Friday, January 23, 2015

Bavaria, Germany: Alpine scenery, majestic castles and a Passion Play

Aerial view of "mad" King Ludwig II's fairy tale castle of Newschwanstein in Bavaria  (wikipedia)
BAVARIA, GERMANY When it comes to exploring Bavaria in Germany, Munich is the ideal spot for as a base.

Dating to the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, Bavaria is the largest state in the country, comprising about 20% of Germany’s land area.

When the Holy Roman Empire was abolished by Napoleon, Bavaria became a kingdom in 1806 leading to a building binge that still attracts millions of visitors each year.

Hohenschwangau as seen from Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
With castles such as Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau and Linderhof plus lush Alpine scenery and the dozens of captivating historic villages, Bavaria is a traveler’s delight.

Bavarians are deeply independent. So much so that they frequently refer to themselves as “Bavarians“ first and “Germans“ second.

Traveling along two-lane country roads, the oval rococo Pilgrimage Church of Weis, or Weiskirche, in Steingadan is situated in the foothills of the Alps.

The story goes that someone observed tears on a run-down wooden carving called the “Scourged Savior“ in 1738. Almost overnight, Weiskirche became a treasured pilgrimage site.

Over the years, so many testimonials have been given by those who prayed to the statue of Jesus at the altar, that the church has arguably become the most important pilgrimage place in Germany.
The pilgrimage site of Weiskirche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site  (wikipedia)  
By 1740, the number of pilgrims had grown so large that the church had to be expanded. In 1983, Weiskirche became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has undergone two major renovations since. 

For nine years out of each decade, the quaint village of Oberammergau is relatively peaceful compared to the throngs of visitors who arrive in any year ending in zero. That’s when the world famous Passion Play takes place and, other than a few hiccups along the way, it has been faithfully performed since 1634.

Oberammergau's theater for its famous Passion Play  (wikipedia)
Fearful of the plague in the mid-17th century the people of Oberammergau prayed that their village be spared. In return, they promised to perform a Passion Play each year.

Before long, the site at the original parish church became too small to accommodate the massive numbers who wanted to see the play. Even more demanding were the logistics of performing the play each year, so the decision was made to do it every decade instead.

Today the theater is a permanent covered structure accommodating nearly 5,000 patrons. Unfortunately for the actors, the stage is outdoors and the show goes on rain or shine.

Berchtesgadan with a view of the Watzmann  (wikipedia)
Further south, about 20 miles from the Austrian border and the city of Salzburg, nestles the village of Berchtesgadan. The town is often closely associated with the Watzmann, which is the third-highest mountain in Germany.

The Watzmann is well known to rock climbers  for its East Face where there is also a beautiful deep glacial lake called the Konigssee.

Often the Watzmann is overshadowed by the Kehlsteinhaus, or the Eagle’s Nest, which was built in 1939 as a present for Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday.

Hitler spent little time there, however. In fact, even when he was at the Eagle’s Nest his visits were extremely brief.

Also of interest is the site of the Berchtesgadener Hof Hotel which counted Eva Braun, Erwin Rommel, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, David Lloyd George and Neville Chambelain among its guests.

The hotel became the victim of a wrecking ball in 2006, but there is a good museum at the location called Haus der Berge.
Ludwig's elegant Linderhof Palace  (wikipedia)
But castle hunting is the preferred pastime in Bavaria and King Ludwig II does not disappoint. Linderfhof Palace is the smallest of three castles constructed by Ludwig, but the only one he ever lived to see completed.

Versailles, outside Paris, was the inspiration for Linderhof because French King Louis XIV was Ludwig’s idol.

A bedroom at Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Though vastly smaller than Versailles, Linderhof has more than its share of opulence with a Hall of Mirrors, a Moorish Kiosk and the Venus Grotto, a luminous lake with changing colors and a golden swan-boat.

Ludwig’s crown jewel, however, was Neuschwanstein. Majestically situated atop a rugged hill overlooking Hohenschwangau Castle near the village of Fussen, Neuschwanstein represents the quintessential image of what a castle should be. So much so that it was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Intended as a refuge for the king, Ludwig died in 1886 before it was finished. Today it attracts more than 1.3 million visitors each year.

The music room, Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Architecturally Ludwig merged his passion for the music of Richard Wagner with his own romantic notions of medieval castles. Somehow when incorporated into the surrounding landscape where Alpine foothills blend with gently rolling hills, the odd combination of styles worked.

While his dream castle was under construction, Ludwig spent his days at nearby Hohenschwangau, the family’s summer residence which was completed in 1837.

Ludwig's dream castle of Neuschwanstein  (wikipedia)
Some say that Ludwig was “mad.“ Indeed, he was “crazy like a fox“ and Bavaria enhances the magic.