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November 2002

Saline Solution

Berchtesgaden and Bad Reichenhall-plenty to discover even for the seasoned traveler

Once upon a time there lived a violent ruler named King Watzmann. He reigned over the high, snow-capped mountains of the Berchtesgadener Land and was infamous for the pleasure he took in killing: he hunted mountain goats, wild boar and game birds, but he took special pleasure in the suffering of his own subjects.

One evening around sundown, he was riding through the forest with his wife and seven children when he came upon a farmhouse in the hills. Espying an old woman and her granddaughter, the king rode over and trampled them with his horse. When the farmer and his wife came out of the house to help the hapless victims the king set his hunting dogs on them. With her dying breath, the old woman pointed up at the sky and prayed that the bloodthirsty king and his family be turned to stone. The earth immediately started quaking, the wind began to blow and the king and his family were all transformed into a huge, rock massif forming two large peaks and seven smaller ones. At the foot of the mountain a lake was formed from the blood of King Watzmann and his family.

Berchtesgadener Land, less than a two-hour drive southwest of Munich, is, of course, no longer the violent place depicted in its rich folklore. The region’s character is, however, still dominated by the 2,713-meter-high, double-peaked Mt. Watzmann, which presides over the region like a vigilant sentinel, and by its harsh climate. Likewise, Königssee, nestled in a valley surrounded by majestic peaks a few kilometers south of Berchtesgaden, has become something of a pilgrimage site for all manner of fresh-air friends, from weekend picnickers to mountaineers, from rowers to rock climbers. However, while many of the activities the area has to offer center around its rugged landscape and the pristine Berchtesgaden National Park, the towns of Berchtesgaden and, slightly larger, Bad Reichenhall to the north, each have corners worth exploring, as well as activities suited to the shorter days and unpredictable weather of late fall and winter. In addition, both towns are great base camps for some excellent cross-country skiing.

Bad Reichenhall, situated on the banks of the calcium-rich, green-gray Saalach River and overlooked by the Mt. Predigtstuhl, is a good starting point from which to explore the region. Although the town of 16,400 lacks the storybook charm of others in the area—a result of the devastating bomb attack in April of 1945—a walk through the tangled streets of the old town reveals plenty of interesting sites, many of which relate directly to the city’s centuries-old association with the salt industry. The first Celtic settlers of Bad Reichenhall, in fact, came in the sixth century to mine the “white gold” hidden in the rocky cliffs and forested hills that surround the town; the word hal is the Celtic word for salt. Not only did the salt ensure prosperity for the region, but it also meant that Bad Reichenhall was coveted by princes and bishops throughout the Middle Ages and was often fought over. In 1158 Duke Henry the Lion—who in that very same year laid the foundations for the city of Munich by building a bridge across the Isar River for the transport of Bad Reichenhall salt to other parts of Germany—elevated Bad Reichenhall to city status. Forty years later, however, Archbishop Adalbert had the city burned to the ground when residents refused to pay taxes on the salt won from the city’s mines—the first of four destructive fires. After centuries of fighting with the bishops of Salzburg, Bavaria finally took control of the city in 1587.

The final city fire of 1834 as well as the bombing of 1945 are what give the city its current, somewhat patchwork appearance, where older buildings compete for space with 1960s architecture. Nevertheless, the old town has its charms. Fittingly, the salt factory, a red brick and white-stone building, which was erected by King Ludwig I in 1834, dominates the townscape. The so-called Alte Saline no longer produces salt, having been replaced in the 1960s by a modern facility down the road. Instead, it has been transformed into a museum, which gives visitors an in-depth look at the history of salt production in the region. You can buy samples of the local salt from the museum gift shop. Unfortunately, from November until April, the museum is open only Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 pm to 4 pm. Also located in the Alte Saline complex is a glass-blowing workshop. Visitors can sit in the café next door drinking coffee or beer and watch as a wide variety of colorful creations are produced from liquid glass heated up to 1,250 °C. The finished products are displayed and sold in the ground-floor gift shop. Just around the corner from the old salt factory lies Florianiplatz, a quaint section of town that, untouched by fire and war, provides a look at the Bad Reichenhall of the 18th century and includes, somewhat incongruously, the city’s Irish pub.

While Bad Reichenhall is still the undisputed center of salt production in the region, its 20th-century transformation into a Kurort (spa town) has changed the town into something of a retirement community. The 22 natural salt springs located in the hillside behind the Alte Saline are used almost exclusively for salt cures in the city’s spas. Visitors can take advantage of saunas, massages and a wide variety of other therapies on offer. And after some relaxing treatment, a walk down to Café Reber in the pedestrian zone is in order. Covering most of a city block, the café is a modern-day homage to Mozart, a native of nearby Salzburg. Red and orange flags flutter from the building’s windows over red and orange awnings and this color scheme is repeated in the café’s interior. Cakes and chocolates wrapped in red foil fill every available horizontal surface. Even the courtyard in the back is thematically decorated: a statue of Mozart himself stands in the middle of a small fountain where oversized Mozartkugeln (marzipan-filled chocolate balls) dangle from the trees above his head.

Owing to its location at the foot of the dramatic peaks of Mt. Watzmann and Untersberg, many travelers to the Berchtesgadener Land choose the small town of Berchtesgaden as a base from which to explore the region. In the summer, hikers flock here to enjoy high alpine vistas, challenging rock-climbing routes up the Watzmann itself or just to take pleasant strolls through the hills above the town. Nevertheless, there is plenty to do for late autumn visitors as well. Like Bad Reichenhall, Berchtesgaden has a long history of salt production, and the Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden, founded in 1517, offers tours of the local salt mine, which attract over half a million visitors annually. The tour takes tourists deep into Mt. Hoher Göll on a mini railway for a look at both modern and historical salt-mining techniques. Those interested in the intricacies of salt mining, however, may find this outing a bit disappointing. It is more like a Disneyland ride than a learning experience and the running commentary given by the guide—very heavy on the technical details—is hard to hear over the echoing voices of visitors who prefer to chat among themselves. For children, however, a mine visit is a highlight. All visitors are required to don miners’ clothing and, once inside the mine, can choose to careen down long wooden slides on the descent from level to level. Smaller, off-season crowds are a huge advantage for winter visitors.

Salt is not the only important source of income for Berchtesgaden. Lumber production and wood-carving has also left its mark on the town.The Heimatmuseum, a short walk from the Rathausplatz, offers an interesting and informative look at the trade and, as an added bonus, is located inside the eclectic-looking Renaissance palace of Adelsheim. Unfortunately, the museum is closed during the month of November.

Spiritual seclusion rather than economic opportunity, however, is what the earliest settlers came for. In 1102, Count Berengar von Sulzbach built an Augustinian monastery where the Church of SS. Peter and John the Baptist now stands, although the first prior left when winter set in and didn’t come back for 18 years. Berchtesgaden remained in the hands of the Church for 700 years, quietly mining salt and metals, and avoiding most of the conflicts that beset Bad Reichenhall. The town couldn’t avoid the wave of secularization that swept Bavaria at the beginning of the 19th century, however, and in 1813, the salt mine was sold to the ruling family, the Wittelsbachs of Munich, and the monastery became a palace of Bavaria’s royal family. The palace has since been transformed into a museum and displays a collection of royal furniture, hunting trophies, porcelain and sculptures from the period of 1913 to 1933, when Crown Prince Rupprecht von Bayern lived there. When visiting, be sure not to miss the Romanesque monastery behind the museum. Built around 1200, most of the structure has survived undamaged for 800 years. The church next door, in addition to dominating Berchtesgaden’s religious life and, with two pointed towers, its skyline, is also currently home to an exhibition celebrating the town’s 900th anniversary. Owing to this exhibition all visitors to the church must unfortunately pay an entrance fee of € 3.

One monastery in Berchtesgaden was apparently not enough for the Augustinian order. From 1488 to 1519 a second monastery was built a few hundred meters away from the first. Now known as the Church of Our Lady on Anger, the monastery was given over to the Franciscans in 1699 and now, in addition to its religious duties, houses the information center of the nearby national park. Displaying a similar flair for excess, the Wittelsbach family was not satisfied with having two palaces in Berchtesgaden. In 1849 King Maximilian II, a passionate hunter, had the King’s Villa built less than a kilometer away from the original King’s Palace to serve as his own private hunting lodge. Regrettably it is not open to the public, but its Italianate architecture is worth a look from the outside.

It is Berchtesgaden’s more recent history, however, that attracts most visitors to the town. Adolf Hitler’s choice of nearby Obersalzberg for his mountain retreat has meant that the name Berchtesgaden has become, for many foreign tourists, synonymous with Germany’s Nazi past. As early as in 1923 Hitler chose the spot for his vacation home. After becoming Reichs Chancellor ten years later, the site was enlarged to become Germany’s second seat of government. Many other Nazi leaders also built homes in the area, including head of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring, Nazi architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Josef Göbbels. Parts of the tunnel and bunker system built to protect the leadership from air attacks can still be visited, but of the buildings, not much is left. A bombing raid in April of 1945 did away with many of the structures, and the remaining buildings were destroyed in the 1980s at the request of the American army. The single hotel that survived served as a leave station for American troops until 1996. Since the site was handed over to the Bavarian government, in the late 1990s, an exhibition conceived by the Institut für Zeitgeschichte has provided a multi faceted look at Germany’s World War II history. It is open year round, although only from 10 am until 3 pm in the winter. A few miles away from the complex, a steep road winds up the hill behind Obersalzberg and leads most of the way up the 1,837-meter-high Kehlstein—the site of Hitler’s infamous Eagle’s Nest. Dramatically perched atop a rocky peak, the final 124 meters to the teahouse are traveled in the original, brass-lined elevator through the heart of the mountain—a marvel of engineering when it was finished in 1938. The idea for the building was conceived by Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, as a 50th birthday gift for the dictator, and was constructed in just 13 months. Spared destruction following World War II, the restaurant that now occupies the building offers stunning views of the surrounding Alps. Don’t go there expecting a brush with history, however. There are no historical displays to speak of and Hitler himself visited the Eagle’s Nest only a few times. For those who don’t know visitors are required to park well below the elevator entrance and are shuttled up by bus.

After a busy day of exploring, Berchtesgaden offers a number of restaurants serving Bavarian specialties, including, especially during hunting season, venison and, of course, beer. The best place for the latter is Berchtesgaden’s very own Hofbräuhaus. No relation to Munich’s tourist trap, this establishment has been serving up a rich, tasty Helles for almost 400 years. And this year they have concocted a new beer called “900 Jahre Berchtesgaden” in honor of the town’s anniversary. After eating and drinking your fill, head over to the Bauerntheater. Founded in the late 1800s, Berchtesgaden’s “farmer’s theater” is the only one in Germany with a stage of its own and boasts a remarkably large repertoire. A different play is performed every evening, telling stories of some of the witches, robbers and knights who purportedly lived here. In addition, the actors design their own costumes and build their own sets. If you want to understand what they are saying, however, bring along an interpreter. All productions are presented in Bavarian dialect.

Berchtesgaden offers a huge variety of day trips, ranging from short hikes between the numerous guest houses that dot the hills to the 20-kilometer drive to Salzburg just across the border in Austria. One side trip is not to be missed, however. Tucked into a deep valley a few kilometers south of Berchtesgaden lies Königssee, a lake that recalls the fjords of Norway with its dramatic, rocky peaks jutting up from its shores. A ship plies its waters throughout the year, taking hikers to trailheads and pilgrims to the oddly shaped, two-towered Church of St. Bartholomew. Or you can just relax on deck and enjoy the views. After all, the lake is right at the base of Mt. Watzmann. You’ll need some time to scan the ridge high above for the crowns of all seven of King Watzmann’s children. HOW TO GET THERE: >>>By car: A8 direction Salzburg (140 kilometers—allow one and a half hours) >>>By train: Transfer in Freilassing for both Bad Reichenhall and Berchtesgaden. Takes about two hours. TOURIST INFORMATION: Berchtesgaden Tourismus GmbH Königsseer str. 2, 83471 Berchtesgaden Tel. (08652) 96 70, Fax (08652) 967402 Kur- und Verkehrsverein e.V. Bad Reichenhall Wittelsbacherstr. 15, 83435 Bad Reichenhall Tel. (08651) 60 63 03, Fax (08651) 60 63 11

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