Oberammergau (Bayern), Germany October 2020 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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 (Tour 3)

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.

Schwand (Salzkammergut), Austria October 2020 (Tour 3)

Arrived at a site, Paradiescamping Birkenstrand, at (G)Schwand on the Wolfgangsee (about 3 miles outside of Sankt Gilgen) which is amongst the best we have seen throughout the tour. It sits right on the lake and is clean and modern with everything you could want including a toilet block with underfloor heating… and all for 20 Euros.

Since Gerhard is currently staying in Bad Ischl just 15 kms away (and we hope to see him and Clare over the weekend) we have decided to stay on at Schwand and take in Sankt Gilgen, Bad Ischl and perhaps even Hallstatt. This latter town is reputedly the most beautiful village in Austria.

We arrived at Schwand late in the afternoon and had just enough time to quickly explore the local area before Gerhard joined us and took us to a fine restaurant in Gschwendt where we enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel, the local beer and a nice Gruner Veltliner. We’ll be buying a great deal more of the latter before we leave Austria.

Our view in the other direction

Villach (Carinthia), Austria October 2020 (Tour 3)

I recall staying near Villach last year, at a place called Ossiach, and making the 10 mile journey to Villach by bus to discover there was some kind of festival going on – the Villacher Kirchtag festival. I recall it was a very gay affair with many people dressed up in the national costume (lederhosen and dirndels) and numerous ‘oompah’ bands playing (almost competing with each other) and lots of beer was being drunk from about 9 o’clock in the morning. That was last August during Europe Tour 2 which I covered on Facebook but didn’t do a daily blog on.

The Villacher Kirchtag has been an event every year since 1936 (except between 1940 and 1947) and it is now a regional attraction that is known across Austria (and parts of Italy too judging by the number of Italian voices I heard last year). I don’t know the significance of the festival or how it came about but it really is a fun affair. Sadly, because of the COVID pandemic and following the Austrian governments directive that no large event take place before the end of August 2020, the 77th Villacher Kirchtag did not take place in 2020. Next year perhaps.

Our visit to Villach this year happened purely and simply because Bled was almost totally closed because of COVID (see previous blog). Rather than search Slovenia for areas that were not categorised as COVID level 2 or 3 (shades of the lockdown which would close the bars) we decided to make the 33 mile drive to Austria knowing that we would at least be able to get out for a drink.

One feature worth mentioning is that police are now manning the borders between Italy, Slovenia and Austria because of COVID. Having said that, we haven’t experienced any problems crossing borders. The Slovenians might have stopped us from entering (because we carry GB plates & passports and COVID is spiking in the UK) but because we have spent the last weeks in Italy we were okay. We were stopped too when crossing from Slovenia into Austria but again were waived through after explaining that we have been in Italy for several weeks and left Trieste that very morning. I trust we’ll have no problems going forward.

We stayed in a basic but clean and pleasant camp site, Seecamping Plorz, overlooking Lake Ossiach. We had the site entirely to ourselves.

Bled (Julian Alps), Slovenia October 2020 (Tour 3)

Bled was closed!

We arrived mid afternoon and parked the Van on an empty pay car park near where the 209 meets Kidriceva cesta (on the south east side of the lake) and then walked clockwise round the lake towards the town’s centre, seeing very few people on the way.

In the centre we saw even fewer people. With the exception of a small Mercado not far from where we had parked the Van, the casino, a health food store and one small restaurant doing take away food only, everything was closed. We couldn’t get a drink anywhere, even in the local hotels. We walked from one hotel to another but most appeared to be boarded up; the only one showing any light had a sign up advising that only hotel residents would be served food and drink. It was unbelievable.

An elderly woman stopped to ask us about the dogs and I asked her why everything was shut. That started her off. In between slagging off the Croat tourists who had brought COVID to Bled and the Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, for letting them enter the country, she explained that COVID was rife and everywhere was on lockdown. She didn’t stop at that but, to cut a long rant short, she politely suggested we find somewhere else in Slovenia that wasn’t locked down and then apologised for leaving us saying that she had to get home. For what it is worth she wasn’t wearing a face mask.

Having walked the entire 6 km circuit of the lake before meeting the lady, we decided to stock up on stores, pack up the Van and head off to Austria. Shame but Vanya has now been to Slovenia, seen Bled, walked all around the lake and the town (she covered 10 kms today) and taken countless stunning photographs of one of the prettiest places in Europe…Take a look for yourself…

There is more about Bled in the blog I made when I last visited the town in 2017 although in some respects the place has changed quite markedly. Certainly, the town has grown significantly and the lakeside has been further developed to cater for tourists. Indeed, work seems to be continuing in that regard.