My travels in May 2012 involved a trip to speak at a conference in a place that I could hardly pronounce, and was only vaguely aware even existed. A bastion of Bavarian Germany in the Alps called to me, drawing me into an area of untold beauty that has been spending the past 60 years trying to shake it’s association with the evils of Nazi Germany. I was headed to the city of Berchtesgaden in a small sliver of Germany called Berchtesgadener Land. This city is a destination that possesses all of the trappings of amazing natural beauty; soaring mountain peaks, delicious Bavarian cuisine, and some of the best beer in Germany. Despite all of this, however, I couldn’t help feeling the constant chill of the vestiges of Nazi past here, and couldn’t help comparing the pictures I took to those taken by Nazi soldiers here who shared the same plazas, mountains, and vistas.
Despite the tainted history that the Nazi past imparted on this place, I can sympathize with the residents here who had little control over what became of their mountain paradise. Great efforts have been undertaken to ensure that this place does not become a Nazi shrine, and tourism efforts here focus solely on the natural beauty and the pre-WWII history. So, in the end, I discovered a paradise in the Alps that I would recommend to anyone, despite the history.
Walking around the city of Berchtesgaden is a treat; it is relatively compact, pedestrian friendly, and easy to navigate. The center of the city roughly corresponds to the fountain in the Marktplatz (Market Plaza), a delightful place to wander around, taking in the sights and sounds of Bavaria.
The squares and streets around the Marktplatz are packed with tourists in the afternoons and evenings, but you can have them all to yourself if you visit them early in the morning, as I did.
Just past the fountain in the Marktplatz and through an archway takes you to the historic Royal Palace (Königliches Schloss Berchtesgaden,) open to the public for tours and still operating as an official residence of the Bavarian royal dynasty.
The Bavarian architecture here in the city is everywhere, and can be found in nearly every building in the city itself. Quaint houses, hotels, and public buildings are scattered through the valley, and the place is a photographer’s delight.
Berchtesgaden is a fantastic place to view some of the complex and beautiful Lüftlmalerei (Bavarian three dimensional painted frescoes) that are painted all over buildings in the center. The majority of these Lüftlmalerei depict traditional Bavarian country scenes.
Look closely, however, at the Lüftlmalerei on the back of the Hirschenhaus near the Marktplatz…the scenes depicted there look normal enough when viewed from a distance.
Upon closer inspection, however, one can see that the scenes of ordinary life all have the faces of the humans replaced by apes or monkeys. This series of frescoes, often referred to as the ‘monkey façade,’ is the oldest non-religious Lüftlmalerei in Bavaria. The story I was told by a historian in Berchtesgaden was that the scenes were originally painted with normal faces to depict the lives of the family that commissioned the work, but were later altered by the original artist after the family refused to pay for the final cost of the fresco. If true, it would be a very interesting and unique approach for how to get revenge.
You can’t wander through Berchtesgaden without noticing the unmistakable presence of the third-highest mountain Germany, Mount Watzmann, which dominates the landscape in the town.
As you walk through the city and the surrounding areas, you are constantly greeted by the sight of this massive peak, which is actually a series of peaks, with some of the smaller ones affectionately known as Watzmannfrau (Watzmann Wife, on the left) and the Watzmannkinder (Watzmann Children, in between the two major peaks.)
Berchtesgaden’s Nazi Past
While it does its best to try to shake the image, it is nearly impossible to miss the historical significance of Berchtesgaden in World War II history, and it is not difficult to find vestiges of Nazi past. For example, the train station in town has a mural on it that depicts a Bavarian boy holding a Bavarian shield and hoisting a Nazi flag in his right hand. The Swastika in the flag has of course been removed, but the tiles were only slightly modified in the process. Take a look at the original fresco on the Berchtesgaden post office, courtesy of the site thirdreichinruins.com, to see how little has changed.
The train station, built during Nazi times, also includes other artifacts of Nazi past, including the Hoheitszeichen (Hoheitsabzeichen,) which was the Nazi symbol of an eagle holding a circular wreath containing a swastika. The Eagle and the swastika of this particular Hoheitszeichen have since been removed, but the circular wreath still adorns a doorway at the train station. More than sixty years after the fall of Nazi Germany, one wonders why this hasn’t completely been removed…
The stench of Nazi past is greatest in the complex known as the Obersalzburg, a military complex and retreat built for top Nazi brass. The buildings of the Obersalzburg, were clustered around Hitler’s original country retreat known as the ‘Berghof.’
Many of the original buildings were severely damaged by bombing during the last stages of the war and later razed to the foundations, including Hitler’s notorious retreat. Right next to where his house was, however, lies the reconstructed Hotel zum Türken, a house built in 1683 that was later converted to a hotel, sold to the Nazis, then repaired and returned to Hotel status once again, which it currently holds. I’m told that the windows on the far side of this hotel in this photo have the same view of the mountains that Hitler would have had, a chilling thought.
Beneath the Hotel lies some of the tunnels that were built by the Nazis as an air defense measure, and some of the tunnels can be visited as part of tours of the Obersalzburg today.
One of the more famous and prominent features of the Obersalzburg is the mountain site of the Kehlsteinhaus, often referred to in English as the “Eagle’s Nest.” This building was built as a present for Hitler’s 50th birthday, though he rarely visited the place. It is today one of the more popular tourist attractions in Obersalzberg, with the journey to the top on the mountain road and elevator system being one of the highlights of the visit, so I’m told. I was unable to visit having arrived a week before the beginning of the tourist season, but could easily spot the site from the city of Berchtesgaden itself.
Driving the Rossfeld Ring Road
Of real treat to any car (or bike) enthusiast is a ride around the Rossfeld Ring Road (Rossfeld Höhen Ringstrasse,) a toll road that climbs high up into the mountains on the border between Austria and Germany. I highly recommend taking a nice German made automobile on a drive down this road, as the views are stunning and the road is simply a delight to drive on.
Side note to this…the Munich airport generally rents some very nice and very new Bavarian-made automobiles given their proximity to the factories that they are made in. Every time I rent from Munich, I’ve ended up with a shiny new car…almost like they are trying to advertise their local wares. Since flying into Munich and driving to Berchtesgaden is the easiest way to get here, it’s the perfect opportunity to take that shiny car out for a nice run down this road, something I had the pleasure of doing while here.
Along the highest point of the road, you will literally be straddling the border between Germany and Austria, and my GPS showed me entering Austria just slightly a few times, though in this day of the Shengen Zone, it really doesn’t make much of a difference.
Berchtesgaden Salt Mines
The last attraction I was able to visit in Berchtesgaden was one of the most interesting stops of the trip. It’s the site of an active Salt Mine, and the tour itself is impressive and unique. You start the tour by donning miner’s clothing, after which you sit on an open-top narrow gauge railway car that immediately proceeds to whisk you and the other tour members deep into the tunnels of the salt mine.
I’m always a bit bemused by tours like this one when I compare them to their lawsuit-skittish equivalents in the States. There is simply no way that this type of tour would be allowed in Disneyland or another US attraction, as all one idiot would have to do would be to stick his hand out on the train, have it ripped off, and then the whole thing would shut down. But, here we are, shooting down a very narrow passage with encrusted salt whooshing by inches from our heads.
They did not allow any photos in the mine, but suffice it to say it was quite the experience. They even have you sit on these wooden miner slides to get from one level to another, a la “Chutes and Ladders.” My friend brought his two kids along with him and they had a great time…we all did, this place is highly recommended.
So what can I say about Berchtesgaden? Ignore the Nazi past, or at least acknowledge the historical significance of the place and move on to everything else the town has to offer. Berchtesgaden was an amazing place before the Nazis arrived and is continues to be an amazing place long after they left. The city has stunning scenery, great food, a pleasant population, and offers experiences like the salt mines and even other amazing places I didn’t make it too, such as the Königssee , a spectacular Alpine lake. I for one felt fortunate to be able to make it here, and can honestly say that it is the most scenic conference venue that I have yet to have the privilege to speak at! I hope that the conference organizers hold it again here next year as well, as I look forward to a repeat visit to this spectacular Alpine retreat!