Thursday, 20 November 2008

Salzburg - Day 4, Germany, Bavaria & the Nazis

How wrong I was because when I woke up and inspected the weather it was absolutely pouring, the streets were full of rapidly spreading puddles and no one was walking about without an umbrella. It didn’t look very promising and the weather forecast channel, which was showing web cam pictures from Austrian cities and ski resorts from all around the country only confirmed that today was not going to be very special. This was a shame because today it was Kim’s birthday and it looked like being a wet one.

After breakfast we checked out of the hotel, left our bags for collection later on and walked again to the train station, because today we planned to go to Bavaria in neighbouring Germany. It was raining heavily and my £1.50 umbrella from Wilkinson’s simply wasn’t up to the task and my trousers and my shoes were getting wetter by the stride. At the station I examined the damage and the rain had gone right through the shoes to my socks. Whenever I buy a new pair of shoes I always decline the pushy invitation to add the shoe protector offer to my purchase and today was a day when I wished that I hadn’t.

There was a much better railway fare offer today and although we wanted to pay individually the man at the ticket office explained patiently (several times) that we could buy a group ticket for all of us for much less. Mike eventually worked out what the man was saying and the basis of the deal and we got our group ticket for a very reasonable €30 for the return journey to Berchtesgaden.

Berchtesgaden is a municipality in the German Bavarian Alps and is is located north of the Nationalpark Berchtesgaden in the south district of Berchtesgadener Land. It is near the border with Austria but although it is only thirty kilometres south of Salzburg the route is not particularly direct as the line runs first west and then south so that it can follow the river valley to the Berchtesgaden railway terminus. What is fascinating about Berchtesgaden is that it has a very close association with the history of Nazi Germany and that is why I was interested in visiting the town.

The nearby area of Obersalzberg was purchased by the Nazis in the 1920s for their senior leaders to get away from Berlin from time to time for a bit or r&r. I find the concept of them buying anything quite interesting because later on of course they just took anything they wanted (like Czechoslovakia and Poland for example) without paying anything at all for it. Adolf Hitler's own mountain residence, the Berghof, was located here and Berchtesgaden and its villages were fitted out to serve as an outpost of the German Reichskanzlei office or Imperial Chancellery whenever the Government arrived in town.

In the closing stages of the war the Allies feared that Hitler would leave Berlin and set up an ‘Alpine Redoubt’ to continue the war from the mountains, so the British bombed the Obersalzberg complex on 25th April 1945. Many buildings were destroyed, and looting, first by locals and then by the US occupation troops finishedthe job. One of the conditions for the return of the Obersalzberg to German control in 1952 was the destruction of the remaining ruins and so the ruins of Hitler’s Berghof, the homes of Bormann and Göring, an SS barracks complex, and other buildings were blown up and bulldozed away.

By the time that we arrived the rain had stopped and although it was still very overcast at least I didn’t have to worry any more about my feet getting wet. We arrived at the railway station that was a typical Third Reich building that had been built for the Nazis and included a reception hall for Hitler and his guests. It has gone now but next door was once the Berchtesgadener Hof Hotel where famous visitors stayed, such as Eva Braun, Erwin Rommel, Josef Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. It felt slightly chilling to be walking in the footsteps of the most evil men of the twentieth century and it seemed strange that this pretty Bavarian town was once home to these people. It is an interesting that Hitler's sister Paula lived here after the war until she died in 1960 and was buried in the local cemetery.

After a visit to the Tourist Information Office we talk the steep walk towards the town and arrived evntually in the busy main square that was surprisingly touristy. It was time for refreshment so we selected a café and found tables in the window that had good views over the mountains that at nearly three thousand metres high are the third highest in Germany. We couldn’t see the tops today because they were covered in cloud but somewhere among them was the Kehlstein and at the top of it was the Eagle’s Nest.

Its proper name is Kehlsteinhaus and it was commissioned by Martin Bormann in 1939 as a fiftieth birthday present for Hitler. It was a huge construction project and took thirteen months to build so I couldn’t help wondering how they kept it a surprise? It is situated on a ridge at the top of the mountain and is reached by a spectacular six kilometre road that cost thirty million Reichsmark to build (that’s about one hundred and fifty million euros today). The last one hundred and twenty-four metres up to the Kehlsteinhaus are reached by an elevator bored straight down through the mountain and linked through a long granite tunnel below. The inside of the large elevator car is surfaced with polished brass, Venetian mirrors and green leather. We didn’t have enough time to visit the Eagle’s Nest today so I suppose we will just have to come back another time.

The weather wasn’t brilliant in Berchtesgaden but at least it wasn’t raining so we walked the length of the town with its typical painted Bavarian houses with all roads leading to a large square with a war memorial and commemorative paintings on the walls of the Town Hall. Sometimes it is easy to forget that although the Germans were the aggressors in the two world wars of the twentieth century that this was a catastrophe for them as well. Just as in Salzburg the shops were interesting and many of them sold traditional German clothing; the girls giggled while they tried the Julie Andrews dresses and Micky treated himself to some wollen shooting breeches. It is interesting how Geman people are quite prepared to wear these traditional clothes in a completely unselfconscious way and at one point we saw a young lad of about fourteen in full lederhosen and braces, felt hat and cape and I wondered how difficult it might be to get a fourteen year old in England to walk around the streets dressed like that. To be fair it wouldn’t be right to expect it because he would surely be beaten up within fifty metres of leaving the house.

It was obvious that the sun wasn’t going to get out today but it was pleasant enough to sit outside at a café and have our predictable lunch of soup and strudel served to us by waitresses in traditional Bavarian clothing. By now we had really exhausted everything there was to do in Berchtesgaden on a rather dreary and overcast day so we walked back to the railway station to catch the three o’clock train back to Salzburg. For the first half of the journey the train descended down the mountain to Bad Reichenall and then it turned into the low plain and returned effeciently to Austria.

It was cloudy but dry for the entire journey but no sooner were we back in Salzburg than the heavens opened once more and there was a total deluge to such an extent that we had to shelter under a shop canopy until it eased off. This took a few moments and as soon as we could we moved on towards the old town. I made the mistake of taking a route through the Mirabell Gardens, which were thoroughly wet through with sodden grass and great puddles to negotiate and my shoes started to leak through to my socks again. We arrived in the city centre but it was really quite miserable so we didn’t go very far and in a side street we found a restaurant and decided to shelter there for a while. It turned out to rather friendly and hospitable and as there were no signs of the weather improving we just stayed on and eventually a quick drink became another more leisurely one and then a full meal that turned out to actually to be rather good.

It was still raining when we left and walked back to the hotel to collect our luggage. We didn’t need to take on the water fountain this evening because it was difficult enough just keeping out of the rain. Somewhere along Linzer Gasse we all became separated when the girls got caught up in a last minute frenzy of shopping for gifts and souvenirs.

After collecting our bags we caught the trolley bus back to the airport and there was another torrential downpour that meant we had to share our seats with people sodden and dripping, which made it a bit uncomfortable. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and decided to go straight through to departures but Margaret was unsuccesful in smuggling a small bottle of champagne through security and so she and Kim had to go back outside and drink it before being allowed to join us in the departure lounge. I like champagne but in my opinion there is nothing very sophisticated about swigging it straight from the bottle.

Even though the final day had been disappointingly wet we had enjoyed Salzburg and the hospitality of the Austrian and the German people and I for one was sorry to leave when the plane took off on the return journey to the UK.

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