Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 16, 2017

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Fairy-tale kingdom

The ghosts of kings and madmen trail visitors on Germany's storybook Romantic Road

The sky glowered above me as the wind picked up, rustling leaves in the forest. I climbed the steep winding path, hoping to beat the clouds which were closing in. If I craned my neck, I could see the Castle of Neuschwantstein on the mountaintop above. It had seemed so cheery in sunny postcard photos but, lit gloomily by an approaching shower, it suddenly seemed foreboding. I fully expected to see its turrets outlined by a flash of lightning as thunder cracked.

If that seems overly dramatic, you have to understand that it's easy to lose your sense of perspective when you're surrounded by a landscape straight out of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. I was spending the week visiting the Romantic Road (romanticroadgermany.com) and Alpine Road (bavaria.by/the-german-alpine-road-1.html) in the region south of Munich filled with fairy-tale castles and houses painted with medieval crests. And, towering over it all, the Bavarian Alps, adding moments of awe to the sheep-dotted valleys.

Once upon a time

My day had started in medieval Füssen, an hour southwest of Munich, which sits on a river with a Baroque white-washed monastery and steep gabled houses painted in Easter-egg colours — a town that could easily be the setting for a fairy tale.

During the Renaissance, Füssen was the most important centre for string instruments in Europe, and was home to the continent's first lute maker's guild. In fact, the Stradivarius family are said to be descendents of Füssen lute makers. The pretty town still has remnants of its medieval city walls, with homes built atop it, as well as Baroque churches and a castle with trompe l'oeil balconies painted on its walls.

But the castles I had come to see were 10 minutes away: the neo-Gothic Hohenschwangau (tel: 011-49-8362-930-830; www.hohenschwangau.de), built for King Maximilien II in the early 19th century and Neuschwanstein (tel: 011-49-8362-939-880; www.neuschwanstein.de), the over-the-top Renaissance confection constructed for his son Ludwig II in the 1880s.

King Maximilian II discovered the ruins of a 12th-century knight's castle during a walking tour of the area. He was so taken with the natural beauty and the heraldic history of the site, that he went on to build his own neo-Gothic castle over the ruins. The interior is painted with murals depicting the saga of knights of Arthurian legend. Hohenschwangau became the summer home of Bavarian kings, and despite its Gothic style, it retains the cosy feel of a hunting lodge.

However, it's neighbouring Neuschwanstein, teetering on a steep mountain, backed by the blue-green peaks of the Bavarian Forest, has the Romantic grandeur to make it the most popular castle in the country (with the crowds and timed-entrance tickets to prove it).

It probably doesn't hurt that its owner is a controversial figure in German history. Sometimes called "mad" King Ludwig, he was in fact declared mentally unfit for political reasons and sent to an institution where he is said to have taken his life — though many think he was assassinated.

He had spent years avoiding his responsibilities as a ruler and sinking into a fantasy world. He emptied state coffers by simultaneously building several lavish palaces and heavily subsidizing the work of Richard Wagner. The composer's medieval-themed operas were the ultimate world into which he longed to disappear.

I trouped along with the crowd through the dark-wood and jewel-toned interiors, dripping with wall and ceiling carvings, tapestries, rugs and ornate furniture. Some visitors commented on the sinister feel of the castle's interior, but the sombre, heavy-handedness of the decor is an accurate reflection of late Victorian taste. It definitely wasn't surprising to learn that Ludwig II had worked with the set designers from Wagner's opera Parsifal to decorate Neuschwanstein.

If, for centuries, the ultimate fairy-tale ending was to become a king or queen, this desperate attempt at escape was a clear reminder that there were never any guarantees of happily ever after. Ironically, this faux period castle was deemed theatrical enough to be used as the model for another storybook abode: Cinderella's iconic home at Walt Disney World, Orlando.

Storybook settings

Certainly, many Bavarian towns do their best to make you believe they have popped from the pages of a children's book. The twin towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (tel: 011-49-8821-180-700; ga-pa.de), about an hour southwest of Munich, are a case in point. The pretty little towns are paired on either side of the Partnach River, and are proud of their traditions.

For example, building facades are painted with Baroque murals which tell the story of the original owners, or tales of the region and its customs. Here, lederhosen and dirndls aren't just for festivals: the regional outfits are worn to church on Sunday. And of course to the beer hall directly after.

On the outskirts of Garmisch, the Alps rise quickly. I headed to a path leading to Partnach Gorge. There, the Partnach River surges through a narrow, kilometre-and-a-half-long gap between high limestone cliffs.

From a winding road in a narrow valley filled with huts for winter wood and sheep gamboling with bells, I climbed to a paved path carved into the cliffs above the river.

Between the high walls of the gorge, the sunlight filtered down in wisps and the sound of water thundered. Rivulets plunged off the escarpment above, creating a misty veil as I followed a group of hikers, single file, trying to cling to the rock walls. It felt like I was running a gauntlet, and at the same time I didn't want it to end.

After the gorge came a shaded forest. A terraced trail with wooden steps climbed steadily uphill for 20 minutes, until suddenly I popped out in another world. I felt like the protagonist of a folk tale, emerging into a magical clearing. I was surrounded on all sides by the Alps. Across from me was the Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany, straddling the border with Austria. I walked past farmers in knee breaches and Tyrolean hats heading towards their cottages, while the clink of cow bells echoed in the pastures above us. I stopped for a simple meal in a Hansel and Gretel-style guesthouse drinking in the views, before taking a tiny gondola back down to the valley.

Alpine traditions

Later in the week, I followed the Alpine Road about an hour and a half from Munich to reach the popular resort town of Berchtesgaden (tel: 011-49-1805-865-200; en.berchtesgadener-land.com). The landscape could have been lifted from The Sound of Music, so I wasn't surprised to learn that it's only 30 minutes from Salzburg, Austria, where the musical was set.

Berchtesgaden itself is a stately Baroque village with winding streets, a medieval market square and a castle. It nestles along a glacial river below Watzmann Mountain, the third highest peak in the country.

Like so many places in Bavaria, traditions stretching back centuries are still very much alive. I drove past two young men who looked like they were off to a Halloween party, each wearing stovetop hats, flared black pants and clutching a gnarled wooden walking stick. My taxi driver explained that they were in fact wandering apprentices, going from village to village to continue their training. Towns that take in apprentices post the crest for each receiving guild on a tall May pole in the centre of town. So those poles that I had written off as quaint medieval decorations were in fact still in use as a kind of old-school bulletin board.

The German kings may have abdicated in 1918, but there are still descendants of royal families around. The Bavarian dynasty of the Wittelsbach, to which Ludwig II belonged, has held on to the castle at Berchtesgaden. It's open to the public for much of the year, but off limits during August when the family comes for the month. Unlike so many regal residences that have been turned into museums, this castle is still very much a home. In fact, you can see the doorjamb where Ludwig II's height was notched when he was a young child.

This area was a favourite of Ludwig II's father, particularly jewel-like Lake Königssee. This deep emerald green lake is surrounded by mountains walls so steep that it resembles a fjord. The only way to take a tour is to rent a rowboat, or to climb aboard one of the electric-powered wooden boats (tel: 011-49-8652-96360; seenschiffahrt.de) which glide noiselessly along the water.

When I visited, I watched visitors hop off to tackle what seemed like near-vertical trails that lead high up to the summer pastures. The village cattle has to be brought over by boat as well — which must be quite a sight. A local ranger explained that when the cows come back from the Alpine pastures in the fall, they are dolled up with elaborately painted wooden headdresses and paraded through town.

Most day trippers to Lake Königssee head to the tiny, flat peninsula in the middle of the lake, the site of a basilica since the 12th century and still home to the Chapel of St. Bartholomew. Next door is a restaurant housed in what was once the hunting lodge of Bavarian kings. I sat at a long wooden table with a group of hikers, while a tile-covered Bavarian fireplace warmed the chilly room. We dined on trout and whitefish caught in the lake's crystalline waters by the sole fisher allowed on site.

From the chapel, walking paths lead through spruce forests to a glacier up in the mountains. I'm told it's an easy way to get a taste of Alpine beauty without being a hardcore hiker. As long as you remember to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.

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