The Sound of Music and Hitler's Eagles Nest are secondary to the stunning walking and trekking in the hills of Berchtesgaden, close to Salzburg. Andy Hodges describes some walking and scrambling in this easily accessible Alpine area.
Looking for some serious walking and scrambling combined with awe-inspiring history and a kitsch musical-themed break? Just read on...
As the summit came into sight the swirling clouds parted to reveal an astonishing panorama – Salzburg sitting so far down below, mountains soaring into the rarefied alpine air behind us and the views of Austria reaching into the distance. 'The hills are alive with the sound of music,' Sue trilled. Julie Andrews she wasn't and the surrounding mountains were surely the stars of that most famous of musicals. If that weren’t reason enough to visit this particular area of the Austrian alps, Berchtesgaden and the Eagles' Nest are names any World War II history buff will be familiar with. Berchtesgadenerland oozes history, music and mountains and is waiting to be discovered, just a nun’s stone’s throw away from Salzburg.
Mountains soar high above Berchtesgaden and promise adventures galore; we contemplated the forthcoming days over a beer and a pizza in the chocolate box-pretty town centre. We'd start gently, taking a boat down the fjord-like Koningsee and a enjoy a simple walk back over the mountains to begin our adventures; a more challenging route to a majestic viewpoint over Salzburg would follow and a starter-grade Alpine adventure to a true mountain summit towering over the Kehlstein, the famous 'Eagles’ Nest', would be the climax of our mountain days. A short exploration of Salzburg would fill our last night and morning before returning home.
As we set off on our first outing, the Koningsee boats purred almost silently across the water amid the majestic scenery; this is certainly the King's Lake. The crew demonstrated the Echo Wall with a flugelhorn, above which we would find ourselves climbing later in the day. Before long the Church of St Bartholomew and its onion-domed spire hove into view and we disembarked to a road-free hamlet and the beginning of our journey on foot. A slight chill made us shudder; there was something very committing about a route where the only way back climbs a mountainside that has loomed over us for the last half hour. The path climbed steeply from the lakeside and we were soon huffing and puffing our way up the narrow but well-signed mountain path.
The crowds quickly dissipated and we were soon as a lonely as a goatherd.
The echoing flugelhorns from the boats seemed to encourage us upwards. The map I'd bought looked good in the shop but the 100m contours were a surprise, especially when they were quite closely spaced!
Within a couple of hours we reached the Archenkopf, a viewpoint that is breath-taking in all senses. At 1430m it is higher than anything in the UK and yet here it is the easiest and lowest route across the mountains. Handily placed benches were a perfect reason to stop for lunch; local cheese and bread along with a range of sausages made for a good lunch. As we descended steeply through the forest a spectacular mountain soared above the path and the faint and familiar clinking sound indicated further adventures abound. Little coloured dots could be seen high on the cliffs and a board identified two Via Ferrata routes winding their way up the seemingly impossible cliff above. Breaking from the trees into another picture postcard scene we realised we were back in Koningsee; big ice creams had been well earned!
The next day dawned, again not clear blue skies but certainly not wet and windy either. The mountain Maria claimed as 'her' mountain, the Untersberg, awaited. There are two distinct summits on this long high mountain ridge and the Salzburg Hochthron was the one we’d chosen to tackle. Starting in Germany, finishing in Austria and climbing over 1400m it was going to be a special day. Views over Salzburg and further towards the flat lands north of the mountains were probably too much to hope for but a day of high adventure was promised. The route began beside an old custom tower and once more started with a steep haul up a good track through pine-scented forest. A few breaks in the tree cover allowed us some views across to the mountains. Sadly we could find no Edelweiss amongst the carpet of flowers but that gave us ample opportunities to practice flora identification, a particular weakness in my IML experience!
'Deer, a female deer!' Sue exclaimed, but no, it was the mountain favourite, chamois grazing on an impossibly steep hillside.
A well-earned coffee and strudel at the Toni Lenz Hutte was very welcome. One of my favourite things about walking in the Alps are these indulgent moments. Thankfully we'd decided to share, the German's idea of portion size reflects the mountains – incredible!
The map showed the next section to be graded 'challenging – for experienced walkers only'. It looked innocuous enough as it climbed from the hut and traversed over the ridge in sight. The path did indeed become more challenging as it edged up a seemingly impossible cliff. There was no possible way up. Ever. And then we encountered a ladder entering a hole cut into the cliff, a series of these wooden ladders with a few 'windows' out onto the soaring precipice interspersed with leg-wobbling narrow and exposed paths with a cable for comfort saw us make good progress and a simple but steep path took us up to a karst plateau. The limestone pavements and small dry valleys made for a geologically interesting walk. The obligatory summit cross came into sight, just as the clouds cleared and we were rewarded with views we could only have dreamed of at breakfast. A wooden bench was empty – perfect!
With our lunch spread out and basking in the sun we were visited by a flock of Alpine Choughs. Although they had been magnificent as they soared and swooped, they were less welcome as they came closer and closer intent on our lunch and fearless in their advances. After a bit of wild trekking pole waving and gesticulating they kept a respectful distance, still ready to capitalise on any dropped crumb. A short walk along a lovely broad ridge amongst growing numbers of brought us to the cable car station and a much more knee-friendly descent! An hour's wander along the river path back to the car passing some modern art installations gave us the unintended opportunity to see forestry work close at hand and praise appreciate the superior quality of OS maps.
The Eagles’ Nest is perched at the end of a magnificent mountain ridge with views over the surrounding peaks and valleys. Handily these mountains have some well-signed and challenging paths across them and everything gazes down upon Salzburg and, more importantly, the home of the von Trapp family. Our final mountain day was going to be an assault on Hoher Goll – a tough day. Starting at Hitler's 'teahouse', the Kehlstein which was built for him for his 50th birthday. It promised to be a level scramble/klettersteig (via ferrata) then a long rocky ridge to the summit. We left the 'Dokumentation Centre’ on the early shuttle-bus (cars are banned from the approach road) which wound its way up the seemingly impossible roadway. Leaving the bus we walked into the entrance tunnel. Perfect stonework lined the walkway to the famous brass elevator up to the Kehlstein. This 'teahouse' is a restaurant now and is both breathtaking and repulsive; splendid, perfect stonework again and a stunning view in every direction.
But apparently Hitler hardly came here because he didn't like the thin air and was afraid of heights.
Leaving the crowds, the souvenirs and Hitler behind we began our ascent.
Myriad paths gradually petered out and when we passed a warning sign that the route from this point onwards was dangerous we knew the fun had begun. Cables and large foot-pegs help out on the difficult sections as the route threads its way between, around and even through the limestone pinnacles that form the Mannlgrat Ridge. It is graded UIAA 1, a formal climbing grade, probably a Grade 1–2 scramble except that the exposure is, at times, huge. Before long we were alone and enjoying the challenge. A steep, almost vertical descent above a leg-wobbling drop encouraged us to unpack the via ferrata kit and breathe a sigh of relief as we clipped onto the cables. 'I have confidence,' Sue sang as we rattled along the narrow path and clambered down metal pegs hammered into the rock.
After almost 2km of scrambling the ridge was behind us and a walk up steep ground followed. The red and white waymarkers were a godsend in the mist as the tiny cairns were virtually invisible among the rocks. Out of the gloom a T-junction appeared and we followed the enticing but easy ridge into the cloud. A huge ice-filled sink hole was something of a surprise. Then we heard the familiar call of a ptarmigan (already changing its plumage from summer brown to winter white in August) and all of a sudden we were there, the summit cross appeared and we flopped to the ground, 2522m above sea level. We were ready for lunch. Sue unpacked the bread, I took out the cheese and sausage – and the choughs appeared on cue...
Accommodation We stayed in Villa Trapp (http://villa-trapp.com). Beautifully restored and set in its own tranquil grounds the Untersberg is perfectly framed by the garden. A short drive to the mountains each day and close to bus routes into Salzburg and its historical centre.
Camping Available but surprisingly expensive! c.€25 per night for two.
Language German is the home language, English is understood in main tourist areas but not by everyone. The local tourist information centres are helpful: www.berchtesgadener-land.com/en/home
Dokumentation Centre This documents the rise and fall of the Nazi party in depth. Situated in Obersalzburg (extensively bombed at the end of the war and used as a R&R area by US forces until the 90s). Fascinating and sobering. Allow far longer than you'd imagine. An English audio guide is essential as all signs are in German.
Salzburg Home of the world's most famous musician: Mozart, not Julie Andrews! A lovely small city to wander around and explore on a day off or for an evening.