Colmar (Alsace, Haut Rhein), France October 2020

We arrived late at our campsite on the edge of Colmar by the River L’Ill but the receptionist, bless her, had stayed late to check us in. I stopped there two years ago for a few nights and knew it would be open this time of the year but, because of the National Covid Lockdown starting the next day, I wasn’t sure if we would be allowed to stay the two nights we needed (we had to get the dogs seen by a local vet for tapeworm tablets before they would be allowed back into the UK) but, I needn’t have worried. The receptionist told us that whatever happened we could stay the extra night. Again, bless her.

We were happy staying over, it gave us a chance to wander around Colmar, a small town in the Alsace Region of France not far from the German border. Vanya had never seen the place. I walked the largely pedestrian old town on my own that first morning and I had never seen it so quiet. It was the first day of the Lockdown in France and the place was virtually deserted. It was much the same in the afternoon when I showed Vanya around the town.

The old part of Colmar is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and timber framed chalk box coloured houses with steep pitched rooves and wooden shutters and it is truly beautiful. When I last stayed there, in 2017, it was packed (not least because it was the day of the town’s annual 10 km run) and I arrived as the runners were finishing. Not so this time.

What is particularly sad is that prior to our arriving the local authority had been putting up the town’s Christmas decorations. Ordinarily, Colmar has 5 weeks of Christmas Markets which are supposedly amongst the best in France – I suspect that will not happen this year.

I probably mentioned this in my earlier blog on the town in 2017 but, amongst other things, Colmar was the birthplace of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi who created the Statue of Liberty. The house he lived in is now a museum dedicated to his work and there’s a statue of Bartholdi in the Parc du Chateau d’Eau with him holding a small replica of the statue of “Liberty Enlightening The World”.

Oh, and we made it to the vet. Would you believe it, he charged a staggering 91 Euros for administering two tapeworm tablets?!? Robbery!

Fussen (Bayern), Germany October 2020

Situated on the southern end of the Romantic Road, within walking distance of the Austrian border, Fussen is a small, pretty town on the banks of the River Lech with a history of violin and lute making (you can learn all about that in the town’s museum). Don’t get too excited about the Romantic Road – there is nothing in the least romantic about the road(s). It is simply a 300 mile mix of roads between Wurzburg and Fussen, stylized by a group of travel agents in the 1950’s who were out to promote Bavaria.

None of the above is to suggest you shouldn’t visit the area and especially Fussen. Fussen has it all – a medieval old town complete with it’s own castle (the Hohes Schloss), sitting in the shelter of the Ammer Mountains amongst numerous lakes; it is very pretty in it’s own right and; well placed for visits to other similarly pretty towns and, of course, to the likes of the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles.

I walked from Brunnen to Fussen along a good path on the banks of the Forggensee, passing through the villages of Schwangau and Horn on the way. The weather was brightening all the time and the walk was delightful, taking no more than an hour and a quarter even allowing for photo stops. A walkers path goes all the way around the Forggensee but I imagine that walk would take about 6 hours. It’s a sizeable lake.

The old town in Fussen is small but enchanting. It could probably be walked in an hour or so but I was keen to make the most of it and took the best part of 4 hours wandering the old town, the castle (it was just 4 Euros for entry), the Lechtfall, the Baum Garten and the town’s principal churches.

For me, Die Heilig Geist Spitalkirche (the Church of the Holy Ghost) stands out from the others in the town as being one of the most unusual and impressive churches I have seen. The original 15th century church was destroyed in a fire in 1733 and when it was rebuilt a few years later, it was constructed in the style of the monastery church of the Franciscans of Dillingen and with the exterior being adorned with colourful frescoes.

The high point of the town (quite literally) is the Hohes Schloss, a one time retreat of the Bishops of Augsburg, which sits alongside St Mang’s Abbey. Access to the castle courtyard (which is a masterpiece of illusion) is free but there’s a charge of 4 Euros to go inside the castle. It is worth 4 Euros for the views over the town alone but from inside you can also access the state art gallery.

I found a cafe-bar before leaving Fussen and, while reflecting on the numerous photographs I had taken during my day in Fussen (and there were lots), enjoyed a particularly good Apfel Strudel. That was always going to help me cover the ground back to the Van in no time.

Schwangau (Allgau), Germany October 2020

We opted to stay for a couple of days at the 5* Camping Brunnen at Schwangau in the Allgau region of Bavaria. It is almost equidistant between Die Konigschlosser (i.e. the castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau) and the town of Fussen. Two days would allow us to catch up on some chores and visit both castles and the town.

Because of poor weather the dogs had been denied their regular exercise and I took them with me on the 12 mile round trip towards Neuschwanstein Castle, passing the Hohenschwangau Castle and the church of St Coloman on the way.

The first castle we saw up close was the Hohenschwangau (no time to dwell here but in any event it looked closed) and then it was on to St Coloman.

My primary target that day was Neuschwanstein, a most elaborate castle sitting on a rock ledge over the Pollat Gorge in the Bavarian Alps. It was built by order of Bavaria’s so called “Mad King” Ludwig II; construction beginning in 1868/69 but not being quite finished before Ludwig died in 1886. Ludwig II was a great admirer and supporter of the composer Richard Wagner and much of the castle was inspired by Wagnerian characters. Indeed, Neuschwanstein is German for New Swan Stone and the Swan Knight is the principal character from Wagner’s Opera Lohengrin.

While Neuschwanstein’s look is that of a medieval castle, it was equipped inside with state of the art technology at that time. For example on every floor of the castle there were toilets with an automatic flushing system (water being supplied from a spring some 200 meters above the castle) and an air heating system for the whole castle. Today, it is one of the most visited castles in Germany and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe with over 1.3 million people visiting. It is said to be the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

Another quite remarkable project of Ludwig’s was the Linderhof Palace. This then very private palace was designed as a refuge for an increasingly reclusive king to hide away in. Being designed for just one person, Ludwig himself, the palace was tiny with just 10 rooms (4 of which were for servants) and the dining table was designed to accommodate just one person. If you think Neuschwanstein is a fairy tale palace, this has to be seen to be believed.

Ludwig II’s situation was tragic. It seems he became obsessive about his personal projects and indifferent to state business. It is said too that he was unable to rein in his excessive spending; so much so, his government advisors started plotting against him and, very suddenly, had him diagnosed as clinically insane, and therefore incompetent. Although he had no prior diagnosis of ‘madness’ he was declared mentally insane by four separate, government-sanctioned psychiatrists and removed as King. Historians don’t know for sure how ‘Mad’ King Ludwig died but not long after, his body was found floating in Lake Starnberg alongside the body of his personal psychiatrist, Dr Gudden.

Time to head back to the Van. The dogs are wiped out.

Oberammergau (Bayern), Germany October 2020

Oberammergau is a small town of 5,000 people in the Ammer Valley at the foot of the Kofel Mountain. The town is known primarily for it’s Passion Play which is held every 10 years and to a lesser extent for it’s woodcarvers (there are lots of them) but it deserves a mention too for once being the home of a certain Franz Zwinck.

Franz Zwinck was a house painter who focused mostly on exteriors and who lived in Oberammergau during the late 18th century. It was he who started painting the frescoes, common throughout Bavaria, which so enhance the appearance of the Region’s pastel coloured buildings. The frescoes are known as Luftlmarelei and are named after the house he lived in and presumably painted: Zum Luftl. Not many people know that.

As already strated, Oberammergau is best known for it’s Passion Play which was first performed in 1634 and has been performed during every year ending in a zero since then with exceptions only of 1920, 1940 and 2020. The play in 1920 was postponed to 1922 because of post World War 1 austerity. The play in 2020 has been postponed to 2022 because of Covid and the play in 1940 was cancelled because of World War 2 but, countering that, extra productions were staged in 1934 (300th anniversary) and 1984 (350th anniversary).

The Play came about after a man returning to the village in 1633 for Christmas brought the bubonic plague with him. He and countless others died until the surviving villagers made a pledge that, if God were to spare them any more deaths, they would stage a passion play every 10 years during which they would re-enact the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is said that the deaths stopped from that moment and that those then sick with the plague all recovered.

So began the Passion Play which now directly involves over 2,000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians – all of whom must be residents of Oberammergau – and which nowadays attracts the best part of half a million spectators to 100 performances during the period May to October.

Like so many places we have visited during this tour, Covid has seen to it that most places are empty of tourists. That proved to be the case in Oberammergau too. After a very pleasant wander around a remarkably empty town, Vanya and I adjourned to a baker coffee shop and enjoyed some quite wonderful cakes with our coffee – If I’m honest, I ate all the cakes.

I’ll finish with a few random photos of the town…

Ettal (Bayern), Germany October 2020

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is not the town it once was and proved a big disappointment; so much so we were in Ettal before noon.

Our next stop after GaPa was to be Oberammergau and weren’t going to stop in Ettal but it is such a beautiful little village and it was on the road to Oberammergau, the Alpine road, that we simply had to pause.

The biggest surprise about Ettal is it’s Benedictine Monastery. It dominates the village and I parked up to investigate this magnificent building (well, it’s a collection of buildings really) and…

The front of an abbey which turned out to be a monastery with a difference

Ettal Abbey was founded in 1330 by the then Emperor Ludwig but is now a Benedictine Monastery with a community of 50+ monks. What is unusual about this monastery is that in 1618 the Duke of Bavaria granted a concession allowing the monks to produce and sell beer and since then increasing sections of the monastery have been given over to the production of beer on a commercial basis. Parts of the monastery are now a brewery!

That’s quite a range of beers

And it doesn’t stop there; it also has a distillery! Indeed, Ettal is almost as renowned for its spirits (as in spirits for drinking) as it’s beer; some made with or at least flavoured with local fruits (e.g. various brandies and of course Kirschwasser) and others made with neutral grain spirits (vodka). What a find!

We couldn’t stay long but there is a museum within the complex that I would very much like to visit when next passing through. I would also consider staying over in Ettal given it’s close proximity to both Oberammergau (5 minutes drive) and the Lindhof Palace (10 minutes drive).

And so to Oberammergau… Wow!!

Krun (Bayern), Germany October 2020

Our next stop was to be Garmisch-Partenkirchen and we made it to Garmisch, passing through some pretty villages as we did so, and we did pause in the centre but parking was difficult and the weather was closing in (with snow forecast for the late afternoon and evening) and so we headed for a highly recommended camp site some 14 km down the road with a view to returning to GaPa the next day.

The site was five star and while not cheap appeared to have everything we could possibly need. The shower block was unreal; sparkling clean and with underfloor heating, numerous separate shower cubicles, unlimited hot water and even a bathroom with a bathtub! I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised given that the camp site is geared up for winter camping and skiing.

It’s restaurant had plenty of good reviews and we decided to eat there that evening – the food and wine were good and not silly expensive.

And so to bed and, yes, it snowed throughout the night but it was that horrible cold slushy snow that fell and that was when camp site fell right down in my estimation. The Van wasn’t parked on hardstanding but on soft mushy ground that became a cold shallow pond.

And so to GaPa…

Rosenheim (Bayern), Germany October 2020

It was a beautiful morning in Schwand and we were sorely tempted to take the boat trip from St Gilgen to St Wolfgang during the afternoon. After checking the latest news, however, we thought better of it. It seems Austria is now considered by Germany to be of the highest Covid risk and there is talk of border restrictions. I don’t know what that means and I’m not convinced it would be legal but these are strange times. Time to move on.

We set off in the direction of Salzburg and then picked up signs for Germany. At the border, which was manned by German police, there was a small queue of cars but absolutely nothing with Austrian plates. Time to worry? No, we were simply waved through. Bit of a relief though.

I don’t know why we stopped at Rosenheim. I googled the place and stumbled upon the “Holiday In Bavaria” site but neither of us knew much about the place before and we perhaps still don’t. For my part, I think it was relief at not being turned back at the border that made me want to pause and take a drink in Rosenheim. It is worth mentioning too that Vanya had found what looked on paper to be a good camp site in the Rosenheim area and the sun was shining.

We parked the Van up in a church car park and walked to the town centre, the Max-Josefs Platz, and sat outside a busy Gasthof and took a beer. It was marvellous sitting in the sun with that beer and if I didn’t have to drive on to the camp site I could have been tempted to take another two or three. It’s a shame Vanya has shown absolutely no interest in driving the Van because she was drinking water and then… well, no matter.

The sun continued to shine; I was precluded from drinking anymore; it was time to check out the town. For my part we had to move as quickly as possible from Max-Josefs Platz – there were two too many distractions – the cafe bars were tempting me and the designer shops were likely to tempt Vanya – I had forgotten it was a Sunday and few if any designer shops are open in this part of the world on a Sunday.

With a population of more than 60,000 Rosenheim is a large town but, I don’t think there is much to the place and I certainly cannot agree with the “Holiday In Bavaria” website when it suggests that the town “delights visitors with its southern flair and Alpine charm”. It has some colourful buildings but, so too does the rest of Bavaria. It has some interesting museums and some enticing looking shops but on such a sunny Sunday afternoon? I don’t think so. As for the Alpine charm bit, I would suggest there are many more places in Bavaria much closer to the Alps that better qualify for that particular soubriquet.

There are a couple of things about Rosenheim I do very much like. On a warm sunny afternoon such as we enjoyed, the Max-Josefs Platz struck me as a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by and, remember, this was on a Covid Sunday when there were but a fraction of the people out and about as normal.

For much the same reason Ludwigplatz also appealed to me but sitting almost in between the two is the beautiful Kirche St Nikolaus. That place really impressed me.

While quite ornate on the outside, with some very interesting frescoes, it was stylish simplicity on the inside – a total contrast and wonderfully elegant. A truly beautiful church.

Reading this back I hope I don’t come across as too hostile towards Rosenheim. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the place. I think perhaps I expected too much of the town in the first place (but I’ll blame Holiday In Bavaria for that). Would I ever return? Yes, I would. It could be argued that I barely scratched the surface in the time I was there this time and, in any event, Rosenheim is supposed to have a fantastic Autumn Beer Drinking Festival which sounds far more authentic than Munich’s Oktoberfest.

Oh, and the camp site Vanya found in the area was very good.

Hallstatt (Salzkammergut), Austria October 2020

Lonely Planet describes Hallstatt’s beauty as bordering on the surreal and the sublime. Ordinarily it may be just like that but, prior to our arriving, it had been raining heavily and the mountains were covered in filthy clouds and the lake looked dark, cold and uninviting. That’s not nice, let alone surreal and sublime.

No matter the village, with it’s 800 inhabitants, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997; is one of the most photographed little towns in all Austria and; receives one million plus visitors every year (mostly from China). Indeed, the Chinese have been sufficiently impressed with Hallstatt to have built an exact scale copy of the old town at Luoyang in Guangdong Province. If that isn’t enough, it wasn’t raining as we arrived – so, we parked the Van and set off to look at the place for ourselves. We had no trouble parking despite it being a public holiday weekend in Austria and I’m not sure if that was because of the poor weather or Covid or both. Certainly, there were no Chinese while we were there.

Squeezed into a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the western bank of what is often described as a looking glass lake (fairly big too at over 7 km long, 2 km wide and up to 125 metres deep) the old town with it’s picturesque pastel coloured buildings is undeniably pretty. The market square with it’s Holy Trinity statue, shops, cafes and small houses is the best part of the town but the two churches must also be seen.

In most photographs of the town it is the spire of the Evangelical Church of Christ which is most prominent. Ironically, the town’s protestants weren’t granted the freedom to practise their own faith until well into the 19th century and the church itself wasn’t built until 1863. Call me a cynic but is it simply a coincidence that the protestant church sits directly beneath the Catholic Church?

I’ll tell you something. It is a nice place but you will not catch me here while it is being overrun with tourists.

Bad Ischl (Salzkammergut), Austria October 2020

Bad Ischl is a spa town with saline, iodine and sulphur springs which sits under Mount Katrin on the Traun River. It is some 30 miles east of Salzburg and just 10 miles east from Gschwand where we parked.

Our friend Gerhard was staying in Bad Ischl for a few weeks and a visit there gave us a chance to catch up with him and complete a number of routine tasks that were long overdue (find a jeweller capable of fixing some watches, stock up on dog food, general shopping before Austria’s forthcoming National Day weekend and, most important, find Vanya some winter clothing which she had not brought along – hardly surprising since we had originally planned to be back in the UK some weeks ago). So it was that we set off to Bad Ischl.

It is a lovely little town full of old Imperial Grandeur. The Austrian Emperor (and King of Hungary), Franz Josef I was given a palace in Bad Ischl by his mother as a wedding gift when he married Elizabeth of Bavaria in 1854. This palace, subsequently named the Kaiservilla, became his summer residence and was used as such for the next 60 years. It was at the Kaiservilla on 28 July 1914 he wrote that fateful letter declaring war on Serbia which in turn started World War I- His letter has the Bad Ischl postmark on it. The Emperor left Bad Ischl the next day and never returned.

Enough history – Gerhard introduced us to a good jeweller (with whom we left our watches) and then took us on a whistle stop tour of the town…

Austria has a strong coffee house culture and, while Gerhard went off to attend to some business for a short while, Vanya and I took time out to visit the world famous Cafe-Restaurant Zauner for coffee and cakes. Established in 1832, the Konditorei Zauner was a great favourite of the Emperor Franz-Josef. It has since won numerous awards for both coffee and cakes and has even been immortalised on an Austrian postage stamp. The chocolate torte was wonderful.

We enjoyed a good Chinese meal that evening at the Asia Restaurant (with Tsingtao Beer and a glass of Gruner Veltliner) and agreed to return to Bad Ischl the next day for a further tour. Thanks Gerhard!

The next day, the weather was overcast and poor visibility precluded our ascending Mount Katrin in the cable car – not that Vanya could ever have been persuaded to make that particular 15 minute journey. Instead, we walked up the Siriuskogl (on the south side of Bad Ischl and just 20 minutes or so from the town centre) to an old wooden watchtower which provided good views down over the town but, more important, has an excellent little restaurant where we could get lunch.

After lunch it was time to move on. We were off on a short drive to beautiful Halstatt although, with the weather as it was, I wasn’t convinced we would see it at its best.

A factoid: The author Roger Lewis lives in Bad Ischl. Amongst other things Roger Lewis writes biographies – “The Life and Death of Peter Sellars” (no prizes for guessing who that was about”, “The Man Who was Private Widdle” (a biography of Charles Hawtrey from the Carry On films), “Anthony Burgess – A Biography” (about he who wrote A Clockwork Orange) and “The Real Life Of Laurence Olivier (I don’t need to explain who Olivier is).

Sankt Gilgen (Salzkammergut), Austria October 2020

Saint Gilgen (Saint Giles in English) is a small town of less than 4,000 people at the Salzburg end of the Wolfgangsee, some 3 miles from where we were camped at Gschwand. Vanya wanted a rest day and I decided to walk the path besides the lake to Saint Gilgen for a look-see.

Saint Gilgen is really all about boat trips up and down the lake to St Wolfgang although the town also operates a cable car which for 28 euros will take you on a 16 minute ride up the Zwolferhorn Mountain. At 1,522 metres there ought to be some fine views from the summit over the Salzkammergut and it’s many lakes but I can’t say for sure because they had not long taken the old cable car out of operation and were testing a new one. I was advised it should be operational within the week. Timing is everything. Sadly, I didn’t have time for the boat trip either because we had arranged to meet our friend, Gerhard, for dinner but; there was enough time to explore the town and enjoy a glass or two of Gruner Veltliner in one of the local bars.

The town is small and is focussed around two places; the pier (where the boats depart for St Wolfgang) and the Mozart Platz. Mozart’s grandfather lived in St Gilgen, as did his mother (she was born there) and his sister (Maria Anna, better known as Nannerl). Wolfgang Amadeus never actually visited the place but the connection is plain to see and the town proudly celebrates the man and his works.

Time to get back to the Van for a shower. Wiener Schnitzel tonight.