Through Meadows, Madness and Milking herds...
- Categorized in: October 2011
I suppose contrast is the essence of all good art. Light and shade, up and down, piano and forte, rough and smooth, strong and subtle, good and evil, simple and complex, ying and yang, heaven and hell.
In this particular story, we now have a short period of solitude, which follows the boisterous period of company that was just drawing to an end. Each is good in its own way and adds to the picture, but as a traveller, the better the company has been, the deeper the solitude is felt.
And so setting out from Munich on a fine Monday morning, I had a strong sensation of loneliness as I steered my way, this way and that, till I came upon the right road heading south. Lecka had been the last of my companions to see off. I helped him wrap up his bike inside a scraggy collection of pieces of cardboard and a splurge of packing tape. Off he went to the airport, and off I went to my destination for the day – the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein.
The beginning of a lot of green and blue
I’m sure most of you will know what it feels like to come to the end of an exercise session in the gym. 50 minute run, 5 minute warm-down, right? As I left Munich, I felt like the journey was already over – I just had a 1,500km, three-week warm-down to finish up.
The day’s ride took me through the woods that lie in a belt to the south of Munich’s city limits to the Starnbergsee, a lake some 15km long with sky blue water, surrounded by trees, with bright white sailboats tacking around its surface.
Turning west at the bottom of the lake, the road led me up into the woods and meadows and green fields so characteristic of Bavaria. The mountains rose up to the south in the afternoon haze. On their slopes light green cuts slicing through the darker green trees reveal where the ski pistes will be when the snow comes.
That way lies the little village of Oberammergau, whose inhabitants vowed to stage a Passion Play every 10 years in gratitude for being spared the effects of the bubonic plague which spread through the region in 1634. The play is still performed today, but only the villagers are allowed to take part – sometime 2,000 of them at a time. Covering many of the walls of its houses are frescoes of scenes from fairytales and religious stories or traditional Bavarian themes. This is European conservatism (with a small ‘c’) at its most colourful.
The edge of the Deutscher Alpen
Later on in the afternoon the road fell down again to the undulating grassy plain that creeps right up to the feet of the first row of German Alps. The road is named the Romantische Straße and you can well see why. Everything is green and soft and rolling, which the onset of the late afternoon light only makes more dreamy and wistful till the sun falls. If ever a land were to be ruled over by a prince in a fairytale castle, it must be this one.
Approaching Fussen and the Forggensee
I found out a good spot to stop for the night – a campsite on the shore of the Forggensee. Here representatives from the “soft underbelly” of European tourism, the caravaners, had established themselves, each in their own little plot, with lines of washing and cooking pots strewn out about them all over the place, each as round and shining as their owners’ half-covered bellies.
First glimpse of the towers of Schloss Neuschwanstein
After the protracted plundering of my wallet in the company of my friends the week before, I felt I needed to make better use of my “home from home” – the tent I had hauled all the way from Hong Kong which hadn’t seen much action in recent weeks. Nevertheless in Germany, a campsite can still skin you for €15 for the simple pleasure of using a 3m x 4m patch of grass.
From my little hillock, I could spy the grey towers and heavy red brick of the gatehouse of the Schloss Neuschwanstein, sitting surveying the land from the shoulder of the nearest Alp. Tomorrow I would go and explore this iconic extravagance of Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Dusk on the Forggensee
Poor old Ludwig. He sat on the throne of Bavaria for 22 years, from 1864 to 1886, and left his kingdom with some of its most characterful and recognisable buildings. But his enthusiasm for the music of Wagner, and for recreating romanticised versions of Middle Age castles was not shared by most of his subjects, and certainly not by his courtiers and ministers, who were keeping their eyes firmly fixed on the kingdom’s ailing bottom line.
First light hits the turrets of Schloss Neuschwanstein
While Bavaria went to financial ruin, King Ludwig insisted on pursuing a whole gamut of architectural projects, usually involving royal castle retreats with elaborate and fantastical turret arrangements.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria
Schloss Neuschwanstein is the most famous of these. Built as a homage to the composer Richard Wagner and his music, it was intended to serve both as a country retreat for the reclusive monarch, and as a venue for performances of Wagner’s operas. Ludwig was a long-standing patron of the composer, and would indulge in letters of such overblown flattery to him as to make even the vainest of artists red-faced with embarrassment.
View from Neuschwanstein castle
Nevertheless events conspired against the eccentric king, who was bold in his appreciation of the arts, but timid when it came to his responsibilities for state business. As far as his ministers were concerned, his building projects had to stop. Taking matters into their own hand, a faction of ministers had a panel of doctors declare Ludwig insane, and consequently unfit to rule. They planned to put his uncle Prince Luitpold on the throne as regent in his place.
Why couldn't they just get along like these two?
The conspiracy was pretty evident given none of the doctors on the panel had examined Ludwig’s mental health, and indeed only one of them had ever met him, nearly 12 years before. Instead, they reached their conclusion on the basis of hearsay evidence gathered from servants in his household. This catalogued a litany of bizarre behaviour, including moonlit picnics at which his young groomsmen were said to strip naked and dance; conversations with imaginary persons; sloppy and childish table manners; dispatching servants on lengthy and expensive voyages to research architectural details in foreign lands, and abusive treatment of his servants. Whether this amounts to insanity is hard to say. But if this kind of behaviour and a tendency to overspend means you’re mad, then a sizable proportion of our nation’s celebrities should be packed off to the loony bin tout de suite.
In its morning glory
Ludwig was certainly eccentric, but did this warrant his tragic end? On June 13, 1886, only 3 days after he was declared mentally unfit to continue his rule over Bavaria, he was found dead, face down in a couple of feet of water on the edge of the Starnbergsee along with the doctor, his nemesis, who’d declared him insane. Mysterious circumstances? Of course. Yet his death was declared to be suicide. But that doesn’t very well explain the death of the doctor, and there is other witness testimony to suggest that the two were murdered, possibly as the King tried to make his escape across the lake from his house arrest. What really happened remains very unclear.
View west to the Alpsee
Still, though thwarted in much he tried to do in his life, in a sense Ludwig has had the last laugh. His extravagant building sprees so despised by his contemporaries, in particular the unfinished Schloss Neuschwanstein, have brought millions upon millions of dollars worth of revenue into Bavarian coffers from the tourism they have created.
The many faces of Schloss Neuschwanstein
Does that make him mad? Or us tourists for admiring his fantasy?
An interesting question. But as I wondered about this, I was still happy to chuck in my 8 euros with the rest of ‘em.
Watching dozens of others do the same, I thought that actually Bavaria has a lot to thank him for.
Knocking out my sightseeing session in an extended morning – a beautiful crisp early autumn one as usual – I was quite late setting off to the southwest.
The next day and a half was to be a quiet, almost uneventful ride. Yet I was lucky enough to be passing through more sublime countryside in four different countries. Indeed, on a single day I found myself starting in Germany, cutting across a tiny sliver of Austria, spending about 20 minutes in the dinky little principality of Liechtenstein and then scaling a brutal wall of rock to get into the easternmost canton of Switzerland.
Mountains and meadows - Bavaria at its brightest
The southern boundary of Bavaria is breathtaking. I was following the Deutsche Alpenstraße, a continuation of the road that I had been riding further east with my friends the week before.
It was hard not to think of war films. Or one war film. Or actually one protracted scene in one war film. The iconic motorbike chase scene in The Great Escape in which Steve McQueen tries and fails to evade his pursuers across a landscape that must be every motorcyclist’s dream. He too was trying to get out of Germany and into Switzerland, only with the insurmountable inconvenience of a twenty-foot high barbed wire fence in the way.
As I sweated up hills and whizzed down valleys (occasionally reduced to a kind of heart-crushing appreciation of the exquisite scenery round about), I couldn’t help rethinking this scene, always mentally willing Steve on to make that final motorbike jump over the barbwire fence. “This time, he’s gotta do it,” is what you always think as you watch the scene for the umpteenth time. But of course, he never does.
And there were moments when I just had to stop by the side of the road and breathe in what I was seeing. To give myself the necessary time to absorb a landscape that speeding along on the bike wouldn’t allow. I could take pictures, but I knew it wasn’t enough. I wish you could have been there. To smell the shorn grass, and the hops on the air, feel the warm wind on your face, and gaze down the valley at this view that defied words.
I needed a poet or a painter – and I felt inadequate and humbled by the scene. Even my iPhone wasn’t up to this job.
Continuing on my way, I found I was wending along a route up and down over an area called the Bregenzerwald. By dusk, I ended up drawing up into another campsite just short of the Austrian border, where I seemed to be the only visitor.
After some woeful attempts at exercising my German linguistic skills, it was pretty obvious what I needed and what they could offer me, so everything was soon arranged.
The following morning, having slept well enough, everything was soaked with dew, and there were a few swirls of cloud clinging to the valley sides before the heat of the sun escaped over the eastern ridge.
I went up to the little café round the back of the main shower block to get breakfast. This consisted of no more than three or four Brötchen (little buns) and a cup of coffee, but it all seemed to set me up for the day very well.
As I was leaving I thought I’d try my hand at a little more German, and asked the good woman of the hostelry for “ein bisschen Wasser” in my water-bottle, which I understood to mean “a drop of water”.
She took the bottle to the tap, let it run for the splittest of seconds, and handed it back to me asking whether that was enough. She had filled it about two inches from the bottom. This was indeed no more than “a drop” inside.
It was then that I realised that English idiomatic understatement does not translate into German, however basic. I signalled that actually what I was after was a full bottle. To which she said in an exasperated flap, why did I ask for “ein bisschen” then? If I want it full, I need to say “voll Flasche bitte!” or something like that, meaning fill it up.
I went away chuckling at the beauty of German literality and English understatement. I think it reveals much.
Back into Austria briefly
The day that followed was a grand experience of bicycling. I think the photos speak better than anything I could say, but, aside from the remarkable scenery, there was something very satisfying about taking on the hardest climbs I’d done since…..hmmmm, Kyrgyzstan maybe?
The edge of Austria
A little corner of Liechtenstein
The road across...
...and out of Liechtenstein
The first Swiss flag
...and Swiss valley
Since all the Europeans who visit the mountain regions of southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan insist on telling the locals that their countries are very beautiful because they look like Switzerland, perhaps I should do my bit to break this Euro-centric worldview and say, Switzerland is beautiful because it reminds one of the peaks and valleys of Central Asia. If only there the buses ran on time, and every cow wore a cowbell, then who could tell the difference? But these are mere details.
Off to make some chocolate
Faced with this challenge, my indefatigable thighs and my OCD both served admirably to get me up and over into Switzerland from the flat bottom of the Liechtensteiner valley. Instead of leg-strokes up to 20, I was counting up to 1,400 strokes before I would take a little break and then start again. By the time I’d done this a second time to get myself over the watershed into the Lake Zurich basin, I was feeling like I’d earned my supper.
Lake Zurich - looking north and west
I was heading for the little lakeside town of Wollerau on the southwest corner of the bend in the Zürichsee. Here I was going to stay with an excellent old friend called David, who used to thrash up and down in rowing boats with me at university, before we moved on to the more convivial occupation of chasing around town.
The richest lake in the world?
We eventually met up in the little bar under his elegant flat which overlooks the lake. He has taken on a frightening amount of responsibility (it seems to me), having assumed the role of CEO of a sizable engineering empire at the ripe old age of 33. Still, after nearly 3 years, he seems to coping with it all admirably.
This opportunity to catch up with Dave proved once more that time and distance take nothing from a solid friendship, and we talked and laughed long into the night.
In the morning, he took off early to work leaving me to set off in my own time, to run out the last 28km into the centre of Zurich, along the opulent lakeside, surely populated by some of the richest communities in Europe.
The northwestern end of the lake
It was election time in Switzerland while I was there. The roads throughout the country were lined with regular smatterings of placards, encouraging me to vote for egregious-looking individuals from a bewildering array of political parties. The politically-alluring smile is obviously a tricky skill to master, and I would give a rough estimate that 95% of Swiss politicians have yet to achieve this.
Still, at least they’re trying.
However, some of their political messages would probably get them lynched in this country. “Now is enough” with reference to inbound immigration is not likely to win many votes in the UK, but I was at least gratified to be able to translate this basic phrase from the German. So at least something positive could be said about their message.
Zurich also presented a “new phenomenon” to me in my journey from the east. It was the first city where I saw “real” European bankers. Young men and their slightly older (and more portly) counterparts walking along tapping on Blackberries, dressed in irreproachably well-cut suits, the bulge of their tailored shirts betraying a belly filled with a fine corporate lunch, wearing immaculately knotted silk ties from Italian fashion houses. Really this is as surprising and parochial a sight as a Kyrgyz herdsman dressed in a woolly hat perched on top of a scraggy-looking pony, if only we could see it with fresh eyes.
The question did occur to me: who is the happier?
Perhaps, in Europe at the moment, this question is best left hanging in the air...
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