MUNICH — The hometown crowd belted out “Sweet Caroline” and the beer flowed. It was a hot August night like any in New England, but for one thing: We were in Füssen, Germany, not Fenway Park.
Of all the activities planned for a vacation to Germany and Austria, stumbling into an annual party in the shadow of mad King Ludwig’s famous castles — Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau — was unexpected and, well, “So good, so good!” It was one of the many finds on an adventure through the Alps.
The idea of the trip was to go somewhere in Europe that was a little offbeat and to pick sights that wouldn’t bore our two teenage sons. We settled on four days in Munich, after which we rented a car to drive on the Autobahn and travel to Füssen, Innsbruck, Salzburg, and back to Munich.
Looming high on the mountaintop as you drive from Munich to the southernmost stretch of the Romantic Road (which begins to the north in the historic town of Wursburg) is Schloss Neuschwanstein. The castle, which was the inspiration for the one in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” was built by King Ludwig II, ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886 and a recluse who loved Hohenschwangau, his summer residence there. To tour both castles, visitors make the hour trek by foot up the hillside (horse and carriage and bus transport are also available). Ludwig, however, preferred to set up a telescope in his bedroom to keep an eye on the construction at Neuschwanstein.
When he finally took up residence at Neuschwanstein, he lived there for only 172 days. Fed up with his eccentricities, the Bavarian government declared Ludwig unfit to rule in 1886. Several days later, he was found dead in a lake under mysterious circumstances, leaving his biggest extravagance, Neuschwanstein unfinished. Only 14 rooms, whose motifs were largely inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner, were complete at the time of Ludwig’s death, including the servants’ quarters, the apartment and king’s rooms, and the throne room (sans throne).
The sweeping landscape and the castle can best be viewed from Marienbrucke, the pedestrian-only bridge that spans two peaks high above a gorge. The bridge is an additional 15-minute walk from Neuschwanstein and the wooden planks can be unnerving even to the most daring tourists.
Ironically, this private retreat has thousands of visitors each year. It is a highlight of southern Bavaria.
After four days in Munich, we rented a car to drive on the Autobahn and travel to Füssen, Innsbruck, Salzburg, and back.
Although many visitors choose to see the castles on a bus tour from Munich, spending a night in Füssen, with its cobblestone pedestrian area, was a delight. Just several miles from the Austrian border, the town is full of Bavarian charm and an easy gateway to Innsbruck.
About halfway between Munich and Verona, Italy, Innsbruck is set along the Inn River and is surrounded by alpine peaks. The view becomes even more stunning when you ride on the Hungerburg funicular. The cable car ride begins at the tram station, a short walk from the heart of old town, and ends atop the 2,256-meter-high Hafelekarspitze. Visitors can exit the station and make the short walk to the summit, which is marked by a towering wooden cross. The panoramic views are unforgettable.
On the way down, you can stop at the other stations. Be sure to get some knodel (dumplings) and enjoy lunch on the deck at the restaurant on the Seegrube level or take a stroll through the Alpenzoo (Europe’s highest), located at the lowest station.
The stunning scenery continues along the drive from Innsbruck to Salzburg, which includes a detour to the Berchtesgaden National Park. The park actually lies just back over the border in Germany. If you happen to visit there on a cloudy day, as we did, the sights are more limited, such as the view from the Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop retreat.
Having a car allowed us to ride on the Rossfeldpanoramastrasse, a twisty toll road that reaches over 1,500 meters at the crest. Anticipating a thrilling ride, we were hampered by a dense fog that kept speeds and sights to a minimum. Nothing cut through the fog but the soft clanging of cow bells on the hillside.
Our last stop at the Berchtesgaden was a boat tour on Lake Konigsee. The only way to explore this tranquil lake is by electric-powered boat, the sheer cliffs providing no other path to the two stops at St. Bartholoma Church and Salet. And as the boat drifts to a standstill along the route, you can marvel as the boatman pulls out his trumpet and sends haunting notes echoing off the cliffs. It is a captivating performance, and one for which the boatman will happily accept some loose coins.
At our last stop in Salzburg, we traded in our Mercedes for bicycles and made our way around the sights of the city that is home to “The Sound of Music.” We saw the Von Trapp family home, twirled in an Austrian meadow (the one in Julie Andrews’s famous opening scene is actually well outside the city), and showed off our dance moves outside the famous gazebo, which needed to be moved off the Von Trapp property after new owners tired of tourists dancing in their backyard at 2 a.m. We also learned about the history of the city and why the Austrians (unaware the movie was being filmed and rather upset at the sight of the Nazi flag draped in the city center in the early 1960s) are not fans of the production.
The annual music and drama festival was taking place while we were there and we made an impromptu stop in a small church to enjoy a concert. On our last night, we saw “The Sound of Music” performed at the Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Salzburg is a city awash in culture, good cuisine, and things to do, but for us, Fraulein Maria’s Bicycle Tour was one of our favorite things.
While Munich is a good starting point to explore this region, getting out onto the open road and into the mountains is the best way to discover the real spirit of the Alps.