CHAPTER 2 – WALKING THROUGH THE WONDERLAND
BERCHTESGADEN NATIONAL PARK,
BAVARIA , GERMANY
3rd OCTOBER 2015
SATURDAY , 06:30 AM
It’s funny how the clock seems to develop a telepathic understanding with your sentiments and emotions at times, slowing down ever so subtly and letting you stay immersed in the pure ecstasy of your blissful experiences. Before you know it, a plethora of fascinating moments pass you by in the blink of an eye but your mind takes its own sweet time registering the minutest of details of every experience your senses are being treated to – as if being transported through a wonderland with all novelties passing you by at the speed of sound, conjuring up Einstein’s spirit to capture the time in confines of its laws and slowing it down. With the rolling meadows still wrapped around a thick blanket of fog, the mysterious landscape had me captured in a state of complete trance. It was only the crackle of announcement system of the Deutschen Bundesbahn that broke the spell and pulled me out of it. I reached for my jacket and zipped it to the top, raising the collars of my hiking jacket as high as they could go, for it seemed like the early morning air was going to be extremely cold outside.
And I wasn’t entirely wrong either.
The clatter of footsteps on the platform shattered the silence sweeping across the small station, while the heavy mist in the air continued to fail in trying to hide puffs of vapor exhaled by all who walked towards the central station building. Reminiscent of its heritage and true to its stature, the main station building was an imposing space with the main wall supporting the high ceiling well adorned with fascinating murals and paintings. An indicator to the elements life in Berchtesgaden revolves around, the painting proudly portrayed the land of cheerful skiers racing down the hills, horse drawn sledges of yesteryears and a winter wonderland whose beauty was there for all to imagine. It was a shame I was a little early for winters, but was nonetheless pleased for reaching here just in time to watch the wonderful colors of autumn come to life.
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A quick inquiry at the tourist information center provided me with two possible destinations to kick-start my day with – a popular boat ride across the magical and much acclaimed Königssee, also known as the King’s Lake or a journey in the other direction into the idyllic village of Ramsau and follow the hiking trail to the remote Alpine lake of Hinterseer. Confusing as it may have been at first, my mind was made up as soon as most of the people ahead of me in the queue finalized their destination – I simply had to run away from all the crowd !! So I put down my backpack on a bench, picked up the information brochures and started waiting for the clock to strike 7:30 am; patiently waiting for bus number 846 to take me towards my destination – Ramsau. Apparently I wasn’t the only trying to run opposite to the tourists gathered at the station; for sitting next to me was a lean German guy all suited up in his hiking gear heading in the general direction of Ramsau as well. A brief conversation later I came to know he was embarking on a long hike along one of the high mountain trails and would be commencing his hike from the village as well. I, however, was feeling less adventurous and a bit more inquisitive at that time – the reason I’ll share with you a little later. I was, however, still a little apprehensive regarding the blanket of fog which was refusing to budge. In my haste of heading towards this place, I had completely overlooked the weather forecast and was hoping against hope for the weather to open up a bit. I walked up to the crystal clear waters flowing just across the road in front of the station but soon returned back with bare minimum visibility of the colorful river bed. If only luck could be on my side for a day!!
The sound of the wheels of regional buses lining up in front of the station building brought everybody to their feet. While most boarded the bus heading towards Königssee, both of us boarded the bus along with few more travelers, riding towards our destination Hinterseer; although I had decided to disembark midway at Ramsau itself and walk from there. No sooner had we left the station out of our sights than our bus started its ascent on the beautiful mountain roads cutting across the National Park region. With the gurgling clear alpine waters of Ramsauer Ache flowing along the winding roads, the weather conditions took a dramatic swing as the warmth of the first rays of the sun pierced the blanket of fog, shining brightly on us through the windows of the bus!! Within moments the fog had all but disappeared and as I got down from the bus and looked above a bright spotless azure sky greeted me with arms wide open, while the pale yellow leaves of fall laid out a carpet of sorts at the entrance of the picturesque town of Ramsau.
Whenever called upon to draw a landscape in my art classes in school, I had always drawn some version of a paradise I had always had at the back of my mind – a solitary house at the base of rolling meadows, a clear mountain stream flowing down from towering peaks in the background while some ducks paddle their way across the stream to the vast expanse of untouched meadows at the other side. To be able to see an even closer version of your idea of a perfect landscape was such a surreal moment that, truth be told, I could not help but feel goosebumps!! Arguably considered as one of the most picturesque Bavarian villages, this small town of around 1800 inhabitants is nestled in some of the most secluded and beautiful alpine basins of Berchtesgaden. A home to Mt. Watzmann, Germany’s 3rd highest peak, this town is surrounded by The Hochkalte to the south and the Reiteralpe to the west, separating it from Austria. Although the town is a popular winter resort given its proximity to some of the best skiing slopes in the region, I was particularly pleased and lucky to have got the opportunity to see its colorful side – shades of yellow, orange and green filled up the landscape dotted with few wooden cottages, surrounded all around by the towering gray-and-white Alpine peaks. It seemed like all the colors from the palette were flowing down into the landscape I was walking through; or maybe it was the clear bright sunshine playing tricks on me. Nonetheless, I was in too deep a trance to bother about that!!
As I walked along the river, I could not help but get mesmerized by the sound of clear alpine water running beside me; water so clear that I could literally count each pebble on the river bed if ever I decided to take time out to engage in that pursuit. Gingerly strolling across the wooden bridges on the river to walk amidst small residential cottages on the other side, there were only a few families to be seen so early in the day. Small kids made short work of ascending meadows at the backyard of their houses as they ran around their homes, sporting innocent smiles on their face. It wasn’t long before I was face to face with one of the most popular and captured landscape of this region – a scene adorning all the postcards from this region. The magnificent parish church of St. Sebastian sat gracefully against a backdrop of majestic Bavarian Alps, capturing the imagination of all the early morning travelers wandering around the town. It isn’t hard to understand why anybody would not fall in love with this view; especially during the winters when gray tiles on the roof of the church stands in stark contrast to a blanket of white snow all around it!! I put down my backpack to unpack a slice of sandwich I had bought from the station store earlier in the morning, casually watching fallen yellow leaves occasionally making their way downstream, gliding on water so clear that it managed to cast its own shadow on the river bed and gazing at the views all around me while the town was slowly waking up to a beautiful sunny weekend.
It was later on during a conversation with a Bavarian native a few weeks later that I came to know that Ramsau was awarded the title of “mountaineering village” by the German Alpine Association in 2015, given it’s special relationships with the mountains around it and boasting of, arguably, the highest number of alpine mountain guides in Bavaria!! This title is aligned to a concept already established in Austria where around 20 villages have been declared as mountain villages. The villages declared as mountain villages are dedicated to preservation of their complex and fragile ecosystems, promotion of soft tourism, nature conservation and sustainable development aimed to preserve the traditions and culture of these Alpine villages.
And my reason for getting down at Ramsau, rather than taking a bus straight to Hintersee, was aligned to one the lost beauty and history of this landscape – Paintings!!
I do like to engage in turning the pages of history of a place I plan to backpack into, in order to have a better understanding of the local cultures and traditions prior to landing there. The forests of Berchtesgaden are steeped in one of the most intriguing stories of all times. In 19th century the land of Berchtesgaden was extremely popular with painters from Romantic Landscape Style of painting. This style, unlike the ones prevalent at that time which invariably revolved around abstract emotions and contents, was characterized by a profound affection towards grandeur and beauty of natural landscapes. Therefore the landscapes surrounding remote forests near Lake Hintersee were perfect subjects for them to engage in their romance and produce magnificent works of art as a result. As a reflection and symbol of its romantic past, the hiking trail from Ramsau to Lake Hintersee is riddled with representations of the original paintings, 22 to be precise, forming a tantalizing treasure hunt trail through the forest to all the way around the lake and placed precisely where they were originally painted at. These paintings are evidences of the remarkable creativity and imagination of the painters of those era, who managed to capture an entirely different but strikingly connected interpretation of the landscapes they were painting on the canvas. Therefore, it was a unique prospect of mixing a beautiful hike with a bit of fun – a perfect recipe for a perfect day!!
The well marked hiking trail started from the other end of the river, leading me away from the motor road winding through the town. I was particularly thankful to have taken the hiking trail for you can ever be too far away from the famed bunch of Asian travelers – who descended at the gate of the church in a hoard just as I walked behind the foliage into the forest. For my first hike into the Bavarian Alps, and having taken quite a few more Alpine hikes since then, I could not have chosen a better place for my initiation. Hindsight is indeed a luxury that I have now, but it does not affect my impression about the place even a little – such was the mesmerizing beauty of the place I was walking in. With a crystal clear waters of the alpine stream gurgling on one side and the alpine meadows and peaks peeping thorough the thick foliage on the other, I marched on ahead along the trail.
For anyone looking for a hike with a difference, the treasure hunting for art exhibits surely keep you on your toes; keeping your senses sharp enough not to miss minutest of surprises the landscape strews around you as you wander in, what truly is, an open-air art museum. It’s difficult not to stand in awe and watch your eyeballs move back and forth at the landscape in front of you and the rendition the Romantic Artist painted on his canvas placed right in front of the subject. The Klausbach river took over the role of a perfect hiking guide for the day and I had the easy job of following it deeper into the forests. Losing track of the time, the sun had climbed higher into the morning sky before I reached a clearing, walking straight onto the motor way once again. Not for the first time, I was spellbound at the spectacle that laid before my eyes; just when I had thought the vistas could not have got any better, I was staring straight into landscapes one could live and spend his life living in without a moment’s remorse!!
It was a little intimidating watching the towering shadow of the mountains on one side creep gently into the green meadows towards the wooden houses, but the entire landscape was a treat to the eyes. I had my neck turned towards the section of landscape bathing under the warmth of the welcome sun as I walked along the side of the road. Greeting villagers along the way and frequently stopping by to ask for directions, it was not long before I finally rejoined the trail and got off the motorway.
Watching the mention of Zauberwald on multiple sign boards along the trail, you realize it is indeed a magical forest you are walking through. There is indeed an element of magic spread across the beautiful primeval mountain forests at this place which binds every visitor in its charm. Realizing Hinterseer was only 20 minutes away from here, I doubled up my speed and let a renewed excitement take over my senses. Moving quickly past the meticulously placed benches at some of the most pristine locations in the forests, without giving into the temptation of sitting there are catching a quick breather, I continued walking when the trail made one final turn and there it was – sitting right in front of my eyes and sweeping me totally off my feet were the reflections of majestic alpine peaks on the pristine waters of one of the most beautiful alpine lakes I have seen till date; The Hinterseer!!
Draped in mysterious hue of blue and green with water so clear it makes your feel dizzy and wonder if you have been watching the world upside down till now, Hintersee was a smaller and quieter neighbor of Konigsee and is one of the best sights in the Bavarian alps if you are looking to spend some quality time with nature without the distraction of tourists. I could make out a few hotels and cafés at the opposite end of the lake at the foothill of the towering mountains but that was almost all the commercial infrastructure that I saw along the lake. Walking around the lake and approaching the clearing, I was greeted with welcome smiles of all the hikers who had descended around the area as well as the small kids running along the shores of the lake while their parents casually walked behind them at a distance. Once again, I could not help but envy these children and toddlers who are lucky enough to grow up watching pristine nature and landscapes around them since childhood. Unlike many kids who have started quenching their desires of experiencing nature and landscapes in their most beautiful forms on digital space, nothing would quite replace the influence grandeur and beauty of nature makes on the impressionable minds of kids in their formative years, helping them develop a closer bond with nature around them which could potentially extend through their lifetime.
Before I could even realize I had walked halfway along the shores of the lake and was already out of the woods. With a calmness spread all around me, the lake seemed to have suddenly caught fire as the sun finally manged to cross the towering peaks on one side of the lake and spread the first sunshine of the day along the clear waters, forcing the cold water on the surface to evaporate. As is common with almost all alpine lakes in the region, the use of motorized boats have been prohibited in these lakes. Therefore the presence of paddle boats docked along the lake was not a new sight to me, although the prospect of an early morning rowing exercise was a tempting proposition for sure. The artistic trail extended around the lake as well and some of the most fascinating renditions of the lake are on display in the grasslands around it. Having walked for around 3-4 hours since morning, I decided to put down my backpack, make some space along the shore of the lake and sit down for a while. Little did I know that all my fatigue would evaporate in no time basking under the early morning sun and I involuntarily laid down on my back, closed my eyes and the chirping of the birds soon carried me into one sweet, blissful and welcome nap along the Hintersee!!