A thousand years of history, a clever countess and celebrating Canons, UNESCO biosphere reserve and lively market. Reason enough then to pay Berchtesgaden a visit. Text and photos: Thomas Linkel
Perhaps Countess Irmingard von Sulzbach was annoyed by the constant hunting excursions of her husband Count Gebhard II. Or perhaps she was also delighted by the venison he brought back from his forays in the shadow of the Watzmann and Kehlstein mountains, which offered a change from the never-ending grain groats that otherwise dominated meal times at Sulzbach Castle.
But in the middle of the 11th century Gebhard II met with an accident, but no news of her husband’s passing reached the countess for several weeks. During that time, she made a vow to build a monastery if only Gebhard II would return home. Gebhard II then suddenly reappeared in the castle courtyard, probably like Odysseus himself. It was exactly where he had suffered the hunting accident that the collegiate church of Berchtesgaden was later erected, built by son Berengar, who redeemed his mother’s vow. That is the legend of the “Chorherrenstift” or Canon’s monastery.
Monks Fearful of Dragons
The first Augustinian monks began with a poor dwelling, which over the centuries developed into a Provost’s office and, later on, the Royal Castle. This stands just a few metres from the market square with its façade-painted houses.
Where today visitors to the “Watzmann Therme” springs can enjoy a splash in the warm brine water or experience the vertical wilderness of the national park in the “Haus der Berge”, the monks found “treacherous forest and snow-starved wasteland”, where they even suspected a breeding ground for dragons, as can be read in their writings.
Off to The Alpine Pasture For a “Little Tipple of Gentian”
“After a small glass of gentian, you can handle any dragon,” says mountain distiller Max Irlinger on the Priesbergalm. It would be hard to drink gentian more authentically than on a wooden bench situated in front of the hut in the Jenner region above Berchtesgaden.
“After a Small Glass of Gentian, You Can Handle any Dragon”
While Max produces this high-proof spirit in the small distillery and keeps adding logs to fuel the heat, hikers pour for themselves from the gentian bottles cooled by the well water and drop the empties into a small box.
In the valley, the “Enzianshop” (a purveyor of the finest gentian) belonging to the Grassl mountain distillery is located directly opposite the “Königliches Schloss” (Royal Castle) and the “Stiftskirche” (Collegiate Church). It is highly likely that not only the Provosts and Canons, but also family members of the Wittelsbach dynasty liked to imbibe in the alcohol-rich essence of this renowned Alpine root.
“Altstadt” and “Kalvarienberg”
An archway separates the castle from the pedestrian zone with its market square and fountain, whose construction dates back to 1558. Behind it begin the alleys of the “Altstadt” or “historic town”, which stretch along the famous “Kalvarienberg” or “Calvary Hill”. A long queue has formed in front of the ice cream parlour across from magnificently painted house façades with geranium-lined wooden balconies. Further along the alley, clothing racks from fashion and outdoor shops stand on the cobblestones, some cool cats enjoy a “Spritz” and “cappuccino”, while mountain bikers fill their bottles at the fountain.
Although the region has long been roamed by people since the Neolithic Age and was used by noble families for hunting in the early Middle Ages, no one settled there at first. The market, which is only 25 kilometres from Salzburg, owes its name to Count Perther, who kept a small hut there, known as a “Gaden” in Middle High German. Perther’s Gaden later developed into “Berchtesgaden”.
The Clever Countess Against Greedy Archbishops
One detail of particular geographical and historical note is that the region in the south-east of Bavaria juts into Austrian territory. Countess Irmingard knew that her hunting grounds were coveted by the Archbishops of Salzburg. In order to resist their greed in the long term, she used a trick: she placed the entire land of the Canons’ monastery under the protection of the Pope and Emperor. This made the Provost’s office the smallest independent church land in the Holy Roman Empire for centuries.
Irmingard did not know, however, that the monks who wrote the deed also added mining rights to the Provost’s office. Soon afterwards, the Pope freed the monastery from the tithe and the Emperor granted the right to extract salt. The great and the good of Salzburg must have raged when they learned of Irmingard’s ruse, but they did not openly turn against the Pope.
The End of the 12th Century Marks the Beginning of Mining and Trading of “White Gold”
Salt Equaled Wealth Back in the Day
When trouble came, the monastery called on the Emperor and the Pope, closed the borders and thus kept the plague and the Thirty Years’ War at bay. Thus, on the one hand, the Canons had protection from above and, on the other hand, came into wealth through salt production. As early as the end of the 12th century, mining and trading of this “white gold”, which was important for preserving food, began in earnest. Germany’s oldest operating salt mine has been extracting this natural treasure since 1517.
The Provost’s office ruled until 1803. During secularisation, the House of Wittelsbach then took over the land, ended its independence and used the princely residence as a summer and hunting seat until the First World War.
Dark Shadows Form on The Kehlstein
Above the villas that the Canons had built for themselves and their mistresses around Calvary, Georg von Reichenbach used his tremendous engineering skills to construct a wooden pipeline from 1816 onwards that transported Berchtesgaden’s brine water, which was more saturated with salt, to Bad Reichenhall, in order to increase the salt quality there. Today, the brine pipeline path leads along the former route with a view over the roofs of Berchtesgaden as well as to Jenner, Watzmann and the Kehlstein.
This mountain, or rather its foothills, is fatally linked to Adolf Hitler, who first visited his anti-Semitic mentor Dietrich Eckart in Berchtesgaden in the 1920s, later expelled the inhabitants from Obersalzberg or sent them to concentration camps, and had the “Führer’s restricted area” solidified at Kehlstein in the form of megalomaniac building projects.
The history of the population and the site during the National Socialist era is presented in a permanent exhibition at the Obersalzberg Documentation Centre, which is currently closed for extension and renovation work.
Vertical Wilderness In a Mountain Showcase
From the Kehlstein, Berchtesgaden looks more like an Upper Bavarian village than a market town with just under 8,000 inhabitants. Between the curved flow of the “Königsseer Ache” river and the wooded slopes of Kälberstein and Lockstein mountains, houses and alleys lie in a narrow strip.
The windows of the modern “Haus der Berge” National Park Centre reflect the sun’s rays and mirror the surrounding mountains, church towers, gables and dormer roofs. The wood-clad building is topped by the “Mountain Showcase”, a massive cube of glass and steel that houses the interactive exhibition entitled “Vertikale Wildnis” (“Vertical Wilderness”).
The mountain world of the National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is interactively presented on several floors, from the depths of Lake Königsee up to its tree-free peaks. Projections on tree-shaped surfaces and time-lapse photography visualise the change of seasons in the mountain forest. Once at the top, a fascinating view opens up through 15-metre-high panorama windows onto the Watzmann massif.
From “Hirschenhaus” to “Nonntal”
Moving onto something less interactive, but still quite impressive, the façade of the “Hirschenhaus”, on the corner of the market square, shows what house owner Georg Labermair thought of the Canons at the beginning of the 17th century: the façade in Metzgerstraße is adorned with pictures of monkeys having all kinds of fun. There is plenty of carousing and music; a monkey is being pulled by people on a sledge loaded with a wine barrel, while female and male monkeys dance together. The monkeys symbolise the noble Canons who, with the increasing wealth of their Provost’s office, were less and less interested in prayer than in worldly pleasures.
Although the pictures are only a stone’s throw away from the monastery, there was no hassle as a result. Between the houses on Metzgerstraße was an open ditch into which the slaughterhouse waste was thrown. No Canons strayed into this smelly corner; they oriented themselves towards the market square, the “Nonntal” or up towards “Kalvarienberg”.
Aperitivo In Front of The “Schlossplatz”
Just before the passage to the “Schlossplatz” (“castle square”) with the neo-Romanesque façade of the collegiate church and the 12th-century cloister, guests of an Italian delicatessen enjoy their aperitivo under sprawling trees. Italian pop songs compete with birdsong, children play football, and antipasti make the rounds.
Behind the “Schlossplatz” begins the quiet “Nonntal” with a row of imposing town houses. The ground floors are home to fine eateries, a chocolate manufactory with sun lounger seating, as well as a vinotheque and a yoga studio.
Up, Up, Up to Lockstein!
From there, a narrow path leads to the “Lockstein” and the Weinfeld Chapel. Those who boast a good fitness level can hike further uphill across meadows to the ski jumps at “Kälberstein” or downhill on the other side to the “Aschauerweiher” natural swimming pool, from whose sunbathing lawn the grey-white steep walls of the “Watzmann” mountain can be seen in all their glory.
Or maybe you just stay at Lockstein, lie under fruit trees among stray goats and let a “Haflinger” – a special breed of horse indigenous to these parts – come and have a quick look. Up here, just five minutes from the lively market square, it is rural idyll that suddenly reigns: the buzz of bumblebees, old farmhouses with wooden balconies, wildly romantic gardens and large piles of firewood. Aperitivo and beguiling tranquillity – Berchtesgaden has got a handle on both.