Centuries-old castles, medieval villages with half-timbered houses, and rolling fields edged by snow-capped Alps remain staples, creating the spectacular scenery we expect. Yet, in places, the region blooms with an attitude as fresh as the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, which opened May 1. The museum presents the city’s role as the locus for the Nazi movement.
And some tradition-steeped Bavarian towns feature modern luxury accommodations. Schloss Elmau, for example, achieves über-trendiness when the G-7 Summit meets there this month.
Follow this guide for highlights of new and old Bavaria.
The “New” Bavaria
Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism (the NS Dokumentationszentrum)
The centre puts the lie to the once-frequently heard lament “We did not know what was happening.” The centre, as director Winfried Nerdinger states, “is a visible sign in …Munich … that its citizens and those politically responsible are facing the history of their city, where the seed of Nazi crimes was nurtured…”
Thirty-three main, vertical panels pinpoint themes through a combination of photos and text (English and German). Horizontal light boxes present more details. The exhibits begin with the top floor’s background on post-World War I Germany and the rise of Hitler’s fringe party. As you wind through the floors, a glance out the windows reveals the actual buildings constructed by the Nazi party. The centre itself stands on the site of the former “Brown House,” the party headquarters.
For me, the third floor starts the gut-wrenching Munich history of crimes against people with the tale of once-prominent Munich lawyer Michael Siegel. After Siegel tried to obtain the release of a client, police beat him and forced him to walk barefoot through Munich’s streets with a sign stating “I’m a Jew, but I no longer want to complain to the police.”
The litany continues with photos of Storm Battalion men preventing customers from entering Jewish business; Munich’s citizens walking past the smashed windows of the Uhlfelder department store, whose Jewish owner and son were sent to Dachau; SS officers hanging a man; trains bringing prisoners to concentration camps and more.
On the last exhibit floor, a touch screen and news ticker report current instances of the exclusion of minorities—just in case you thought persecution lived only in the past. And that’s why Nerdinger and others don’t consider the centre a museum. While focusing on the incontrovertible past, the centre’s purpose is to showcase democracy’s fragility and to underscore that without upholding the rights of minorities, oppression and atrocities can happen again. www.ns-dokuzentrum-muenchen.de
Schloss Elmau (Castle Elmau), Krün
You know the place is special if presidents, prime ministers, and Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet there for the G-7 Summit 2015. On 1,600 acres in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps about 62 miles south of Munich, Schloss Elmau, despite its grand setting, creates a welcoming, unfussy retreat.
Definitely not your grandmother’s chalet, Schloss Elmau features 75,000 square feet of spas, hosts more than 200 concerts and literary events annually, and offers 9 restaurants, including the one-star Michelin Luce d’Oro. The property also has a recently completed helipad as well as a 47-suite addition.
The modern décor emphasizes clean lines, warm woods, and a persimmon fabric embellished with beige Asian elephants. Why the elephants? “The owner likes them,” says an assistant. Built between 1914-1916, as a castle hotel and retreat, Schloss Elmau’s storied past includes service after World War II as a prison hospital for the German military, a sanatorium for displaced persons and Holocaust survivors, and an acclaimed chamber music venue. The current owner, a descendant of the family that built the castle, took over in 1997, reopening the property in 2007 as a luxury retreat.
What to do there? On property, take part in the twice daily complimentary yoga, hike or bike the Alps, indulge in the spa, and sit happily admiring the snow-capped peaks of the Wetterstein range. Nearby you can golf, kayak, and horseback ride. Year-round the hotel offers childcare for ages 1 to 5 and in summer programs for ages 6 to 15. www.schloss-elmau.de
Often the less said about airport experiences the better. We want to get in and get out and if we have hours until a connection, we suffer through. But that’s not the situation at the Munich Airport, a facility that became Europe’s first 5-star airport in spring 2015.
Have a question? Head to the InfoGate, a touch screen computer that connects you with a live person. She can not only answer you, but print out helpful subway maps and other handy items. www.munich-airport.de
Traditional Bavaria Road Trip: The Romantic Road Highlights
The Romantic Road stretches from Füssen, outside Munich, north for about 220 miles to Würzburg. The concept began as a post-World War II marketing ploy to boost tourism to Germany. The road leads you through farmlands and through villages dating to the 12th century as well as to the good-sized cities of Augsburg and Würzburg.
Here are some of our personal favorites:
Schloss Neuschwanstein, Füssen
Those who grew up with Walt Disney World may almost feel a calling to see Neuschwanstein, the model for Cinderella’s castle. That connection, combined with Neuschwanstein’s cliffside setting and easy 1.5 to 2 hour drive from Munich, make King Ludwig II’s palace among the most popular in Europe. Expect crowds in season.
Ludwig wished his place, begun in 1865, to be grander than Versailles as well as an homage to Wagner’s mythic operas. Ludwig died—he likely was murdered—in 1886 before the palace’s completion. Ludwig, we discover, liked excess. On a guided tour, see the elaborately frescoed and gilded throne hall, Ludwig’s bedroom with its Tristan and Isolde themed tapestries, his study with themed murals from Wagner and several other ornate rooms.
A tour requires extreme punctuality. With 6,000 daily visitors in season, the castle’s timed tickets help move the masses. As our guide reminds us, “German efficiency” requires visitors to be at the turnstile in the castle’s inner courtyard exactly on time. To get there, take a bus or horse-drawn carriage to the castle’s outer walls or work your glutes on the 40-minute uphill walk. Be sure to arrive at the castle’s base at least 2 hours ahead of your timed entry. www.neuschwanstein.de
Formerly on the trade route between Venice and Augsburg, Mittenwald (population 7,400) sits at the base of the Karwendel Mountains. The village, with its frescoed houses and woodsy backdrop, is a lovely place for a walderlebnispfad, or as our guide translates, a forest walk.
A hardy Bavarian, he assures us that the 40-minute trail to Lautersee, a nearby lake, is relatively flat except for a few steps at the trailhead. Not. Maybe if you strut this route daily, but most in my group experience the path as a series of steep inclines linked by flat areas barely long enough for catching our breath. Nonetheless, we make it to the lakeside pub for a well-deserved beer and a chair.
Recovered, we walk to the Geigenbau (violin) museum, which details the town’s 300 years of violin making. Ever since 1684, when local Matthias Klotz returned from years of studying violin-making in Italy, Mittenwald has served as a center for the craft. On the second floor you can admire 2 of Klotz’s creations.
The mass-produced violins of the 20th century have diminished Mittenwald’s violin industry, but aficionados still commission hand-crafted instruments. Notes museum guide Florian Sandner, a third-generation violin maker, “Perfect work makes a good violin.” Sandner estimates that crafting one can take 200 hours or 1.5 years, and sell for between $2,000 to $10,000. www.germany.travel/en/towns-cities-culture/top-100/content/mittenwald.html
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Rothenburg on the Tauber River rates as one Germany’s best-preserved walled towns. A walk through one of the gates makes us feel as if we’ve time-traveled to the Middle Ages (as long as we block out the tourist hordes).
Houses with stucco fronts, timbered beams, and steep roofs line cobbled streets. The oldest section of the Town Hall dates from 1250 while the “newer” part was constructed between 1572 and 1578. The prosperous medieval city harbored 6,000 residents in the Middle Ages (11,000, now).
Our favorite spot, the castle garden, affords breezes, greenery, and panoramic views of the ancient walls with the town’s skyline rising above. About 60% of the Rothenburg’s structures are original to the 13th and 14th centuries and the remaining 40%, which burned in a 1946 fire, have been rebuilt to match the original medieval architecture.
To avoid the thickest crowds, visit off-season and/or stay overnight, when at least some of the sightseers move on. In the evening we and about 130 others follow Hans-George, “George”, Baumgaertner on his hour-long, Night Watchman’s tour. Dressed in faux Medieval attire, George delivers history and jokes in comic deadpan, revealing such tidbits as the Protestant town’s occupation by Catholic troops in 1631. The soldiers brought disease and by the end of the Thirty Years War’s in 1648, new trade routes bypassed Rothenburg.
What preserved the town, George asks? “Poverty and the fact that for 250 years not much happened here.”
The Medieval Crime and Justice Museum (Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum) surprises us. Instead of being, as we imagine, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not with real torture devices, the museum presents an engaging view of German legal history in the Middle Ages. That era had a fondness for thumb screws, stretch racks, and chairs with spikes, all on display. These were not instruments of punishment, but rather methods for obtaining confessions.
Don’t miss the shame masks (schandmaske). A snoopy person might be sentenced to wear a mask with big ears and a man who engaged in sex with someone other than his wife would have to wear a pig mask. www.kriminalmuseum.rothenburg.de
Traditional Bavarian Fare
Raise a glass filled with Bavarian beer and take a bite out of a favorite local food.
In spring, Germany undergoes a mini-frenzy for white asparagus. Harvested before its tips break the ground sufficiently to absorb sunlight, the season for this specialty is May to mid-June.
Beer and Beer Gardens
Downing a liter of beer in a leafy garden has long been a tradition in Germany. Before refrigeration, breweries stored beer barrels in their cellars. To help keep the brew cold, owners planted horse chestnut trees to shade the ground and when allowed by decree, served beer on-site to locals, and later, food. Augustiner is among Munich’s popular brands. For non-beer drinkers like us, the Radler, a light beer mixed with lemonade, is fine.
Among the many types of sausage, Bavarians especially like white sausage, weisswurst. Peel the casing, slather the sausage with sweet mustard and pass the sauerkraut.
The best weinerschnitzel (veal cutlet) on our trip is from Ratskeller Augusburg, in the basement of the Augsburg Town Hall. Marinated in mustard and horseradish, then covered in pretzel crumb breading and fried in butter, the veal schmeckt lecker (tastes delicious).
Restaurants often place both bread and pretzels on the table. We always manage to eat them both. Spread the salty pretzels with mustard or cut them in half, insert your favorite cold meat, and munch on a pretzel sandwich.
Snowballs are a Bavarian treat. Striffler’s Bakery, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, claims to have brought this sweet traditionally prepared by farmers’ wives for celebrations, to the town when the current family’s grandfather opened his bakery in 1925. Snowballs consist of strips of dough, a bit of cream, and plum alcohol, rolled into a ball and deep fried. The most popular are coated with sugar or cinnamon. Other varieties are dark chocolate and milk chocolate. Done correctly snowballs taste neither greasy nor hard. We like the ones at Striffler’s.
Franken (Franconia) Wine
Franconia is known primarily for its white wines. Franconian wines are typically bottled in a bocksbeutel, a round bottle with a neck. Although Glocke Weingut produces wine in Rothenburg, there are more wineries in Würzburg.
For Bavaria tourism information, www.bavaria.us