Germany’s oldest tourist route is almost 500 kilometres long. Our vintage convertible tour from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Lindau on Lake Constance was filled with castles, fortresses, artistic churches, wonderful lakes and alpine pastures. A report by Markus Stein (text) and Bernhard Huber (photos)
Convertible tour on the German Alpine Road
“Adieu” to the Zugspitze, the highest peak of the Wetterstein Mountains! It’s been a blast. One last glance in the rear-view mirror and the journey begins. Heading west, always along Germany’s “Alpenstraße” (Alpine Road) and moving towards Lake Constance. Our lemon-yellow Beetle gets ready to climb. It hums uphill in second gear from Oberau, gaining altitude.
As soon as the four-cylinder boxer engine has warmed up, it’s allowed to catch its breath. Once at the top, after the “Ettaler Sattel” mountain pass, the impressive façade of the famous Benedictine Abbey reveals its splendour in the sunshine.
Founded by Emperor Ludwig in 1330, the Ettal Monastery experienced its heyday as a place of pilgrimage, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. The goal of the devout was (and is) the so-called Ettaler Madonna, a statue of the Virgin Mary made of white marble. It is said to originate from Pisa.
After a fire in 1744, the church and monastery were rebuilt. A rococo masterpiece was created with magnificent frescoes, stucco and statues.
As befitted a Bavarian monastery, the Ettal monks produced their own beer and “liqueurs” ... and continue to do so today.
A high-tech grotto – anno 1878
The fresh air of the Ammer valley briefly wafts around your nose, then a few kilometres off the Alpine Road, in the Graswang valley, the next delightful sight awaits: Born out of a royal forester’s cottage, the “Royal Villa” is the only major palace that fairytale king Ludwig II was able to enjoy at any length. Linderhof, built in the neo-rococo style, is considered the monarch’s favourite castle.
The artificial Venus Grotto complete with stalactites and waterfall in the castle garden is unique. Depending on the lighting, it is reminiscent of the Blue Grotto sea cave in Capri, or a scene from the Wagner opera “Tannhäuser”.
And from a technical standpoint, it is nothing short of a virtuoso masterpiece: the dynamo machines, which provided electric lighting from 1878, are considered to be one of the first Bavarian electricity plants! For the shade of blue associated with this unique Grotto – an artificially produced indigo – BASF was rewarded with an imperial patent from Berlin.
Between biblical performances and carvings fit for the Gods
Do I stay or do I go? How about a stay, and then move on! The Ammergau mountains offer a wide range of activities. For example, a leisurely hike in the Ammer valley. Or – something a little more challenging – why not grapple with the tour to the near 1,600-metre-high Pürschling. The ascents found on the Große Klammspitze or the Kreuzspitze are really demanding.
Wherever you look: Flowing heads of hair and untamed beards.
Some prefer to work their way up with a gentle swing, all the way to the “Laber” in a nostalgic gondola, high above the world-famous town Oberammergau, home of the play depicting the Passion of Christ. Every ten years, the traditional Bible theatre takes place down there, with half the village taking part, their hair flowing and their beards untamed. The 42nd Passion of Christ will take place from 14 May to 2 October 2022.
But even in the years that fall in between – when the hairdressers go about their grooming business and beards are generally shorter – it is worth taking a stroll through the village: its houses are decorated with stunning artwork, and shop windows are adorned with beautiful carvings.
This lemon-yellow VW oldie picks up the pace once again, past Bad Bayersoien and its lake, heading for Wildsteig. There’s some brief eye contact with a cow on the side of the road. Calmly, she lies back down on the pasture and chews once more, looking quite content. No wonder with a view like that!
The view stretches far across the small Lake Schwaigsee to the alpine mountains on the horizon, with gently rolling hills to the front. Behind one of these humps lies hidden a very special Rococo jewel, a monument to Bavarian popular piety and a World Heritage Site to boot: the “Wieskirche” (Pilgrimage Church of Wies) near Steingaden. This very special church stands on a small hill in the middle of a meadow, and can be seen from far away.
The bright, oval church room radiates strong, warm colours, while also being richly decorated and ornamented. Everything is of the highest artistic quality, a true beacon of light and cheerfulness. And all this, despite (or precisely because of) the unifying theme of the Church: the redemption of man through the suffering and death of Christ.
The Bavarian icon
Soon after Steingaden, the cows from the pastures soon change their outfit: from spotted to plain brown to grey. An unmistakable sign – the Beetle is rolling into the Allgäu. And with that comes the chance for the region to play its biggest tourism trump card.
Even from a distance, the sight is breathtaking: set against a wildly romantic mountain backdrop, the building towering dizzyingly high on a rocky spur, glowing white, with all its towers, balconies, gables and battlements: Neuschwanstein Castle, the dream of a knight’s castle, conjured in the mind of King Ludwig II. This Bavarian castle icon is a magnet for throngs of visitors, year in, year out.
The dream that gave birth to a robber baron’s castle
But the fairytale king wanted to do it even more. What possible gesture shows more guts and audacity than a knight’s castle? That’s right, a robber baron’s castle. And Ludwig planned exactly that on the steep Falkenstein region near Pfronten.
Even more fairytale-like, even more defiant and even more worldly! But, unfortunately, nothing was to come of it. The remains of an old castle, at an altitude of almost 1,300 metres, have been preserved there.
Who would have thought that King Ludwig still wanted a robber baron’s castle?
Hiking trails lead up from the valley, and there is also a toll road. A hotel with restaurant is available for guests, situated beneath the ruins. Visitors can chill in deck chairs on a rock terrace, perhaps commemorate this melancholy monarch with a drink, and no doubt enjoy what is a spectacular view. To the east, you can see Neuschwanstein and, on a clear day, the Zugspitze. How this fairytale king would have liked that!
From halberds to frying pans!
The narrow, steep little road to Falkenstein gave the convertible and driver alike a taste for what was to come, and whetted their appetites for an even bigger treat: the hairpin bends from Oberjoch down to Bad Hindelang. With ten hairpin bends, 106 curves stretching over 20 kilometres and over 300 metres of altitude, this is Germany’s most winding road!
Bad Hindelang is located in the Ostrachtal valley, nestled in the nature reserve of Allgäu’s High Alps region. The region is nothing short of a paradise for hikers. Iron ore used to be mined at higher altitudes, and numerous hammer forges were built along the Ostrach.
Three of them still exist. Young Luitpold Scholl is at work at the “Obere Hammerschmiede” blacksmith, which is driven by a large water wheel. The big hammers make a deafening noise.
The blacksmith kindly takes off his ear protection for the photo. “In the Middle Ages, weapons for soldiers were made here, such as halberds and spears, then later tools, and today we only make iron pans,” the craftsman tells us during a break. “There were also many alpine farmers who worked as nail smiths in Bad Hindelang in the winter,” Scholl continues, before the hammers strike the anvil once more...
It takes many herbs to refine the cheese
A rustic iron pan is perfect when it comes to ensuring the stylish presentation of “Allgäuer Kässpatzn”. The best cheese for this can be found a few kilometres further on behind Sonthofen in a beautiful, quiet valley. “Our cheese is a natural product made from raw milk,” explains Peter Haslach from the alpine dairy in Gunzesrieder Tal, one of our Bavarian Insiders.
“The cheese reflects our cultural landscape, the weather – and the mood of the cheesemaker,” he adds with a laugh. Twelve mountain farmers from the valley supply the milk for Gunzesried cheese. They are small farms with ten to twenty-five cows.
“The cheese reflects the mood of the cheesemaker"
This includes the “Sennalpe Gerstenbrändle” further back in the valley. The Endreß family runs this beautifully situated alpine pasture with a flair for hospitality, a geranium-decorated shingle house with guest rooms. Friendly cowbell ringing emanating from the pasture.
“Our brown cattle remain outside day and night in summer and only eat grass and herbs,” reveals the young farmer Alexandra, “that’s why the milk tastes so good!” The alp situated in the middle of the Nagelfluhkette Nature Park represents the starting point for numerous hikes.
On or near the water
If you want to swap the asphalt of the Alpine road for lake or river waves, the best place to do so is around Immenstadt. There, you can take a rafting boat down the Iller or a rental SUP (stand-up paddle board) across the Great Alpsee lake, which is also appreciated by kite surfers and sailors alike.
Swimming is also possible, of course! A water experience that is as unusual as it is cold awaits after just a one-hour hike from Steibis, south of Oberstaufen, in a forest gorge. There, the Buchenegg waterfalls crash over rock steps into two huge basins.
See the lake, and so much more!
Our destination of Lindau is edging nearer. The landscape opens up to reveal unrivalled views of the countryside. Near Lindenberg, we see a blue spectacle jutting out in the west: part of Lake Constance. Those looking to soak up such a view in its entirety should walk along the Skywalk Allgäu treetop path and climb up the observation tower.
With good visibility, the panoramic view extends from the Lindauer Bucht bay in the west, over the peaks of the Ulmer Münster church in the north, to the Nagelfluhkette and Oberstdorf mountains in the east and all the way to the Bregenzerwald mountain range in the south!
One last serpentine to the finish line
One final round of sloping curves and we’re gliding through one serpentine after the next in the road, dropping 400 metres in altitude down the Rohrach climb. The entire Alpine Road flashes once again like a film in front of your inner eye. Farewell to blue. Arm and leg muscles will have to do without the daily workout provided by the stiff steering and sluggish drum brakes, and the loud roar of the boxer engine will surely be missed. Well, perhaps a bit ...
And it’s into the historic town of Lindau, complete with photo finish on the harbour promenade. In the background, the Bavarian Lion and the lighthouse rise out of the water. Happy and contented he now stands there, the lemon-yellow oldie. And also a little proud. Well done, little bug!