Excursion to Hellbrunn and Berchtesgaden

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Excursion to Hellbrunn and Berchtesgaden

Berchtesgaden is in Germany, 19 miles south of Salzburg, about 40 minutes' drive. This day is easy, varied, entertaining and scenic. Leave plenty of time, though, for the inevitable waiting around at Hellbrunn and the salt mines. NB. Even though Berchtesgaden and the Königssee are in Germany, you do not need any Deutschmarks. Austrian schillings (and Euros!) are readily accepted this close to the border.

Hellbrunn 3 miles from Salzburg town centre. The tour is guided and takes about 30 minutes but you normally have to wait around beforehand. Try to book in advance if possible. (This is a summer excursion. If it's raining or very cold weather, think twice about doing it.) The small Schloss here was built as a summer residence by Prince-Archbishop Marcus Sitticus in 1615. It is attractive enough but not really worth visiting. The juvenile sense of humour of the archbishop, however, makes the tour of the Wasserspiele extremely entertaining, with its trick fountains and ingenious water-powered figures. The group will get wet. (Elsewhere in the castle grounds is the pergola where Liesl sang "I am sixteen, going on seventeen.")

Obersalzberg (16 miles) This was once a tiny mountain hamlet, popular in the late C19 with writers and artists. In this century, the unwanted focus of its fame is its association with Hitler.

In 1923 following the unsuccessful Putsch and a brief prison sentence, Hitler settled here in Obersalzberg where he had family and friends. When the Nazis took power in 1943, he bought a chalet called the Berghof, enlarged it and created a whole Nazi complex on and around the mountain site. This was apparently the place where Hitler and Eva Braun could feel most at ease but it was also a place for serious politicking. He held diplomatic receptions here including that for the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to discuss the future of the Sudetenland. There was a hotel called the Platterhof where people faithful to the Führer could come on holiday "pilgrimages;" there was a training camp for the Hitler Youth, and offices of the local Nazi party. Some of his ministers and colleagues also built villas here, notably Martin Bormann. On the summit of the mountain, the Kehlstein, where the view is magnificent, Hitler built a retreat called the Adlernest, the Eagle's Nest.

On April 25, 1945, the whole complex was bombed in an Allied air raid. The total destruction was completed 2 weeks later (the Allies wanted to be sure that it wasn't being used as a final place of refuge for Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy). Today the rebuilt hotel bears the name of General Walker, the U.S. Commander who led the raids. The old Eagle's Nest on top of the Kehhlstein is now a cafe. The rest is in ruins. There is currently a controversial plan to create out of the old destroyed Berghof complex a centre for eco-tourism and Alpine conservation, but fears of it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine have put all developments permanently on hold.

As you approach Berchtesgaden take the first road signed for Obersalzberg up the mountain to the left. About halfway up the bus must stop and you buy tickets for the remainder of the journey. There are loos, a couple of shops and a cafe here. The tickets are for the minibuses that continue to the summit. The road becomes narrow and very steep (the steepest in Germany) and only special minibuses with adapted brakes can make the journey. In addition there is only one spot for two lanes so the journeys up and down the mountain have to be synchronised. Where the bus drops you off you continue by an extraordinary lift, as plush as you can imagine, that goes through the mountain to the summit. You emerge at the Eagle's Nest.

Berchtesgaden (19 miles) This is an attractive small town and major year-round resort 1,700 feet up in the shadow of the Watzmann (8,900 feet). There are 8,000 inhabitants and 25,000 hotel beds. After Garmisch-Partenkirchen, it is the biggest skiing center in Germany with 24 ski lifts. In the town the castle is the dominant feature. It was one of the residences of the Bavarian royal family, the Wittlesbachs.

The centre of attraction for the group, however, is the Salzbergwerk, just north of the city. This is one of numerous (still working) salt mines which have been turned into tourist attractions. You put on blue worker's overalls, straddle a mini-train, ride through tunnels to the salt works, slide down to the lower levels, watch absurd short films about the techniques and history of salt extraction, sail across an underground salt lake and ride back again. It's certainly touristic, but tongue-in-cheek and good fun. (The guides are expecting a small tip.) Glück auf. You should explain something beforehand about the importance of salt.

The Importance of Salt  As an industry salt mining doesn't matter very much nowadays but it was once the raison d'etre of many towns all over this region and the solid foundation on which the local economy was built. In the days before refrigeration salt was essential in food preservation (as well as in the manufacture of many dyes). It was a government monopoly subject to heavy taxation, known as weisses Gold, white gold, because the trade and the profits of taxation were worth so much. As witness to its importance, the word "salary" comes from the Latin for salt. Think of the phrase "he's worth his salt." Salzburg itself grew wealthy on the profits of salt. The very name means "Salt Town" in German. The little village of Obersalzberg means "Upper Salt Mountain." The region of the Salzkammergut means something like "Salt Stronghold" or "Salt Treasury." The word Hall is an old German (actually Celtic) word for salt, so this mineral was also at the heart of the economy of Hallein, Hallstatt, Hall in Tirol and Bad Reichenhall. Many of the local roads developed as trade routes for salt. Even Munich, controlling the trade routes from the Eastern Alps to the cities of Northern Europe, came to prominence on the back of the profits of salt.

The Watzmann  Almost every mountain in the Germanic world has some legend or other associated with it. These legends are usually bizarre, tortuous and gratuitously bloodthirsty but presumably have some sort of moral or behavioral lesson behind them. The following story told of the Watzmann is typical:

Once upon a time there lived a vicious, evil king called Watzmann whose pleasure it was to oppress the peasants of his land. With his wife and children he used to love to hunt deer in the forests of the valleys. One day, in the course of the hunt, they came upon a shepherd and his family tending their flocks. In a fit of bloodlust the king set his hounds upon the shepherd's dog and they tore it to pieces. Not content and at the urging of the king, the hounds then set upon the shepherd, his wife and their son. The king and his family laughed while the shepherd's family were killed. But their laughter and the inhuman depth of their cruelty brought on the wrath of God. He brewed up a terrible storm and forced the king to flee. He did so but there was nowhere to shelter. The hounds, in distress, turned against their master and his family and ripped them to pieces. The dead king, his wife and their children were turned to stone and grew into mountains as an everlasting reminder to mankind. If you look at the peaks of the Watzmann you can make out their jagged silhouettes, torn to shreds by the hounds: the king to the right, the queen to the left and the little princes in between.

The Königssee (3 miles south of Berchtesgaden). This is one of the most beautiful and romantic lakes in the Eastern Alps, in the heart of the Watzmann National Park. It is a long, narrow lake stretching 4 miles south into the mountains. It reaches a depth of 750 feet which is why the waters are so dark. The slopes of the Watzmann form its western edge. In autumn cows are still ferried across the lake after spending the summer up among the Alpine pastures. Walk from the bus parking through the village, brimming with shops and restaurants, to the lakeside. Carry on for 5 or 10 minutes as far as the Malerswinkel ("Painters' Corner") for the best views. The pretty little church on the bank surrounded by old houses is the pilgrimage chapel of St. Bartholomä. The red cross nearby is a memorial to 80 pilgrims who died when their raft capsized in a storm. Near the town you can see the bobsled run, home of the German national team.

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