We picked up our rental car at the Zurich Airport and headed away from the city on the A1 toward Germany and Austria, feeling free at last.
Part of a longer European visit which included a couple weeks on a choir tour, we had carved out a 10-day chunk for ourselves to visit Bavaria — aka Castle Country, home of both Mozart and BMW — as well as bountiful beer gardens and outrageous views of the Austrian Alps.
Almost immediately, we plunged into a fairytale landscape of vibrant green fields dotted with tidy farmhouses and shining lakes backed by jagged Alps rising straight up out of the land to tower and preside over all. Misty clouds lay in the gaps between the peaks, lolling like restless ghosts.
I aimed my camera, framing the shot, but before I could click, boom, we entered a tunnel and the vista was gone. Unlike tunnels we are used to in the United States, this tunnel went on and on for two, maybe three miles. We emerged into sunlight, I set up another shot, then bam, another tunnel and so it went until we missed our German turn, veered into Austria, and sped halfway to Innsbruck.
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The Wi-Fi unit we’d rented with the car followed us to the confluence of Switzerland-Germany-Austria at Lake Konstanz and then quit. The multi-country AAA map that had seemed so useful when planning our trip from California suddenly dissolved into a tangle of road numbers and city names impossible to read.
“Recalculating,” I told my husband, Ron Tilley. The misty clouds gathered up, turned black and bled big drops.
“Turn left here,” I commanded, and we left the freeway for white-knuckle Route 197, which wound up, up and up over a mountain pass before descending into a steep valley anchored by a series of ski towns turned into summer biking-and-hiking resorts.
Although it wasn’t the prescribed route, by and by we came to the hotel we had booked just outside Reutte, Austria, a pretty little farming town less than 15 miles from Neuschwanstein Castle but about a million miles away from the tourist hoopla that surrounds it.
If our route were a triangle, the long base would be the German-Austrian border between Bregenz and Salzburg, Austria and the pointy top would be Munich.
Since castles are the No. 1 draw for tourists in Germany, we opted to start big and get the most touristy part of our visit out of the way first.
In the 18th & 19th centuries the Bavarian kings went on a building bender resulting in Neuschwanstein (Disneyland’s inspiration), Hohenschwangau, Linderhof and other magnificent castles (or “schlosses”). In 2015 the big houses are still packing in tourists from all corners of Europe, the Mideast, China and Japan, but surprisingly, not so many from the U.S.
In the first three days, we managed to visit the Big 3 castles, swing and sway (on foot) across the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge (the Highline 179) and sweep up the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, on a gondola.
We also found time to taste plenty of beer, eat schnitzel, do laundry and recharge our batteries in little Reutte where the residents eat at the local hotel restaurants, greet one another on the streets and wear dirndls and lederhosen for real as a kind of seasonal dress.
We gave our next three days to Salzburg and it captivated us like no other place on our trip.
Although compact and small (population 150,000), Mozart’s birthplace offers the perfect combination of walkable streets, culture, historical sites, beautiful parks, excellent cuisine, shopping and style.
Within an hour of arriving, we scored two 20-euro tickets to Mozart’s Requiem Mass performed by a full choir and orchestra in the Domplatz — Salzburg’s premier cathedral.
After dinner another night, we took the sleek elevator up to the Monchsberg — a wooded park on a big hill smack in the middle of town — (think Terrace Hill in San Luis Obispo times twenty) for a nightcap and a big drink of the lit-up city below.
There is something musical in Salzburg for everyone from classical purists to Broadway musical fans to enjoy. Even the street musicians, many of them students at the university, are first-rate.
Based in Salzburg, we also toured the Hallein salt mine, source of the region’s early wealth, and visited Berchtesgaden — Hitler’s hilltop retreat — a study in stark contrasts. On the one hand it’s a place of incredible natural beauty — on the other, it’s the birthplace of the Third Reich, where the horrors of the military state including the concentration camps were meticulously planned.
We took the A4 from Salzburg to Munich, expecting to experience Germany’s famous autobahn and see what our VW Golf could do. Nice road, but it quickly became clear the autobahn is largely a myth on the most popular city-to-city corridors, especially in peak vacation season.
Too many cars is too many cars — no matter how well-designed your highway system.
We bumbled into Munich without map or GPS on a Friday afternoon. We finally found our hotel, with the aid of an Italian restaurant owner. Once we parked the car, we never looked at it again.
Munich is the capital of Bavaria and the home of its visionary and extravagant kings — Maximilian and Ludwigs I & II.
Present-day home to BMW, Siemens and Allianz, it is a thriving, prosperous and young city and a friendly, hip place to be. Although it boasts over 1.4 million residents, in many ways Munich feels like a small city.
Even though we stayed all the way out beyond the 1972 Olympic Park (better hotel rates when the town is hopping), Munich’s well-designed public transit system and extensive bikeways made it easy to zip all over town. A 10-minute subway ride brought us to the very walkable old town with its historic buildings, modern shops, the aptly named Victualienmarkt, city squares humming with residents and visitors and a vast network of beer gardens.
Our favorite Munich day began with a pastry at the Café Tambosi followed by a stroll through the impressive Residenz Palace and Cuvelier Theater. We took the subway to the vast English Garden, where we cooled our feet in a stream and lolled around on wide couches at the Seehaus Beer Garden, quaffing from massive steins of German beer while chatting it up with new friends.
Later that day we watched with envy as hundreds of park-goers doffed their street clothes and jumped into the swiftly-flowing Isar River to ride the rapids a mile or more. If only we’d worn the right underwear!
The best test of a visit is the desire to return. Based on that final day we’ve got unfinished business in both Munich and Salzburg — and to paraphrase a famous California-Austrian, “ve’ll be bahk.”