Germany: We're not just here for the beer

By William Cook

Oktoberfest draws millions of visitors to Bavaria each year, but there's much more to this quirky German state.

Neuschwanstein is Bavaria's best-known castle and the model for Disneyland. Photo / Thinkstock
Neuschwanstein is Bavaria's best-known castle and the model for Disneyland. Photo / Thinkstock

Several million Bavarians (and tourists) nurse Europe's biggest collective hangover as Munich's Oktober-fest shuts up shop. Many foreign visitors venture no further than the Bavarian capital and its vast beer festival, but beyond Munich lies a fascinating hinterland - a nation within a nation that remains remarkably unspoilt and unexplored.

Ever since it was swallowed up by Germany 140 years ago, Bavaria has retained all the cultural trappings of an independent state. I've been coming here for 20 years, and each time I find something new.

The Free State of Bavaria is the richest part of Germany and the most conservative - a bizarre blend of hi-tech know-how and old-fashioned Alpine kitsch. Bigger than Belgium and Holland combined, Freistaat Bayern stretches north all the way to the old East German border, but travellers tend to head south from Munich, into the Bavarian Alps.

Here the men wear woollen loden jackets, the women wear embroidered dirndls and the Bavarian flag is a far more familiar sight than the tricolour of the Bundesrepublik.

The best place to begin a tour of Upper Bavaria is on the southern edge of Munich, on the banks of the Starnbergersee. More than 20km long and up to 5km across, this tranquil lake is on the doorstep of the Alps.

Bavaria's favourite monarch, "Mad" King Ludwig, drowned in Lake Starnberg in circumstances that remain a subject of fierce debate. Many Bavarian patriots still believe he was murdered to help facilitate German unification under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser. Or to stop him bankrupting Bavaria with his flamboyant castles. He remains an iconic figure for Bavarians - a romantic dreamer far removed from the pragmatic bureaucrats in Berlin.

Most tourists travel south-west from Starnberg to Ludwig's best-known castle, Neuschwanstein (the model for Disneyland) but this time round I headed south-east, to Chiemsee, Bavaria's largest lake.

At the pretty lakeside town of Prien, surrounded by lush meadows and misty mountains, I boarded a ferry to Herreninsel (the Men's Island), once inhabited by monks, now the site of Herrenchiemsee - King Ludwig's full-scale replica of Versailles.

Nobody who's seen it can be in any doubt that the man who built it was strange. Ludwig idolised Louis XIV, the French Sun King who built Versailles, and this folly is an eerie tribute to that absolutist monarch, whom Ludwig hoped to emulate (even though he was born 200 years too late).

The busts and portraits are all French - there isn't a single picture of Ludwig - and the Hall of Mirrors is even bigger than the one in Versailles.

If Herrenchiemsee is Bavaria at its most opulent, then Altötting, 50km away, is Bavaria at its most devout. Revered in this Catholic statelet as the birthplace of Bavarian Christianity, its Black Madonna is a place of pilgrimage, credited with all the usual miracles.

The walls around this sacred shrine are adorned with testimonies from the faithful, even callipers and crutches cast away by pilgrims who believe they've been healed.

Pope Benedict XVI was born just a few miles from here, in a sleepy village called Marktl am Inn. Plenty of modern pilgrims combine a visit to the Black Madonna with a brief excursion to Ratzinger's birthplace, but I opted for the local microbrewery: Graminger Weissbrä. Run by three sisters, who brew their own wheat beer on the premises, it doubles as a cosy restaurant and beer garden.

The bar is full of locals and the leafy beer garden outside, shaded by chestnut trees, looks out across Bavaria's most sacred site.

I walked uphill into dense woods, leaving the old town below. I finished at Berggasthof Butzn Wirt, a quaint inn like a gingerbread house from the Brothers Grimm. My heart sank when the Schuhplattler troupe arrived but here in this authentic setting, this \traditional Bavarian folk dancing was charming.

These dancers didn't look at all silly - they were elegant, slim and sprightly, and their cheerful oompah music filled the tavern, spilling out into the silent night outside.

Maybe it was the wheat beer talking, but for me it seemed to sum up what makes Bavaria and its unique folk culture so special. On one level it's absurd and if it's not done properly it's ridiculous. But at its best it can transport you into a simpler and more amiable world.


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