Where Eagles Dare....
- Categorized in: September 2011
Whichever way you look out from the Hohensalzburg Fortress, you see mountains. To the east, these are smallish and green. If you happened to be a free spirit with an ear for a tune, these rolling hills might inspire you to run around singing about larks and the chiming of a church bell. To the south and west, the mountains are taller, dark pyramids of rock, where you’d do better to pack a pickaxe and a length of rope, or a pair of ski boots. Venture into these places, and you’re running into the true Austrian high country, the Tyrol, where lederhosen and feathered caps are standard issue.
We had a choice.
We needed to be in Munich that evening, which was 130km away. A longish ride for one day. However, being so close to beautiful mountain vistas and winding Alpine roads through late summer meadows, it seemed a shame to miss out on all of this. So instead of heading straight for Munich, we decided to head off into the high country for the day, and take a train from a little village called Oberaudorf into Munich at the end of our ride.
This was going to be proper mountain riding but, having seen everyone’s progress through the week, I didn’t think there would be any problems with anyone dropping behind. (With the possible exception of me.)
Happily, the weather didn’t fail us on our last day of riding together.
Erm... straight on?
The sky-blue Salzach river sparkled under the morning sun as we followed its bank south, heading for the German/Austrian frontier. Once we got beyond the heavier traffic around the city limits we soon found ourselves speeding along a little cycle lane beside the main road, strewn with the earliest of the autumn’s fallen leaves.
The road to Berchtesgaden
It was warm but the seasons were surely changing. We passed long avenues of golden beech trees, their branches still fully laden, though their nuts snapped and popped on the ground under our wheels.
We were heading for the small town of Berchtesgaden – the first town you come to once you have crossed into German Bavaria and a name now, in many minds, synonymous with all that was wrong with Germany in the 20th century.
The town itself, its surrounding area and in particular the nearby lake called the Königssee are all places of exceptional natural beauty. In the 1920s it attracted the attention of the Nazi high officialdom, which purchased a lot of land in the region called Obersalzburg. Many of the Nazi elite built or bought luxurious chalets in and around the town, and because of their presence a lot of state business was carried out here.
In its dying days, the Nazi regime began to call on its most fanatical followers, at least those that were still alive, to be ready to scatter into the mountains in the south of Germany, and continue an armed guerrilla resistance against the occupying Allied Forces until the successful development of new “super-weapons” could turn the tide once more in their favour. In particular, it was feared that these so-called “Werewolves” would centre their resistance around the Nazi stronghold of Berchtesgaden. Although the chances of this really happening were quite remote by the time Germany had been bled dry, the Allies took the possibility seriously, and therefore made a big push to take Berchtesgaden as quickly as possible before any resistance there could get organised. It fell to US forces to take and occupy this region in the first days of May 1945.
Although most of the Nazi leaders’ properties, hotels and administrative buildings were destroyed or have now been demolished, a couple remain standing. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is the Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle’s Nest, which served as Hitler’s personal summerhouse.
The Eagle's Nest
This tiny chalet sits high up on a mountaintop overlooking the town and the Königssee to the south, with a view all the way back to Salzburg in the north. It was given to Hitler as a 50th birthday present by Martin Bormann, his personal secretary. Aside from its invidious connections with the Nazi regime, the road up to this precipitous lookout is recognised as an impressive feat of road engineering. In order finally to reach the building itself, you must enter into a tunnel from the vehicle turning circle, that runs about 120m straight into the rock, and then take an elevator up a shaft which is bored another 120m upwards through the rock, emerging inside the little chalet.
We didn’t have time to stop and visit the Kehlsteinhaus on this occasion. But I have been there before in 2004, climbing up to it by foot with my friend Henry. It is a curious experience, if nothing else because of the troubled merging of different emotions one feels as a visitor. On the one hand, one can look out at the outstanding beauty that surrounds the place, the warm mountain breeze, the soaring birds, and the shimmering peaks that climb off into the distance. On the other, the association of the place with a collection of men who deliberately wreaked lasting pain, death and destruction on most of the world’s population for a long time. The convergence of these two wildly contrasting impressions is confusing. And it leaves one feeling ashamed. And I think that is a shame. That human wickedness has tainted this beautiful spot, perhaps for all time.
But we passed all this at some distance, and at some speed.
Nor did we dawdle in the town, but cut straight through it, and onwards along the so-called Alpenstrasse, a scenic route to outshine all others, that weaves in and out of Germany and Austria in a kind of frolic along the northern edge of the Alpes.
The road follows a river, which was flowing against us. Our speed dropped off a bit as we squeezed around blind corners under the jagged overhangs of damp rocks, which will turn into frozen crystal cascades when the winter comes.
Together with my panniers, I was getting left behind as the road broke away from the river and began its climb up into the highland meadows hundreds of feet over our heads.
C & C looking Tyrolean
Our little peloton spread out. Lecka and Skipper racing each other at the front, Lloyd and Christian comfortably holding the middle ground, and Chrissie and finally me bringing up the rear.
The Brothers Brun
It was hot and sweaty work, but I think everyone was enjoying it. We never left each other behind for long. Each corner revealed more and more striking views, yet it was hard not to become inured to everything we were seeing. I’d run out of superlatives some days before. All we could really do was hold out our hands in gratitude, say “thank you” and receive more.
Best of pals
At one point, Christian let out a kind of yelp of delight when he saw a wiry old man driving a small tractor. Without any hint of irony, this farmer was sporting a long white droopy moustache, a well-worn pair of lederhosen and a feathered green hat, cocked at a jaunty angle, while a flourishing curl of pipe hung from his clenched teeth.
The best I could do....but I did at least capture C's "glee"
“Quick, quick! Get a shot of him with the camera.”
Unfortunately, he was talking to the wrong teammate. As slow as the tractor was going up the road, a small kick in the gradient caught me in the wrong gear and reduced me to a standstill with my extra weight, and the target escaped up the hill “unphotographed”. A missed opportunity – although maybe you shouldn’t be photographing people just to laugh at them? I don’t know. What do you think?
The middle of the day passed with a couple more climbs, and an immensely fast descent – I reached my top speed of the trip, hitting 71.7kph as I whipped downhill regretting (if only momentarily) that I was still without a functional helmet at this point.
Just before lunch, we past a point that held a special meaning for me. It was on a nasty corner here on that motorbike ride in 2004 that I had misjudged my speed, and misunderstood the road layout, and ended up flying off the road and finishing up squashed half under my motorbike in a shallow ditch.
Standing in "my" ditch
Having re-visited this spot, I feel totally vindicated that it was an honest and understandable mistake, but it was a sad end to another thoroughly enjoyable road trip, and some months before I was reunited with my beautiful motorbike.
Black and white sunshine
We stopped off for our final lunch in the sun, overlooking a deep gorge with rapids tumbling along its floor. The Schnitzels arrived, the Radlers flowed, and this time we managed to avoid any memorable disagreements. Perhaps this week had mellowed us after all.
All smiles post-Schnitzel
As the afternoon unfolded, we continued climbing, through woodland, and across meadows, dropping down into improbably lush green valleys. Paragliders soared above us riding thermals high up amongst the peaks.
Skipper needs only the barest mention of a paraglider to reel out a story about me which, I’m happy to say, has caused him and others immense amusement over the years. This is something he and Christian can at last agree upon.
The road towards Kössen
Way, way back in the mists of time, I used to date a beautiful dark-haired girl who was an expert chef and impressive skier. She would spend her winters working up in ski resorts, cooking by night, and skiing by day. It seems during the winter we were supposed to be together, she succumbed to the charms of a local paragliding instructor, with a ponytail (damn him). (I used to receive texts on dreary, wet and wintry evenings in London that said things like, “Just been up with X for night time flying. It’s so beautiful up there with all the stars. And so romantic. You have to try it.”) Much as I did my best to assume his intentions in strapping my girlfriend to his front and taking her night-flying were all strictly platonic, it wasn’t long before she informed me that this wasn’t the case and I would have to find someone else to do my cooking. Surprise surprise. Still, when I went to the same resort later in the year with other friends, we did meet and talked, and she told me that she still wanted to give me my late Christmas present.
“Remind me what that was supposed to be,” I asked.
“Don’t you remember? I said that I’d arranged for you to have a free paragliding lesson with X. He’s still happy to take you up if you want to go.”
“So let me get this straight. As a Christmas present, you want to give me the opportunity to be strapped to the front of the man who started sleeping with my girlfriend? Yeaaah, forgive me if I find the symbolism here a little too striking. I think I’ll pass.”
I’ve still never been up.
Closing in on the end of our ride together
Well, we were coming in to land ourselves, stopping off for a late afternoon ice cream in the little ski resort town of Kössen – a place which, by any measure, deserved to have been immortalised forever at least on the cover of a chocolate box, if on no other higher form of art.
As we rolled out of this little town, following the road down through the pine trees, Christian said, “You know, Theo. I reckon you were onto a pretty damn good idea, doing all this cycling.”
‘Well I think so,” I said, pleased that he did too.
“It’d be a bit of ridiculous if you didn’t,” piped up Skipper.
He was just jealous.
Less than an hour later, and we were piling along the last of the beech avenues into the little town of Oberaudorf, in a vain effort to catch the 5 o’clock train to Munich.
We missed that and sat down with full and frothy glasses of beer and one cake each to wait for the next one.
We were all saying things like, “we’ve done it” and “I can’t believe we made it here in one piece” and “that was just an awesome week” etc. etc. while giving each other a well-deserved round of clenched-fist hugs. (I think we all got a kiss on the cheek from Chrissie too.)
It was an awesome week. It certainly was. But I was a tiny, tiny bit sad it had come to an end. Of course, everything does. Yet I knew that when I got back on the road on Monday, I would be on my own again. I would miss my friends. There’s no doubt, fun as cycling is, it’s a lot more fun doing it with people you love.
Still (I thought) at least we are all about to go and drink a lot of beer, sing a lot of silly songs, thump our fists and very big beer glasses on the table, and eat a lot of bratwurst in Munich. And no more Schnitzel for me.
After more than a week of these on the trot, it was probably high time for a change in diet.
In Munich, it was Oktoberfest.
The end of summer festival, that originated as a celebration of the marriage between King Ludwig I of Bavaria and the Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810, and which developed into an annual event of horse racing, agricultural shows, and most famously and more recently the biggest beer festival in the world. Could the delicate Princess waving genteelly from her carriage to her admiring new subjects possibly have imagined that 200 hundred years hence her nuptials would have morphed into an excuse for people to come from as far away as the Antipodes to get beastly drunk, dress like Bavarians and pass out in a whirlpool of their own bodily fluids? I hope not, else she might have whipped up the horses herself and set off at a trot back to the peace and quiet of Saxe-Hildburghausen (wherever that may be).
And yet at least one aspect of the Oktoberfest each year must involve Australians and the involuntary wetting of pants. However, like many such events, there is a wonderful spectrum to this celebration, which has as many facets to it as there are people to enjoy it.
Perhaps it is inescapable though, that every aspect must touch on at least two things – the enjoyment of beer, and the enjoyment of Bavarian culture. If you like neither of these things, the Oktoberfest is possibly not for you.
Oktoberfest by night
We had arrived on our train at the Münchner Hauptbahnhof on the rising of a tide. As we wheeled our bikes along the platform, the frequency of men, young and old, dressed in a variety of styles of leather shorts intensified, as did the frequency of their womenfolk dressed in dirndl – the traditional (and sometimes quite fetching) low-cut dresses of Bavaria.
Voices were loud, and gaits were often stumbling as people arrived at the station after a day at the festival, or else having just arrived to go out in the city.
Amid this noisy melée, so far from the bucolic stillness of our Alpine meadows earlier in the day, we agreed to meet in the centre of town once Lecka and I had got installed in our cheap hotel (which wasn’t at all), and the others had settled into their expensive hotel (which definitely was).
In fact, many people find that the cheapest place to stay in Munich during the Oktoberfest is on the grassy banks outside the beer tents. If they pass out there, at least this will only cost them the cash in their pockets, which will inevitably be removed by some thoughtful passer-by. If you actually go to the trouble of booking a room, be prepared to choke back the bile rising in your gorge when you are handed the bill.
Trying not to think about this, Lecka and I set out from our end of town all dressed up and ready to engage with whatever Munich intended to throw at us for the evening.
Without too much delay, the four others appeared in the swanky lobby of their more grown-up hotel, fighting their way past the band of obsequious porters, dressed up like munchkins, who literally threw themselves into their path to be of service.
The streets and squares were thronging with people. It was a warm evening, so all the restaurants, gasthofen and beer halls had terraces spilling out of their frontages for the passing clientele.
We set ourselves up in front of one, (any one was as good as another) ordered beers and large sausages and began to banter.
Christian, Skipper and I had been to the Oktoberfest before. We had mixed feelings about it – which roughly meant, I liked it, Christian quite liked it, and Skipper didn’t like it.
However, I was quite prepared to accept that the picture we were seeing around us was not particularly enticing. I could sense the storm cloud gathering a few inches above the head of Christina. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the stumbling figures around us, the loud voices and the general clamour of good cheer were becoming too much for her. These people never could have realised that their simple presence was crystallizing in Chrissie’s head an unshakeable resolve to get as far away from them as she possibly could. We didn’t know this just yet, but the seed had already been sown.
The Hofbrauhaus, central Munich
Meanwhile, as I tried to make the case for singing along to songs in a language you didn’t understand, making friends with people you were never going to meet again, and sharing experiences that you would have forgotten by the morning, we all became rather tired.
Nor did it help that Christian and I regaled the company with amusing anecdotes about Münchner drinking societies, smashing bottles in over-stocked wine cellars, being brought around by aggressive-looking bespectacled giants (of a right-wing political leaning) with a dousing of cold water, or falling over wooden trestle tables with steamed-up glasses, or slicing open one’s hand with a razor-sharp schlager sword. All this gemuchlichkeit was not enough to persuade Christina or Skipper that the morrow would be a famous occasion of great friendship and fond (if fleeting) memories.
Utterly exhausted by our journey of 530km in five days, a single beer was enough to finish us off. Admittedly it had been a long day.
We parted company for the night, and I said farewell to Lloyd who was to catch an early flight home so he could take off on a business trip. For him, the tour was over.
I was sad he was going. But very glad he had decided to come and join us, and had safely made it through without any of the disastrous scenarios which he had evidently envisaged coming true.
But what would tomorrow bring?
I had literally ridden my butt off to get to Munich (with my friends) in time to enjoy at least one day and night at the Oktoberfest. 3,500km in 35 days.
Was it going to be worth it?
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