We had a lot of fun and made new friends on our cruise, so it was with mixed feeling that we left the cruise in Basal Switzerland. As we wondered through Basal it was a pleasant surprise to continue to run into people we knew from the ship.
We took the train from Basal to our first stop, Schwangau, Germany. Before leaving the U.S. we had purchased a Eurail Pass. This is a great deal. It is only available to people who don’t live in Europe. It must be purchased ahead of time and sent to you by mail. We purchased a package that gave us five trips in three countries over a two month period – a perfect fit for our plans. I figured we saved about one third of what it would have cost us to pay for each of these trips individually, plus all of our seats were in First Class. With the Eurail Pass you don’t have to make a reservation, but just get on whatever train you need. We had only one time when we thought it was necessary to have a reservation and in that instance we were glad that we did.
The reason for traveling to Schwangau was to visit the castles (Schloss) of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. These castles were residences of the Wittlesbach family, a dynasty that reigned over Bavaria for generations. The most famous Wittlesbach was King Ludwig II, better known as “Mad King Ludwig.” He was largely ineffective, recluse, and spent his time and family fortune on building many castles throughout Bavaria. As a young man he lived in Schloss Hohenschwangau, which was one of the summer residences of the Wittlesbach’s, and built Schloss Neuschwanstein. Neuschwanstein was his most famous castle and was the inspiration for the Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. How would you like to have that for your summer cottage?
It was clear to me that these castles were built as residences, not fortresses. While they dominated the countryside they were not defensible. As we toured the castles I couldn’t help but think these people had way too much money that could have been spent more wisely. Gaudy does not begin to describe the interiors of these castles. Ludwig loved medieval history and there were murals on almost every wall depicting medieval scenes. The wildest example of excess I learned about was Ludwig’s bed in Hohenschwangau was carved from wood and took 400 woodcarvers fourteen months to complete! None the less, both castles were impressive sites to see. Included in our tickets was a pass to the Museum of Bavarian Kings, which I found to be almost more interesting than the castles. If you visit Neuschwanstein, don’t pass up the Museum, it is well worth your time.
When selecting where we would stay I tried to pick non-chain hotels that would offer a more personal experience, that would be inexpensive, but not a dump. The Landhotel Guglhupf in Schwangau was everything I hoped for. The room was nice with a balcony had offered a view of the Bavarian Alps and Neuschwanstein. They offered a breakfast with so much food we wouldn’t need anything more to eat until dinner. The performance of the staff was an example of professional customer service. I’d be willing to go back to Germany just to stay there for a while.
Our next stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and home to the Sound of Music. Yes, the Von Trapp Family lived there and fled the Nazis from there, but most people in Salzburg don’t make a big deal about it, it is purely an American thing. While the movie was filmed in the USA, it was based on locations in Salzburg. We were able to see the steps in the Mirabell Garden where the Von Trapp kids sang the “Do-Re-Me” song. If you recall where the family hid in the church cemetery, that is St. Peters Cemetery and we were able to see the caged grave sites along the wall where they hid. We also learned an interesting tidbit – the graves are not owned, but rented by the families. If the family does not keep up with the rent the headstones are removed and cemented to the exterior wall of the church. No one said if they moved the bodies!
In our tour of Salzburg we relied on a cell phone App by Rick Steves. I used his travel guide as my primary resource in planning our trip. This is a free App and is an excellent way to tour a city in Europe. As opposed just an MP3 file, it includes a map and a complete written transcript of what he is saying. You can find it in the Google Play Store. I found this much better than a “Jump Off and On” bus tour or a walking tour with a guide. We would listen on our own phones, we could wander as much as we wanted, and repeat portions of the narration. I found the map to be a good navigation aid even after we were finished with his narrated tour. If you have ever watched Rick Steves on PBS, you’ll know that he knows how to find the best in every locale.
On our second day in town we took a bus to Berchestgarten. From there we took a bus tour with Eagles Nest Tours to Obersalzburg and Hitler’s Eagles Nest. Here we learned Hitler did not live in Berlin. He and many of his key leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and Martin Borman lived in Obersalzburg. Many people have the impression that Hitler had a residence in the Eagles Nest, high above Obersalzburg, but it was built as a “tea house.” In fact, Hitler didn’t like heights and visited the Eagles Nest only fourteen times.
After WWII the German government made a deliberate effort to remove all of the Hitler sites, so they could not be used as shrines or rallying points for Hitler followers. The big hotel at Obersazburg and the Eagles Nest were taken over by the U.S. as military recreation sites. After they were turned back over to the Germans, the hotel was torn down, but the local Bavarian governor asked to keep the Eagles Nest intact and turn it into a tourist attraction to bring revenue into the area. His request was granted and it is awash with tourists every day.
The Nazis also built a bunker system under Obersalzburg to serve as air raid shelters for the Nazi leaders. They were so well furnished that they were essentially a continuation of the above ground quarters, like a super finished basement. There are only two places where you can go into the bunkers but all that remains are the walls and the stairways. After the war the U.S. Army allowed the residents of the area to take whatever they wanted from the bunkers to rebuild which is why there is not much left to see.
Next stop – Munich
Great practical and historical information, Bob! I’ve been intrigued with Neuschwanstein since I was a kid. The fact it is indefensible might have been missed by me; seeing it through your perspective adds so much to the story. Fascinating!
I wanted to include more pictures, but taking pictures inside the castles was prohibited. I really wanted to get a picture of the bed that took 400 woodcarvers to make.