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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Gruntensee to Bad Tolz

3rd March.
Gruntensee took some beating but it was time to move on, next up we had a look at Nessellwang, a larger ski resort with a huge winter stellplatz just across the road from the main lift. About 20 vans were parked up, looking like they had been there some time, but room for maybe 50 more.
As well as the main gondola/chairlift, there are two other chairlifts and 4 draglifts - mostly blues but a red and a black from the top chairlift.
One of the “TopPlatz” chain of stellplatzes
(http://www.top-platz.de/ ) (€6 a night, electricity €1 per kWh, GPS: 47.6200 N, 10.4972 E)

Still overcast and trying to snow, we moved onto Pfronten, another resort with a gondola going from the roadside station. Most of the runs are 1500m up from this station, including a fun park.
A very large car/coach park, but no sign of any motorhome facilities, though there are some further along the valley.
The cloud cover was almost down to the base station as we arrived and the gondola not moving.
(GPS: 47.5655 N, 10.5760 E) (http://www.skizentrum-pfronten.de/ )

Finally onto Füssen, an ancient town with its own castle, but also a good stopping off point for the great Bavarian castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein - the latter built by the “Fairy tale” King, Ludwig II.

Ludwig's family home, Hohenschwangau

Füssen Camper Stop is another TopPlatz, a well set up site on a commercial estate with free Wi-fi and a small restaurant. Aldi, Lidl and the garden/hardware outlet Obi are just yards away.
(€12 a night, plus €1 per 1.6 kWh, GPS: 47.5815 N, 10.7009 E).

4th March.
King Ludwig II, it’s safe to say, more than did his bit to lay a few foundation stones for the Bavarian tourist industry - though he did bankrupt the royal coffers in the process!

Born in the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich in 1845, he was brought up in Hohenschwangen Castle (built by his father Maximilian II), and went on to build Neuschwanstein Castle close by, as well as the Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee Palaces.

Only the Linderhof Palace was ever completed, and when the bankers pulled the plug on his overdrafts he was deposed and interned, though some accounts say he was certified insane by the government. He obviously wasn’t too happy about that and was found dead in Lake Starnberg (along with his doctor) a few days later. He was not yet 41 years old.

With the defeat and domination of his country by Prussia in 1866 (only two years after he became king), he had been forced to accept the role of constitutional monarch and retreated into his own world, indulging all his passions, and leaving a fantastical legacy of architecture and décor that almost defies belief.

Ludwig's unfinished fantasy castle (not our photo)

To give you a flavour of Ludwig’s approach to castle building: for the ideal design of Neuschwanstein he employed a scene painter from the Munich court opera house! He also sent his architects to copy all the bits he liked off other castles.

He was a big fan of all things medieval and oriental, Louis XIV of hall of mirrors fame, and best mates with Richard Wagner, composer of Germanic and Nordic operas.

At the same time he was an early adopter of new technology and had the first ever Royal Sleigh with a battery powered electric headlight (under a crown of course). He also went in for state-of-the-art central heating systems, electric call systems for servants and all mod cons in the kitchens.

If you are going to visit both castles we recommend seeing the smaller Hohenschwangau first - Ludwig’s childhood home. It’s pretty impressive anyhow, but sets the scene for the gloriously over the top and amazing Neuschwanstein.

The one thing that really sets Neuschwanstein apart from other baroque and medieval palaces we have seen, is that, inside and out and even down to the kitchen, it all appears brand new – which in fact it really is, as Ludwig only lived in the castle for 170 days before he was deposed. The castle was opened to the public a month and a half later! (http://www.neuschwanstein.de/ )

We would also suggest visiting off season, the purpose built ticket centre in Hohenschwangau is obviously set up to accommodate vast hordes of people and even the Green guide recommends allowing up to three hours queuing time in the summer. There are three lane electronic queuing systems at both castles, with timed ticket entry, which provided you can get the tickets make visiting both castles in one day a possibility. (http://www.ticket-center-hohenschwangau.de/ )

We were fortunate to visit on a clear sunny day, and we walked to both castles, but the buses to Neuschwanstein weren’t operating, supposedly because of the snow, and it’s a good stiff hike the kilometre or more up the hill - unless you want to indulge in a horse drawn carriage!

5th March
Woke up to sleet and rain, which didn’t give us the urge to go anywhere, but we needed to top up our gas if we were going to stay put. The girl from the restaurant told us there was Autogas just out of Schwangau at the Aral garage.
Just as we were preparing to leave we heard an air horn beeping at us and there was Vicky & Tony, fresh from a quick visit to Austria.

Attached to the Aral garage was a Rewe supermarket - at last a supermarket that didn’t follow the Aldi, Lidl, Netto model of inclusive flea market, and you could actually buy things like sweet chilli sauce, small tins of sweet corn and our regular toothpaste.

Later we talked all things motorhoming over a jar with Vicky and Tony.

6th March
We left Fussen Camper Stop in light snow, our next visit was to be the Wieskirche, a UNESCO listed, ornately decorated Pilgrimage Church at Wies.
By the time we arrived the wind had picked up and was drifting the snow across the road – we didn’t plan to be long!

When it comes to gold encrusted stucco and ceiling frescoes we have developed slightly jaundiced eyes after our long sojourn in Italy, but to someone seeing something on this scale for the first time it must be utterly gobsmacking. A coachload of Japanese school children who followed us in certainly seemed in awe of the interior.

Inside the Wieskirche

The gates to paradise are closed!

After lunch, it was only a few more kilometres to Oberammergau, the Bavarian village overshadowed by mountain peaks and world famous for its Christ Passion Play held every ten years.

According to our Bord Atlas, the Camping Park had a wohnmobileplatz where we could stay for €7. However when we arrived we were told that the platz was unavailable because it was covered in snow!! We would therefore have to stay on the pukka campsite and pay full price – or go to Garmish-Partenkirchen.

Under-whelmed by our reception, but mindful of the darkening skies and thickening snow fall we felt a fait-accompli upon us and parked up.

A walk into Oberammergau revealed a picturesque alpine village replete with shops selling wood carvings of very high quality and of every description, though most, unsurprisingly, were of religious images, so much so that we were reminded of other pilgrimage sites, like Fatima in Portugal.

After a look at its ornately decorated church that was almost a rival to Wieskirche, we soon found the Passion Play theatre. Guided tours of the theatre are held every day except Mondays, and combined tickets are available to give entrance also to the town museum (with a 500 year history of wood carving), and art exhibitions in the Pilatus House.
(http://www.passionstheater.de/) (http://www.oberammergaumuseum.de/ )

7th March
A fresh 10 inch carpet of snow greeted us in the morning and it was still chucking it down. Sue had decided she’d like to do the tour of the Passion Play theatre so we kitted up and walked into town.

There are no English speaking tours in the winter except by special arrangement so we joined a large German coach tour, but as we weren’t listening to the commentary the crowd didn’t matter so much.

The tradition of the Passion play began with a vow, made by the village elders during the Thirty Years War when a devastating plague swept Bavaria and killed 80 inhabitants of the village.
The epidemic miraculously came to a swift end and the village fulfilled its vow for the first time in 1634. In 1680 the play was moved to the start of each decade, hence the next one will be from May to October in 2010. (http://www.passionsspiele2010.de/ )

The play is performed exclusively by amateur actors who were either born in Oberammergau or have lived there for 20 years. Last time some 2200 of the village’s 5300 population were involved, 550 of them children.

The Passion Play Theatre

The current theatre site has been in use since 1830 and the theatre since 1930. Much modified and improved, the monumental appearance of the outside is, surprisingly, revealed inside to be based on a steel frame with timber walls. The actual stage is open to the elements at the rear and snow had drifted across the stage entrances. An atmospheric set, even without the actors.

The set for the Passion Play

Backstage, we were shown separate dressing rooms filled with costumes and many of the props. Inevitably, the more interesting ones were central to the performance - the hollow but totally convincing wooden crosses, the retracting blade spear used to pierce Jesus’s heart and the little canvas “Bosuns chair” harness used to secretly suspend him from the cross.

A crown of thorns and some large nails, not your average dressing room.

Seeking refreshment we ordered apple strudel and hot chocolate in the café opposite, later we saw the skies were clearing and made our way back to the campsite.
The receptionist was adamantly not ready to play ball when we asked for a reduction on our first nights stay because the stellplatz was not available. Her excuse was that it had snowed too much and they had nowhere to put the snow!
Seemed that it should be their problem rather than ours – if you ask for an advertised basic hotel room and they can’t provide it, you’d expect to be upgraded for the same price – not told you can pay up or go elsewhere!

Camping Park Oberammergau occupies a prime site and is probably already fully booked for the summer, so I guess they can afford to adopt a “If you don’t like it…..” attitude.
Still it jarred with the friendly, helpful and accommodating welcome we had received almost everywhere else.

8th March
Ludwig II’s Linderhof Palace was not far away, so we headed off in that direction. Linderhof is the only building that Ludwig entirely completed, and was his favourite residence. Beautifully set in a wooded valley, with sculptured terraces, gardens and pavilions, it is a sumptuous monument to his obsession with the Baroque and all things Louis XIV.

Linderhof Palace

His mirror walled living room gives infinite reflections if you stand in the right place - with a hundred and sixty candles on his priceless Meissen porcelain chandelier the effects must have been stupendous.

The piece de resistance however has to be his “Dumb Waiter” - in fact his entire dining table - which sank through the floor to the kitchen below, closing the hole in carpet as it did so, and later reappeared fully laid with his lonely meal for one.

The entire servant’s quarters are on the ground floor and the heat from their rooms was channelled up through vents in the Italian marble fireplaces to keep his rooms warm, without the need to have servants coming in to tend the fires.
I wonder how hot they had to get before he was cosy? Still, an intriguing early use of ducted heating.

Unfortunately the gardens and other buildings are not open in the winter, so I think it would be worth seeing this mansion in the spring, before the crowds get too dense. (Guided tours only of the palace, €6 each).

The car park was €3 and there is designated motorhome parking. Sue noticed that the ticket was actually valid for 24 hours and as we had the place to ourselves, amongst the trees, it seemed a shame not to enjoy it - thank you, Ludwig.
(GPS: 47.5691 N, 10.9539 E)

A tranquil overnight spot in Ludwig's grounds

9th March
We had a perfectly peaceful night and awoke to a sunlit winter wonderland again, courtesy of some overnight snow. I saw some palace staff around but nobody even came near to us.

Ettal Monastery was on route, so we stopped off to take a look. Founded in 1330 by the Duke of Bavaria (who was at the same time Roman Emperor of the German Nation) the legendary inspiration of its foundation is a marble Madonna brought back from a trip to Rome (though there were essentially more pragmatic reasons - particularly as he had fallen out with the Pope).

The existing domed church was built in the 18th Century in baroque style and the ceiling of the dome is decorated with a vast fresco of amazing scope and detail.

The Dome of Ettal Monastery

They also have their own monastery liqueur.

From Ettal it is just a short hop to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, situated at the foot of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak. It is the base for Germany’s largest winter sports centre and was the site of the 1936 Winter Olympic Games. (http://www.garmisch-partenkirchen.de/ )

We stayed at the Alpencamp am Wank, next to the Wankbahn lift (this lift only operates in the summer). For €14 a night, 2 visitors tickets are included, which give free bus rides around town, free entry to the swimming pool, plus discounts on cable cars, the ice stadium and museums. (Electricity 50c per kWh, GPS: 47.5047 N, 11.1070 E). (http://www.alpencamp-gap.de/ )

It is a 20 minute walk into town and in the early evening we wandered in. Admittedly it was Monday night but the town was conspicuously quiet.
Eventually we found the “Peaches” bar/pizzeria, which did have some life in it as it was half-price pizza night. Surprisingly it was full of Americans, but this turned out to be because there is an American forces base not far away.

10th March
Another grey, overcast day following an early snowstorm - not a day for admiring the view from the Zugspitze. So we moved on, Mittenwald was the next place we thought we'd have a look at.

Mittenwald is the quintessential Alpine village, with many beautifully decorated old buildings, a stunning church tower and a water pump in the street, all framed by the mountain backdrop of the Karwendel massif. (http://www.mittenwald.de/ )

Downtown Mittenwald

We found the well sign-posted stellplatz by the railway line, 5 minutes walk out of town.
A sophisticated new system is being installed here whereby you interact with a touch screen in the side of a hut by the entrance barrier and charge up your "visitor’s card" with credits to allow you to stay - or rather leave, via the barrier, and access water and electricity.
Despite all this high tech installation they still didn't manage to get the waste water drain anywhere you could drive close to it, and the price is going up from €5 to €12.50 - that's progress!
(GPS: 47.4377 N, 11.2640 E)

Mittenwald’s main reputation is as a centre for violin making and it still has a 140 year old school for violin makers. The Geigenbau or violin making museum (http://www.geigenbaumuseum-mittenwald.de/ ) covers the history of this craft going back to 1685, and the setting up of a violin workshop by master craftsman Matthias Klotz, whose statue resides outside the church.
We paid a visit and certainly learnt a lot we didn't know about making violins - one interesting fact was that the wood for the best violins has to be cut and seasoned indoors for 20 years.

11th March
Another snowstorm in the morning and for a while we thought we'd have to stay put. By midday, however it had eased a lot and I dug the van out yet again.

Our route was modified however when we got Wallgau, as the 307 to the Achenpass was closed, we suspect it only opens in the summer, there is a 4 ton limit as well.
Heading north past the Walchensee the rain instantly turned to snow again as we climbed, and we hesitated momentarily as the road in front turned white and the wheels began to slip. Another kilometre or so and the road was clear again.

It sounds obvious, but this delicate balancing act between thaw and freezing can produce some fascinating effects – whilst the icicles on the north side of the van are as hard as steel, on the south facing side, even on an overcast day, they can be just loose enough to remove, but turn your back and a little wind chill will weld them solid again in seconds.
Clean the windscreen with warm water on a sunny day and before you can wipe it dry it’s turned to ice.

It’s almost impossible to stop ice forming over the van during the night, and if the skies clear during the night the temperature will plummet, leaving wet snow run-off as ice over your doors and windows. The cab steps on our Rapido are a particular nuisance as they collect the snow, which accrues into a solid block of ice, preventing the cab doors from opening. If it’s three or more degrees below, no amount of de-icer or hot water will shift it.

You have to choose your moments and go with the flow of nature.

From then on it was an easy run to Bad Tölz, which offered us a deserted but muddy pitch by the river.
(€1 per 3 hours, water €1, no electricity, GPS: 47.7630 N, 11.5502 E)

A riverside stroll into town took us over the bridge and we spied an unusual lone Mandarin duck in amongst the Mallards.

The town is pedestrianised over its main street and has a good selection of shops including Intersport, six specialist bakers and even an Italian ice cream parlour.
On the way back after a drink in a dreary and deserted bar (the only one we could find) it chucked it down again and we returned to the van looking like mobile snowmen.
Two more vans had now come to join us, both German.
Vicky and Tony are the only other British van we have seen on the whole of this Alpentrasse route.

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