Samstag, 30. Juni 2018

Wochenende. Hit the autobahn, head for the hills.


‘So why have we stopped doing things at the weekend?’

Bea’s question one Saturday morning, just as I’m quietly munching my way through another slice of home-made organic bread laced with our very own mirabelle plum jam, catches me by surprise. And yet she speaks no differently than if she were casually asking me to pass the butter.

Truth told, we’d not done very much at the weekend for some while. We’d slipped into an easy-come, easy-go routine of ferrying our offspring around to play dates and reciprocating friends’ hospitality here at home. All that in between trips to the local swimming pool and short walks through the woods just above our house. Or simply hanging around home and garden doing general chores. In short, our leisure life had become predictably routine and repetitive. I hesitate to use the word 'uneventful' because we lead pretty busy lives. Still, if we were to break the mould we needed to get going and give ourselves a push.

Funnily enough we both had exactly the same idea. Within moments I’d pulled a map off the shelf and had it spread out on the floor. Bea, bent over her i-pad, was keying in words like ‘Alpine Hikes Bavaria’. To watch us so ardently immersed in this activity you might be forgiven for thinking we were planning to fly off to some far-flung corner of the world. We don’t speak for almost quarter of an hour until Bea suddenly looks up from her i-pad and announces ‘That’s it. Next weekend we’re going to the Alps.’ She then says the name of a place I’d never heard of and moves off to make a cup of coffee.

We live a mere ninety-minute drive away from the Alps – the foothills, or Voralpen – at least, but I can count the number of times we visit them each year on just one or two fingers. By living on the northern side of Munich we’ve long kidded ourselves that the mountains are too far away for just a day trip. In reality, having reached Munich in less than an hour we’re already half way up the hills. Well, almost. The Alps are actually so close to Munich that they creep up on you, springing into view long before you join the Salzburg autobahn that tenaciously snakes round the Bavarian capital. Several years ago Bea and I flew over Munich in a four-seater Cessna 150. One moment we were passing over the Marienkirche, Munich’s landmark church. I bent down to adjust my seat belt and when I looked up again we were already cruising over the snow-sprinkled Alps.

Hurtling down the autobahn with Munich straight ahead of us, these snow-capped mountains suddenly leap into view again. Towering majestically on the horizon, the jaw-dropping alpine scenery reminds me how lucky we are to have first-class hiking and ski regions almost at our doorstep. All of a sudden, taking a 240-km round day trip to the Alps feels just like a short hop, or Katznsprung as Bavarians say.


The walk we’ve chosen starts and ends at Fischbachau, a pre-alpine village crammed with picture-perfect houses decorated with so-called ‘Lüftlmalerei’. These colourful frescos depicting traditional local fairy tales or religious scenes are found on countless homes in Upper Bavaria. One such brightly painted building particularly catches our attention. Splashed over its facade is a life-sized painting of a harp player. But it’s no normal harp player. This one’s an angel and it’s straddling a Harley Davidson. We’re just gawping at this slightly unusual fresco when the owner suddenly appears through the side gate. My instinctive reaction is to apologise and quietly move on. But before I can do so the man is beckoning us over:

‘Wo kimmd ihr ha, wo gäd ihr hi?’

Where are you from, where are you going to he wants to know. We say we’re doing the Leitzachtaler Bergblick– a 14-km round trip along the River Leitzach, over meadows and through woods. And it’ll take us right back to where we parked our car, just opposite the eleventh-century Friedenskirche Maria Schutz, the oldest church in the valley. What’s unusual about our conversation though is how talkative this man is. Bavarians are usually quite reserved. But this one is quite different. Talking nineteen to the dozen, he’s already telling Tildy and her friend Simona jokes. ‘Why do Red Indians do this?’ he quizzes them, holding both hands flat above his eyes, as if scanning the horizon. The girls look baffled. ‘Because if they did this,’ he reveals, hands cupped over his eyes, ‘they wouldn’t see anything!’’


The thermometer is nudging 20 degrees – just the right temperature for a decent mid-summer walk. Any cooler up in the mountains and we’d need jackets; any warmer and we’d probably be sweating. Yet dipping our toes into the River Leitzach we get a shock. The water’s ice cold. No great surprise really – its source lies 200 metres high in the Alps. We stop for sandwiches and coffee at a splish-splashy waterfall, the crystal-clear water shimmering in the morning sunshine as it tumbles over the rocks. ‘Papa schwimm!’ the girls chant in unison, daring me to strip off and plunge into the glacial water. A hardened swimmer, I'm usually the last one to say nein danke to a nice fresh dip. But there’s no way I’m leaping into this water. It must be a good 12 degrees cool.


Crossing a bridge which leads us away from the river, we enter a small village. Every single half-timbered cottage with its identical-looking flower-box-filled balconies looks like something straight off a Milka chocolate box. One of these gingerbread-like houses has a sign on the garden gate warning ‘Vorsicht, bissiger Hund!’. The vicious dog is either having a midday nap or, more likely, it doesn’t exist. Germans often put up such signs just to scare off curious passersby.

'Free-roaming dog. If dog comes, lie on the ground and wait for help. If no help comes, good luck.' 
Just past the village we spot a cherry tree leaning over the pathway. Its aching branches are so heavily laden they’re literally touching the ground, almost to breaking point. The fruit is squelchy, juicy, overripe, and absolutely divine. Hanging from branches directly over the public footpath, it's crying out to be picked. We hastily fill our sandwich boxes, cramming in as much as we can..

Continuing the hike with slightly stained hands, we’re just passing a small Gastwirtschaft when we notice, a little higher up the hill, a group of farmhands loading piles of wood onto a gigantic bonfire. It’s the second or third such fire we’ve seen today. On the café terrace, meanwhile, half a dozen young waitresses prettily clad in dirndl are fluttering around busily decorating tables and clambering up stepladders to hoist up bunting and fairy lights.


Before I can think better of it, I’ve bounced up to one of the pigtail-braided waitresses. Standing there with peekaboo shoulder tops and revealing cleavage, she probably embodies every foreign male's idea of the quintessential Fräulein. It’s the chunky-heeled doll shoes that do it for me.

‘Tschuldigung, ist heut was los?’

I realise immediately what a silly question I’ve asked. It’s 21 June and of course something’s happening. It’s the longest day of the year and they’re preparing to celebrate summer solstice. This is the alpine practice of Sonnwendefeuer, lighting bonfires on mountaintops to ward away evil spirits. Traditionally a pre-christian custom, the Catholic Church ‘hijacked’ the heathen practice by turning it into a celebration of John the Baptist’s birthday which falls ust three days later. Ever since the fires have been known as ‘Johannisfeuer’. In recent years dare-devil youngsters have started jumping over the glowing embers in the belief that this purifies their souls and protects them from illness. Apparently the more people who leap over the red-hot cinders, the more purgative the whole process. Couples crossing over the fire hand in hand are said to signal that a wedding is on the way.


A little further on we suddenly spot, dotted around a meadow just above the path, a group of wooden sun loungers. Each curvy chair is wide enough to seat two to three persons. It’s the sort of furniture that wouldn’t be amiss in the relaxation room of an exclusive wellness centre. It’s a common sight in Bavaria – expensive furnishings dumped in the middle of nowhere, freely available to anybody who happens to pass by and fancies a rest. ‘If only we had one of these at home in the garden,’ sighs Bea, flopping onto such a model.

Oh, if only. Actually these loungers are so cosy it’s very tempting simply to stay put and just cancel the rest of the walk. But then reality kicks in. We’ve still got another half dozen kilometres to go.

These final six kilometres easily feel twice as long. Soon the kids are showing signs of fatigue. Fending off relentless pleas to carry Matilda piggyback, we suddenly pass a small chapel. A snow-haired man has just locked up the building and is pocketing the keys. ‘Grüßi Gott,’ I say, in typical Bavarian greeting style. I ask him for directions to the nearest Wirtshaus and, pointing to the tired kids, enquire how much further to Fischbachau. ‘Ooch, gar net so weit’ – not far at all – he says, gesturing across the fields towards a group of buildings clustered around an onion-shaped church spire. He also recommends a local hostelry which does great food. But before I can thank him in local dialect (vagelt's God!’) he’s jumped into a car and pulled up alongside us. ‘I’ll drop them off at the car park,’ he offers, beckoning the kids to climb in as he revs up the engine. Simona’s mother manages to hop in too. But only just. 

'Uuuh, have we just done the right thing?’ questions Bea, as we continue the walk on our own. Quivers of doubt suddenly cross my mind too. Standing sentinel by the chapel gate just a moment ago, the man had looked so trustworthy. ‘Oh, they’ll be there at the carpark, you’ll see,’ I say, seeking to reassure her. Sure enough, arriving back where we’d started out five hours earlier, Magdalena and the girls are waiting for us safe and sound.

Well almost.

Having tenaciously trecked almost a dozen kilometres of undulating pre-mountain track, Simona is suddenly hobbling around on one leg. Larking around on a bench in the carpark, she’d managed to fall off and sprain her ankle.

Still, in between Bea and I had been lucky to enjoy probably the most stunning scenery of the whole hike, traversing plateau-like terrain with wide-sweeping panoramic vistas of the Mangelfall mountain range, the eastern part of the Bavarian Alps. Looming up straight ahead of us we marvelled at the Wendelstein – at 1838 metres the highest local peak. We’d been up there once by cable car. The mountain top boasts a cosy restaurant, meteorological station, ginormous solar energy system and stunning views far into the Austrian province of Tirol.

When we roll up at the Café Krugalm, the inn we’d been recommended just a little further up the hill, the waitress apologises profusely that the kitchen already closed at 2 p.m. They’re no longer serving full meals, only snacks. We’re expecting just sandwiches and soup at the very most, but it turns out that Germans’ idea of just a snack is actually a full-blown hot meal. Very soon we’re tucking into wagon-wheel sized pizzas, piles of crunchy side salads and mouth-watering Kaspress Knödel oozing with Pinzgau Beer Cheese. But it’s the cakes that really steal the show at this mountainside eatery. A notice pinned up outside the kitchen reads ‘Cakes don’t make you fat, they simply straighten out the creases.’ Inside, a massive table stretches from one end of the kitchen to the other. It’s crammed with cakes, which we’re told are baked fresh daily. Spoilt for choice, I’m torn between the Gedeckter Apfel-Mandel and Versunkener Kirsch mit Joghurt. Both look irresistable. Unable to make my mind, I plump for rhubarb-and-joghurt cake.

With a big blob of Sahne, whipped cream, of course.

Mountain food has seldom tasted so succulent and the hike has wet our appetite for further forays into the Alps.

A guate!

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