsiderate tourists taking photographs.
I will post the pictures later.
Madam gazed excitedly out of the car window and said “We must go to Austria on holiday”
I reminded her we were in Austria and on holiday.
We had an ear-popping climb along a long winding mountain road, followed by an even steeper descent into Garmisch.
I had a quick look at the Google just before we headed this way and Wikipedia tells me that ‘It has a relatively wet and snowy climate with high precipitation year round.’ True to form, it started raining soon after we checked into the hotel so I wandered round the lobby and obligatory gift shop seeking a diversion from the weather.
A poster announced that this weekend sees the start of the 63rd annual week-long Partenkirchen Festival. This is a popular event attracting large crowds. There is a certain tendency for those outside of Bavaria to consider the inhabitants somewhat dour and conservative. Perhaps a little insular and inward looking. I don’t want to be the one to blanket judge an entire culture, so I will leave you with the program of events for the festival and have you form your own conclusion:
Sunday: Bavarian Folk Night
Monday: Bavarian Dancers
Tuesday: Live Bavarian Band
Wednesday: Bavarian Folk Night
Thursday: Lumberjack Competition and Bavarian Band
Friday: Bavarian Band
Saturday: Live Bavarian Band
Sunday: Bavarian Folk Night
Monday: Bavarian Night.
I asked at reception about the Thursday attraction but the receptionist had never seen the lumberjacks at any of the previous years festivals. She told me that they are on their way to Switzerland and are just stopping to sharpen their axes.
Somehow, the thought of being surrounded by hundreds of ruddy-faced Lederhosen clad Bavarians waving beer tankards in the air and singing a rousing chorus of Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit didn’t appeal. I am reliably informed that the British army demanded the surrender of all accordions along with heavy weapons at the end of the war, but were overruled by the Russians and Americans.
There is a viewing gallery on a raised floor above the lobby in the hotel. There are a couple of comfy sofas and a few rustic wooden rocking chairs. It is up a tucked-away staircase and was empty. A perfect hiding place. I checked under all the sofa cushions for loose change (without success) then sat on one of the rocking chairs looking out towards the mountains and watching the rain.
Thin tendrils of mist slowly rolled through the evergreen trees perched precariously on the side of the hills. Higher up, solid cloud and mist completely obscured the mountains. Brightly coloured blue and red trains passed slowly in front of the hill. Damp flags were fluttering in the stiff breeze.
I’m never sure quite what to do on a holiday rainy day. Do you brave the elements, don a raincoat, and go out and explore anyway? Hide away in a quiet corner of the hotel with a book? Find a museum or art gallery? Get drunk in the bar?
I opened my iPad and checked the Google for German culture, lest I make some inadvertent social faux pas. One website, on the front page of search results, informed me that Germans wore Lederhosen, drank a lot of beer and spoke German. Useful information had I been of limited intelligence and visiting in 1756.
Am I getting old or did Google once give you useful and interesting results? Nowadays it seems, apart from the excellent Wikipedia, to be the same sites full of useless information interspersed with prominent annoying advertisements or affiliate links. One of our local newspaper websites has flashing vibrantly coloured ads between every short paragraph of an article. I have to scroll past half a dozen ads to read the entire thing. Half of the time there is so little information that I give up half way through. The internet now seems to be entirely focussed on making money rather than conveying much of anything useful.
I looked for things to do on a rainy day in Garmisch. The number one top attraction on Tripadvisor was Wank Mountain. The reviews were gushing:
‘I love Wank. Wank is the best.’
‘If, like me you like walk but are not used to a more vigorous hike then the wank is a great choice.’
‘It was a great way to spend a beautiful sunny day. Unfortunately, none of us wore sunscreen so we all have sunburn.’
Had we been here a couple of weeks later we could have caught the 2018 Annual Wank Festival starting later that month.
Purely for research purposes I did take a look at the Wank Festival website. All 1,000 priority tickets have been sold, so clearly this is a popular activity in Bavaria.
Who said Bavarians don’t know how to have fun?
It stopped raining a little after 2pm and we went into Partenkirchen. The houses and cobbled streets retain a traditional Bavarian feel. The central street, supposedly pedestrianised, had a steady stream of cars and bicycles. Souvenir shops, art galleries and restaurants lined the street. Elaborate murals decorated many of the shops and buildings. We looked into the souvenir shops but decided we had enough t-shirts, miniature Bavarian beer steins and tea-towels.
The chocolate shop, Chocolaterie Amelie, looked more promising. They manufacture their own chocolate and there was a large glass screen where I watched a young woman doing something mysterious with some molten chocolate on a steel table. It all looked lovely and reminded me of the chocolate shops in York. Who can resist a bar of chocolate on a damp afternoon? I looked around at the impressive displays. The cheapest bar of chocolate was €5.90. I decided I could resist a bar of chocolate.
Nobody in the town was wearing lederhosen although I could have bought a fetching set in my size for only €199 in one of the souvenir shops. I did see a couple of chaps wearing lederhosen at breakfast in the hotel. They were drinking beer so I suspect they were tourists that had read the same website as me and wanted to blend in. I think they were Americans.
Twenty-five miles an hour isn’t fast. A plane going that slow would fall from the sky. A car might be holding up traffic. A bicycle would be a little scarier. But still not excessive.
Now imagine, if you will, going at that speed in a plastic go-cart, close to the ground, down the side of a steep mountain for over 8,500 feet. Seventy-three bends and nine jumps. Thin wire-netting along the sides by the steepest drops which may, or may not, catch you if you fall out. How can that be scary?
We drove for a long time up a narrow winding mountain road. I’m not sure how I was persuaded – possibly the promise of a high-altitude cappuccino at the top – but we got onto a chair lift suspended from a suspiciously thin cable. We rose higher and higher for 15 minutes. The air grew colder. I was almost starting to enjoy it when it ground to a halt. The cable creaked. The seat started swinging gently. I looked down. It was long way off the ground.
In 2010 a 22 year old snowboarder, Dominik Podolsky, was stuck on a ski-lift in the Austrian Alps for six hours. He thought about jumping down but he was ten metres above the ground and would probably have broken both legs and frozen to death. He tried burning a paper tissue to attract attention. When this didn’t work, he moved on to receipts and business cards. Eventually, he was forced to burn banknotes from his wallet. Finally, on his last €20 note, he managed to attract attention and was rescued.
Of course, none of this went through my mind at the time. I just looked down at the ground and wondered if a double extension ladder would be enough or would they need to fetch a triple.
After a mercifully brief stop, we started moving again and eventually reached the top. It wasn’t a particularly high hill, around 1200 metres but the views were spectacular. Across the valley to distant mountain peaks. Nestled far below in the valley was the town of Oberammergau.
It is primarily a ski resort but the hill in August was packed with hikers, some of whom had walked to the top. Some, wearing sturdy boots and carrying impressively full backpacks were preparing to climb even further. The cafe was doing a thriving trade. There was a rope walk through the treetops that needed bright yellow helmets and sturdy safety harnesses. A short zip line and playground for children. And of course the go-karts.
I checked my seat belt. I checked it again. The operator checked it and said ‘Off you go. Just press that lever.’
I pressed the lever and off I went for 8,500 feet downhill.
I changed my trousers at the bottom.
Oberammergau is best known for its performance of the Passion Play every ten years. It was first performed in 1634 after a promise made by the villagers. They vowed that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague they would perform the play every ten years. The play involves over 2000 actors, singers, musicians and technicians. The villagers claim they have been free of the plague since its first performance. I’d prefer a large bottle of antibiotics personally, but whatever.
The village has a population of 5,415 and 5,414 are involved with running either souvenir shops or restaurants. The other resident is selling tickets for the 2020 Passion Play. Had Madam needed a cuckoo clock, some Lederhosen or a creepy Bavarian doll she would have been set. Fortunately for my wallet and bulging suitcase, all our souvenir needs had been previously fulfilled.
Like Partenkirchen, elaborate murals decorated many of the shops and buildings. Many were beautifully painted and must have taken skilled artists many hours of labour. See Instagram @gap_year_oap for the pictures.
We sat at one of the outside tables of a restaurant on the main square. Rather than rely on the translation app on my phone and end up with a pig testicle and rhubarb sausage, we asked for an English menu. Unfortunately, some of the translations were a little odd. Once we had eliminated the twenty-three different types of sausage there were only a couple of options left.
Madam ordered a ‘Cold Meats and a Bowl of Lard’ and I had the much safer Vegetable Rosti. Her’s turned out to be a correct translation and did include a large bowl of lard. Yummy. I was pleased I had the Rosti.
We had a look at the outside of the Passion Play theatre and a half-hearted browse around the souvenir shops. Since we only had a couple of hours in the town, we headed to the tourist office to see if we had missed anything. It was a Saturday and the tourist information office closed at 1pm.
There is a cable car up to Am Osterfelderkopf at 2033 metres (6670 feet) high. It costs an eye-watering €27 each for a seven minute ride. You can walk up the zig-zag paths but it would take a lot more stamina than I possess, and time that I had.
There was a cafe right by the cable car exit which was packed. We had lunch there, as far away from the accordion player as possible. The cafe had a captive market but I was pleased to see they had not taken advantage and their prices were not dissimilar to the restaurants in the town two kilometres below.
I walked a little further up the mountain, amongst the hardy walkers with serious-looking boots, nordic walking poles and backpacks. To go any further would have needed ropes and crampons and an annual subscription to Senior Climbing Magazine, so I was happy to sit for a while and admire the view.
Once I got to the furthest rocky outcrop away from the chattering tourists there was complete silence. I was above the treeline. No birdsong. No wind whistling through the treetops. If I strained my ears, I could hear the occasional distant sound of hiking boots scraping on rock. Once they rounded the corner there was nothing. Only silence.
Try this for me, if you will. Stop reading and listen. Concentrate on every sound, near and far. What can you hear? Cars on the road outside? Birds in the trees? A distant TV? A dog barking?
Unless we stop and listen, we tune out the background noises. They are always there in modern life. It isn’t until we are somewhere completely quiet – in a desert or on top of a mountain- that we realise how noisy our world has become. Maybe we humans need some noise. If, by chance, there is silence most people will turn on the TV or play music, or maybe quietly talk to a bird eyeing them suspiciously from a nearby rock.
There is only one bird that ventures into this alpine region, the Alpine Chough. An information board by the cafe informed me that these were social creatures that like to nest in large groups. This one was all alone which was why he was happy with my company. I told him all about the cable car ride and how I would almost certainly climb to the very peak of the mountain if I had only remembered some rope and my knees weren’t making a disturbing creaking noise. I mentioned that there might be some leftover food on the cafe tables. At the mention of food, he gave a little squawk and flew off. “Just follow the sound of the bloody accordion” I called after him.
Feel free to share this post using the buttons below: