Ah, the fine print of a cheap hostel. It was 11pm, dark and rain was hammering down as my wife, my sister and I pulled our gear from our hire car and ran for the shelter of the house-turned-hostel we’d booked to stay in Füssen, in the far south of Germany. The house was very quiet as we made it into the small entryway, except for creaking floorboards somewhere above us and occasional muffled voices from beyond closed doors. There was a landline phone and a number to call, whereupon the slightly annoyed male voice that answered announced that check-in had closed at 10pm, and our room had already been given to someone else (which, whether that last bit was true or not, I took as code for “I’ve knocked off, and there’s no way I’m going back out in that miserable storm just for you tardy latecomers.”)
Looking at the bottom of our booking confirmation it did indeed say that check-in time was until 10pm, which I probably should have paid a little more attention to than just the cheap price for a triple room when I made the reservation. And after working all day in Basel, picking up the car, driving across the north of Switzerland, rounding the Austrian end of Lake Constance, heading east into the German state of Bavaria and finally reaching the hostel by 10pm would have been tough even on a good day. But the treacherous driving conditions that began as soon as we’d crossed from Switzerland into Austria, where the windscreen wipers even at their fastest were no match for the viciously pounding rain, road markings became completely hidden and the chances of aquaplaning hovered somewhere between ‘certain’ and ‘whoops, too late’, meant I thought we’d done well even to make it for 11pm (though there was, I suppose, also the small distraction of a Playstation 3 with one of the Gran Turismo games in the McDonalds of our ‘quick’ dinner stop between Zurich and St Gallen, but never mind, eh?).
But to give full credit to the now off-site hostel bloke, he said he’d call a friend who we might be able to stay with as long their place wasn’t full, and some 15 or minutes later there were heavy thuds on the outside stairs and a kindly older man in a raincoat stuck his head in the entryway, and said “You are the three? You have a car? OK, follow me.”
The rain seemed to abate as we followed the man’s old Volkswagen Kombivan out of Füssen and along a quiet road into a neighbouring village to the north. When we pulled into a large old farmhouse there, the man’s wife was already at the door waiting for us. Together they welcomed us warmly and ushered us upstairs into a spartan but totally sufficient triple room and organised what time we’d like breakfast the next morning, even before we’d had the chance to ask how much they wanted for our very late, and very hastily organised, overnight stay. Though that wasn’t too much more than the hostel, and in the circumstances more than reasonable, which just goes to show that even the storm clouds that had thrown pelting rain down at us with some anger during the evening still came with a silver lining.
Morning revealed that our farmhouse room had an expansive view across the steel grey waters of Illasbergsee, sodden flat meadows and over to the base of the mountains that formed the border between Germany and Austria – though heavy cloud covered the peaks. And in the mountains, with the tips of its towers sitting just under the cloud as if gamely trying to keep the invading cumulus at bay, sat the hopelessly romantic structure that every bewitched visitor to Füssen has come to see: Schloss Neuschwanstein.
Growing up, we had a jigsaw puzzle of Neuschwanstein at home, a postcard quality snapshot of the castle perched on its narrow outcrop above an alpine lake, surrounded by the glorious colours of a northern European autumn. To a kid growing up in suburban Australia it seemed unbelievable that such a place could really exist, and when I found out it did, it became a childhood dream to see it beyond the cardboard pieces of the jigsaw. Both my sisters felt the same.
And so, in the first year I moved to Switzerland it was a dream I could happily fulfil with one of my sisters and our grandmother. Six years later, here I was again with my other sister – and in the years in between I had also visited with my wife. And even on this third trip it was impossible for me not to gape at the majesty of the castle as we approached it by car, especially so as it was now free of the scaffolding that had covered one side the last time Katie and I were here in 2009.
Despite its imposing location, Neuschwanstein is a castle that was never to be a defensible fortress. And, unlike a palace, it wasn’t intended to be opulently luxurious. What you’re left with is a plaything of pure fantasy, conjured in the late nineteenth century by a young and reclusive Bavarian king with a wild imagination and the wealth to make it happen.
After Carrie had finished her tour of the few crazy rooms inside the castle that were ever completed before Ludwig II’s mysterious death, the weather began to clear a little, which made spending a few hours admiring its magical exterior even easier. Last time, Katie and I had walked around the perimeter of Alpsee, the small lake behind both Neuschwanstein and the king’s boyhood family palace Hohenschwangau. This time, in the peak of the summer holidays, pedal-boats and small rowboats were available for hire and so, while resurrecting some of my rusty Sea Scout rowing skills, the three of us explored the lake and differing views of the castles that way. I remain totally spellbound by this stunning piece of Germany tucked away in its little corner, and I’ve got no doubt that King Ludwig’s medieval reverie will lure me back here again.
With the old town centre of Füssen itself also well worth a stroll around, we set off towards the end of the afternoon to the east. Driving parallel to the base of the Alps across the far south of Bavaria, we eventually left Germany for the Austrian city of Salzburg.
Austria in July really wasn’t being kind to us. After a very wet couple of days in Vienna the previous week, we emerged from our student dormitory turned hostel-during-the-summer-break in Salzburg to find more of the same. We had barely reached the edge of Salzburg’s fabled Old Town before dashing into a restaurant for an early lunch in the hope the rain would abate, but if anything it just got harder.
Looking through brochures for something to do indoors we soon decided that the only sure bet for staying dry involved going underground, so we set off in the car into the mountains just outside the city for the Hallein Salt mine. Exactly what was on offer here we weren’t totally sure, but judging by the wide smile on the face of a young girl in the promotional material, it looked like it might involve losing a couple of teeth. Perhaps she’d had to ask the Tooth Fairy for an advance, as the first thing I noticed when we got there was the admission price – almost €50 for the three of us. Still, we had nothing better to do (and we were dry), so in we went. After putting on white overalls to protect our clothing, what followed next was an uneasy combination of an educational tour of a former working mine, topped with the cheesiest entertainment you could possibly find in the Alps bar a fondue dinner.
First, a summary of the authentic: Entering and leaving the mine on a rattling miniature electric train as latter days workers did. Being led through mine shafts dating as far back as the ancient Celts while learning the ways in which salt was extracted through the ages. Whooshing down two steep wooden slides to go deeper into the network of tunnels (the source of the toothless girl’s brochure glee), as used by miners in the nineteenth century.
And the entertainment: A boat ride across an underground lake, accompanied by a gaudy multi-colour lightshow and melodramatic piped music. Re-creating the true discovery of the entombed body of a Celtic man by miners in the fifteenth century, with a dramatised representation of what the ancient man may have looked like at the time (complete with a suitably grotesque facial expression). Tales of mysterious noises caused by the changing draughts of circulating fresh air from the surface that led people to believe the mine was haunted – and by which I imagine could be the real origin of the Salzburg phrase “The Hills are Alive”*. Theme park style action photographs taken of everyone while on one of the above mentioned slides, available for purchase on departure (with prices steeper than even the angle of the slide itself).
But despite the gratuitous sexing-up of the mine complex, I was reminded of something important as a result of the tour. And that is, in contrast to today where our diets contain far too much of it, it’s easy to forget how for much of human history salt was an exceedingly rare and precious commodity. Though difficult to extract, vast fortunes were made from its trade, with countless wars waged and untold misery endured in the fight to control its supply. It seems just like gold or diamonds, salt was precisely the kind of resource over thousands of years that oil has become to us today. And once we as humans can somehow collectively shake our addiction to oil, the dirty politics and wars will simply move on to the next scarce resource deemed essential and therefore valuable. Water, perhaps? It’s a depressing cycle.
For Salzburg, which even owes its very name to the defence of its stocks of this commodity (literally Salt Castle in German), the opulent baroque Old Town that remains to this day certainly makes a statement about the vast riches that flowed into the city’s coffers because of the salt industry. Fortunately by the time we were able to return to the city it had cleared enough to take in some of the rich architectural legacy along both sides of the Salzach River, from the Mirabell Palace, the great squares of Alter Markt, Residenzplatz and Kapitelplatz and the views up to the imposing Hohensalzburg Fortress.
* There, I did it – the compulsory reference to The Sound of Music that each and every travel piece on Salzburg written in the last fifty years is required to have. I’ve never seen the film and, judging by the sickly sweet songs, have no intention to. Given that neither Katie nor Carrie were fans either, the rest of our time in Salzburg was mercifully guaranteed to be von Trapp free.
After having regarded Salzburg’s Old Town as a trophy from a previous age, we headed west into the mountains not far outside the city (and back in Germany) to visit a trophy from the more recent past.
Perched above the village of Berchtesgaden that Hitler loved to spend time in, the Kehlsteinhaus was built as a mountain-top Nazi retreat as a 50th birthday present for the Führer. But given how little time Hitler and his cronies actually spent up there (you can add ‘heights’ to ‘Jews’, ‘Christians’, ‘homosexuals’ and ‘a completely clean shaven top lip’ on the list of “Things Hitler Didn’t Like”), it’s funny how important its capture seemed to be to the Allies towards the end of the Second World War.
On this day the building dubbed by a French diplomat as ‘the Eagle’s Nest’ was certainly maintaining an air of mystery, with the swirling mist keeping it hidden as we rode the designated visitor bus up the narrow mountain access road. It remained so as we walked through the access tunnel into the mountain and into the wonderfully atmospheric brass and green leather lift. Though once inside the grey brick retreat which now operates as a restaurant, other than Mussolini’s gifted red Italian marble fireplace in the main room that still remains, there wasn’t too much more about the Eagle’s Nest that was all that interesting to me. I can only put that down to the fact that it wasn’t used much at all, and so its historical importance to the Nazis is implied rather than storied. It is, however, one of the few Nazi buildings in the Berchtesgaden area not to have been destroyed by retreating SS troops or demolished after the war ended.
While driving down Austria’s tail into the Tyrol province in the afternoon, summer made a welcome return. And it continued that way all the way until Innsbruck, where we spent a warm and still evening outside on the terrace of our small family run hotel, enjoying huge home cooked meals while looking down on the nearby city directly below and across to the illuminated Olympic ski jump sitting up on a hilltop above the opposite side of Innsbruck.
We spent the morning of our last day of the long weekend in Innsbruck’s Old Town, where the early 16th century Golden Roof balcony that faces out into the main square is a worthy centrepiece. I’d driven past Innsbruck a couple of times over recent years, but until now had never made the time to spend any real time here. As the regional capital for Austria’s most mountainous province its city centre was more modern and much busier than I was expecting, but I’ve got to say I still really liked it. Its location is enviable, in the base of a long valley carved by the River Inn and sandwiched between the Alps on just about every side, and seems like it would offer a happening city-based alternative to small ski resorts for powder hounds in winter.
Though if there is one country that I tend to forget has some Alpine charms of its own it’s Germany. We had taken a slight detour out of Innsbruck, heading north rather than west towards home, and happened upon the Walchensee area, a ridiculously picturesque clump of wooden chalets adorned with murals and brightly overflowing flowerboxes situated on a magnificent glacial lake.
But as beautiful as it was, I will always remember this idyllic spot for another reason entirely. It is here that I proved what I had previously considered impossible – there really is such a thing as too many Wienerschnitzels. In Vienna the previous weekend I’d powered through at least one per day, each golden plate-sized piece of breadcrumbed pork tasting as delicious as the previous one. And over the course of this weekend I’d had more than my fair share too, but today, for the very first time in my life, I found I had a limit which I’d just inadvertently exceeded. Fortunately I didn’t have the same reaction to apple strudel, my universal first choice of Austrian/German desserts, so my world wasn’t completely shattered.
The reason for our detour was to visit Blomberg, a small mountain outside Bad Tölz. Here there was a summer luge accessed by a ski chairlift and a gravitational rollercoaster which had just closed for the day when we passed by on the drive from Neuschwanstein to Salzburg three days previously, and all three of us were keen to give both rides a bash. The rollercoaster cars were especially fun when no brakes were applied, but the same could not be said of the much longer luge ride – in order to survive that without careering off the narrow track, slowing down for corners was necessary for surprisingly long lengths of the 2km run. Though this was taken to extremes by the grandfather of an extended family, whose ‘Code Slow’ approach to the ride on one of our runs meant he finished many minutes behind the rest of his relatives who had been in front of him, and caused a frustrated traffic jam of people crawling along at a snail’s pace behind.
Making sure we left Blomberg before that family (just in case Grandpa was driving), we turned to the south-west where Alpine peaks again loomed into view in the perfect afternoon sunshine. On crossing between Germany and Austria for the eighth and final time of the long weekend, the mountains crowded in much closer and our altitude climbed sharply. Austria almost saved its best for last, as we snatched tantalising glimpses of perfectly secluded aqua-marine lakes, closely protected by heavy woods that ran all the way down to their waterlines, before coasting down the other side of the quiet mountain pass and joining back with Tyrol’s main east-west motorway.
At the very western tip of Austria’s tail there was time for one more detour before returning to Switzerland, and that was to add Liechtenstein to my sister’s country list. Though it must be said that Liechtenstein feels more like Switzerland’s 27th canton rather than an independent country – there are no border controls between Switzerland and Liechtenstein (and the customs officials at the Austria-Liechtenstein border crossing we drove through were Swiss), all the road signs are Swiss, they use Swiss currency and, presumably, today was also a public holiday here in honour of Swiss National Day.
Liechtenstein also has a reputation for being a bit stuffy and boring (even by Swiss standards), though we cruised into Vaduz, in the shadow of the royal family’s hilltop castle that gave the capital its name, to find just about all of the main street’s restaurants open, and lively dinner crowds cheerfully packed together sitting outside, while their children played noisily and without a care in the world around them. And all this was on a Monday night, so perhaps I’ve been a bit too quick to write off Liechtenstein in the past.
We pottered around Vaduz until about 9:30pm when it got dark, and our drive back across Switzerland to Basel for the next two hours was accompanied by a continuously spectacular fireworks display. Never mind Liechtenstein, Switzerland too can be a funny place that completely confounds expectations – that all that efficiency, order and stiff regulation can be celebrated by setting off stashes of fireworks (freely purchased in supermarkets) out in fields, neighbourhood streets and public parks with such reckless abandon that it makes so-called ‘easy going’ and ‘laid back’ Australia seem like a repressed Nanny State. Even after six and a half years in Switzerland I’m still confounded by this. Depositing glass bottles at your local kerbside recycling area out of strict operating hours or not using the correct taxed garbage bags for your household rubbish can supposedly easily get you into trouble with the authorities (especially in the more rigid German speaking part of the country), but openly drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana in public seems to be as completely fine as setting off a substantial cache of pyrotechnics wherever you please on Swiss Day (and New Years Eve, for that matter). It all seems as preposterous as the idea of eating too many Wienerschnitzels – but then today I sadly discovered that’s no longer an impossibility either.