One of my must sees while I still have days on my Interrail pass is Salzburg and the the allure of Berchtesgaden, Koenigsee, Obersalzberg and the Kehlstein Haus (nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest). Having read so much historical literature of this retreat and underground bunker system of Hitler’s and his crew, I needed to see it first hand. And as I only have two days in Salzburg, Saturday and Sunday, I opt for Berchtesgaden on Saturday, so I don’t have to worry about catching a train back at any certain time.
But first, I arrive in Salzburg, and find my hostel northeast from the city center, about 25 minutes walk away from the train station. After I choose a top bunk in a dorm room that sleeps 6, I head out to find something nearby to eat, as it is about 7:30, and I decide to wait to do the heavy sight seeing for tomorrow on my way to the bus or Sunday because I had already walked 8 miles that morning in the corn. I find one of the top listed “authentic” Austrian restaurants by Trip Advisor only ten minutes away, but their menu offers only huge meals at huge prices, so I opt for a beer and a bowl of oxtail soup, which comes as a clear broth, with some very thin noodles, shredded carrots and cubes of what I’m assuming is ox. The broth is very good, the meat tough, but the beer excellent. And anyway, I don’t want a full meal before bed.
As I arrive back into the dorm room, there are three young girls speaking English so I say hello and we all start talking about what tours are available and what to do while here. In the middle of it all, we tell each other where we’re from: there’s a 24 year old brunette from upstate Michigan, who works as a Nanny for a schoolteacher and who is taking a break from her boyfriend by coming to Düsseldorf, Germany to visit with an exchange student she knew from some time ago, who is working all the time, so she took a break from him to come down to Salzburg; there’s a 24 year old blond girl from Wexford, Ireland, who is getting a degree in Drama and Theater and is taking the Summer months off to explore; and then there’s the 21 year old from Argentina who is studying journalism and is taking a course that will be held and I believe she said housed, in the Von Trapp mansion that was used for filming. Once Ireland heard this (I will refer to these girls using their origin of place, as names only came later – it really didn’t seem to matter) she started swooning, as she lives and dies by this movie, has seen it nearly twenty times, and suddenly must have felt a deep kinship with Argentina merely by her soon proximity to the famed location. Meanwhile, Michigan was helping me understand the bus schedules to get to Berchtesgaden, where she was just that day, and regretted not getting out to Koenigsee, as she said the water from the river that flowed through Berchtesgaden was so clean and clear, it was like glass and you could see the bottom of the river. I made a note to myself that I might need two days just for Berchtesgaden. The girls all have on their sleep wear, which to me looks like a short black nightie on Michigan and some comfy shorts on Ireland, so I get dressed for bed, thinking that the evening will come to a close. As I come out from the bathroom, they ask if I want to go with them to get a beer: first they will have one downstairs, and then they will go out from there. I realize that the clothes they are wearing are intended for going out, not for sleeping, (silly me: why waste a decent pair of young, bare legs?) and I put on my functional and practical hiking pants and walking shoes, having packed for that very prospect.
We grab a table downstairs and order beers and wine, and begin talking about our lives, these four random strangers with one thing in common – solo travel and adventure. Michigan talks about her crazy boyfriend who can’t commit, I talk about the perils of teaching in a public school, Ireland and Argentina then compare their private girls only school experiences, and Michigan chimes in with the stories she hears from her employer who is a grade school teacher. We spend a lot of time on school, for some reason, but then switch to social media, as I am very interested in how young people navigate relationships with the lack of privacy and temptations that the plethora of sites beckon with every new ding. They admit sadly, that it is a problem, and that you just don’t know who’s being truthful or not. They know many people who are having a field day without ever having to harvest a thing.
It is now 11 pm and I have a full day tomorrow of hiking and a prearranged tour, so I bid good night and wish them well on their night of prowling (not in those words, of course). Once back at the hostel, I get back in my comfy clothes and settle in, fall asleep immediately; a few hours later, am awoken by the bathroom light, footsteps, suitcase zippers. I glance at my phone to check the time: 4:30 am! But only Michigan was back – empty beds for the other two. I return to sleep and wake up at 6:30; between the last two hours Ireland and Argentina made it back safely. Gosh – what a mother I sound like! And to remember having just as much energy and stamina when I was that age… oh well, I have better things to do, so head down to a fantastic breakfast: cheeses, cold meats, different assortments of bread, boiled eggs, jams, yogurts, fruit, muesli and of course the best coffee in the world. I eat and savor the coffee as I map out my day, looking at brochures and offerings that make me want to stay even longer. I decide on Berchtesgaden for some hiking in the morning before the historical tour of Obersalzberg at 1:15.
I walk down to the 840 bus that leaves from Mirabel Palace and note that because it is Saturday, the bus leaves an hour later; instead of 8:15, I have an hour to explore and take the 9:15 bus. So I head on through to the gardens of Mirabel Palace, full of roses and designed blooms, a center fountain, and then up a few stairs to a terrace garden, I find a yoga group underway.
Too early for the crowds, the paths and the flowers offer a respite from the cement city and speed of the traffic, and so I linger here before moving on towards a foot bridge that crosses the Salzach River and into the Old Town, where the marigold yellow of Mozart’s birthhouse caught me off guard, belying the visual perspective from google maps. Only open at 9 am, I had to postpone an entrance and visit until maybe tomorrow, depending on how today went. Getting a feel for the closeness of everything, which surprises me every time I visit a European city, I quickly find Mozart’s Wohnhaus, which also doesn’t open until later, but provides me with a satisfaction of being surrounded by artistic and aesthetic beauty and genius, and knowing this, I am ready to board the bus for Berchtesgaden for my day of hiking and history.
Despite being the first bus out, it is packed with all sorts of people, some annoyingly loud. I move from a standing position in the rear to a quieter platform up front, and watch how the houses thin out and the foothills become larger and denser. The elevation increases as the bus shifts gears and takes the turns, stopping at Bad Reichenhall and a few other familiar names from the books I’ve read. Small, self sufficient, insular Bavarian towns are run down with backpackers and tourists all summer long; yet this is no new or post war phenomenon: Germans have been flocking to this area for centuries, and after Hitler was released from Landsberg Jail for the “Beer Hall Putsch”, he visited a like-minded friend who lived in the area, and in 1928 decided to rent a house in Obersalzberg, where he completed the writing of Mein Kampf.
The bus station in Berchtesgaden is at the front of the train station, which still brings passengers from all over Germany and by train every hour from Munich. I emphasize still, as throngs of German tourists in the 30s descended from the trains every day in hopes of getting a glimpse of Hitler to such an extent that it became the largest train station in Germany in the 30s. Hitler himself had his own private entrance on the northern side of the station – which is now the Watz bar/restaurant – but despite the reclaiming of this space as well as a magazine store/tabac inside the main hall, all doors, fixtures, ticket windows, a mural on the southern wall, the outdoor face clock, and floors are all original. I wonder what ghosts come out at night, when the last bus leaves the station (18:15) and last train departs for Munich (22:00), with heels clicking against the softened stone; with hands opening the doors onto the roundabout ahead, the Koenigseeache (River) to the left, and the Mountains overhead, caving in and widening one’s perspective all the same, empowering in their madness, humbling in their solidity.
Once off the bus, I find the yellow and green shuttered house with an i on the other side of the roundabout where I receive information about the hiking trails and boat times to Koenigsee. I check the trail walking times and figure out that if I hurry, I can make it to Königssee and back before the 1:15 tour, so I find the trail head and begin to set off. The water is hypnotizing, however, and I find myself suddenly alone in the woods on the trail with no sounds save for the rushing, crystal light blue water. The people who packed the bus and then swarmed around the station and roundabout were no where to be seen. There is Berchtesgaden Old Town, of course, with food to be had and souvenirs to buy; there are other buses that take people directly to Koenigsee who prefer not to hike it for an hour each way; and then there’s the dark place that is paradoxically the lightest place, the place I’m scheduled for later this afternoon.
I walk on an flat plane for a while along the river before I decide I don’t want to rush alongside the woods, but prefer to hike into them, and follow signs to Oberschonau which is a 30 minute walk away – this will give me ample time to explore and return, maybe have a coffee or a drink at one of the Gasstatten, and think my thoughts. The newly chosen path ascends into the woods, and again, I pass no one and no one passes me. I walk for a while, come to a clearing, some farm houses, descend again into woods and then come out at a place of guest houses and vacation rentals. These all are kept in typical Bavarian house style, with flowers everywhere, in pots, along wood banistered balconies, drooping from open shuttered window sills, and adorning front porches and entrances. I eventually arrive in a place that might or might not be the destination, nestled in a valley with a magnanimous gesture towards simple, natural living. I am inclined to believe that when one lives at the foot of mountains, one realizes the fragility and temporal nature of life, and the sacred and eternal nature of the universe. Here the stillness was divine; I met a few farmers with the everlasting “Gruss Gott” salutation and returned it in kind, I heard the clinking of a cowbell or two along the pastures and felt such an inner joy I knew that my decision to make it to Königssee another day was a decision well chosen.
Later I learn that Hitler loved the area so much he bought the house, that he later called the Berghof, up on Obersalzberg. He authorized one of his henchmen, Bormann, to become the acquisition director of the area. According to the tour guide, too many visitors were swarming the mountain, lining the streets in hopes of getting a glimpse of Hitler, so Bormann cordoned the area off, bought out several farmers for their houses and land, and when things really got rolling, forcibly evicted owners from their own houses, giving them less than what the land was worth. Of course every now and then he would let tourists onto the mountain and use the crowds for propaganda purposes, but essentially he wanted exclusive rights to the place. As I walk the trails here today, it is evident how the privacy found in the seclusion of this area, surrounded by impenetrable mountains that appear to stave off the world at large, might wrongly encourage one to falsely feel on top of them and amass a power that is as negligent and wrongly directed as these mountains are strong. One sees the irony everywhere – in the wildflowers canvassing the valleys, the meadows dotted with cows, the sheer, steep snow-capped mountain fortresses jutting up into the clouds. This place was teeming with Nazis not too long ago, marching if not fear through bucolic dairy farms then certainly a false sense of bravado.
I head back, following the signs to Berchtesgaden, and sit on a bench overlooking the river and eat my cheese sandwich I packed from the breakfast buffet. I still hadn’t met one other wanderer, and found the reverie the surroundings put me in both thoughtful and somewhat pensive. Over 300,000 visitors visit Obersalzberg and the Kehlstein Haus area every year, and now I am one of them, even before my inevitable and long postponed visit to a place that commemorates the victims.
The tour bus drives us up to Obersalzberg, slowing down at significant places for gawking pleasure, which includes the information, “Over that hill used to be Goering’s house.” “You can just make out Albert Speer’s studio to the left through the trees and you might be able to see the roof of his house in the far back, now privately owned.” “Around from the Hotel Turk, which is now closed for renovations, used to be Hitler’s house, der Berghof.” “If you look behind you in 30 seconds, you can make out a red door which is an exit to a bunker.” And so forth, drolls out this young historian? Student? Summer Intern? I feel like I want to get out and walk the grounds, as I see other hikers doing, who either left their cars further down the mountain or walked from Berchtesgaden. The Hotel Turk, one of the few original places here, is the most interesting to learn about. It was a Gastatte in the 30s, and Hitler thought it would be a perfect place to house his security officers. So he forcibly bought out the owner, who had to leave with his young family. After the war, only three of the properties on Obersalzberg were returned by the government to their rightful owners. To reappropriate, a former owner must show that he was forced to sell and still have the bill of sale. A daughter of the former owner of this hotel found the necessary papers, and because of this, now in her later years, still owns the place. Her intention is to open up the bunker entrances, which are right below her hotel. I think of the stories she must have, and wish I could talk with her. But we drive on. I may never come back; and so the Hotel Turk recedes from sight and the stories it houses with it.
The tour bus soon arrives at the visitor’s center, which used to be der Platterhof, another hotel back in the day, but was bulldozed after several years of neglect. On its place now stand ticket counters to Kehlstein Haus, ice cream, souvenirs and snacks. I weigh the heady choice of ice cream or goody, and because we are only allotted five minutes break before we board bus number 1 to the top, I don’t want to wolf down the ice cream, so I choose Manner Schnitten, a favorite chocolate wafer treat from Vienna. Fortified with more water and sugar, I am ready for the top.
This is I assume why the masses come. It is beyond any expectations that you might read about. The bus snakes its way up a steeply graded one way road whose asphalt covers the original stones, which can still be visible along either side. The tall, dark and foreboding evergreens loom around and inward. We enter three short tunnels, all pristinely unaltered, their arches built with the heavy granite stone that adorns the exterior of the house itself. The views are spectacular, the cliffs only a meter off the road, precipitous. Eventually, we even out to the small rotund parking lot, disembark, and walk through a cool, dark tunnel. The same clean granite stones line the interior as if they were just put in place yesterday, and after a minute’s walk, enter a small rotunda on the right, where we wait for the elevator. Once the doors open, all you need is a good imagination because the original brass and mirror interior is so precisely 1938 it becomes eerie. An original clock, placed above the button to the right of the door that winds with a key still works; the only thing that has been updated is the cable wiring and motor which we don’t see. We empty out in the Kehlsteinhaus and enter a main dining room that is still used for the same thing today. At the end of this rooom, is a small round room with a marble fire place that has the names of some US Army guys etched in with the dates: 1945, 1947, 1948. All the windows, the stone, the floors, the woodwork, the light fixtures, even, are still original. When you look out the window, the view is just the same as they saw it. Hitler did not use the place very often; but there are several pictures that can be found online with him and visiting dignitaries in these rooms and balconies. Eva Braun came up here regularly and entertained. Despite the many visitors up there today (Saturday) I cannot help but go over the timeline of their lives, the fate that awaited them, the fate that awaited 6 million others, the idea that in only a few quick and rapid years everybody and their mothers would be strolling through these private quarters, witnessing these views he wanted to keep for himself, the victors owning the spoils. Because although Obersalzberg is Germany, you can’t help feeling that there will always be a claim for the British as their stakes came in the form of bombs, and there will always be a claim for the Americans, as their stakes came in the form of captures and arrests when they arrived shortly after.
We return to the bus, then to the tour bus, and finally back to Berchtesgaden. I decide I can’t return quite so quickly for a Koenigsee visit; the impression and feelings of this place will last a while. I have one more day, and decide to stay in Salzburg. Walking back to the hostel, I grab what I think is a gyros, but is on bread, not pita, and the meat is only beef, not mixed with lamb and no gyros spice. But I am hungry, and so walk and eat; I pass an outdoor live music and beer fest venue and pause, listening. From behind me, Michigan says “Hey there!” And we talk some more, and decide to stay a while. There we bump into Ireland, and think we see Argentina on the other side, but after careful scrutiny, we decide it isn’t her. We listen to a type of Austrian rock band; drink some beer; our talk is more muted as the music takes center stage. Again, once 10:00 strikes, I’m off to bed, but they stay, as they are only warming up to the night, I’m sure.