Kings, castles and kitsch: Getting to know the real Bavaria

Popular clichés about Bavaria have created lasting impressions of Germany around the world. But Mark Worth takes the time to find out that the former kingdom has more to offer than just men in short leather trousers and beer.

Kings, castles and kitsch: Getting to know the real Bavaria
One of Germany's guiltiest pleasure: Neuschwanstein castle. Photo: Mark Worth

A farmer in Lederhosen walks his just-fed dairy cows from pasture down a village’s narrow main street, tipping his green wool-felt cap to a young woman wearing a traditional Dirndl dress. At the same time, a man on a ladder puts the finishing touches on a Bible-scene mural painted above his colourfully flowered balcony.

The place is Bavaria. But the time is not the late 1700s or even the early 1900s – the year is 2009.

The fact that so little has changed in Bavaria for so long supplies plenty of material for sociologists and comedians alike. Studying and poking fun at the Free State of Bayern, as the region is known in Germany, is practically a national sport. Often adopted by doltish TV and movie characters, Bayerisch is one of the most mocked and misunderstood accents in the country.

But it’s not just their often thick accents. Bavarians get a bad rap for just about everything: their devout Catholicism, their vice-grip on tradition, their overly kitschy churches. Somehow, they’re even still being blamed for Mad King Ludwig II.

However, travellers who think all there is to see here is funny hats and dresses, and that all there is to hear is cowbells and tubas, are not just missing the point of Bavaria. They’re missing out on one of the most rewarding corners in all of Germany.

Click here for a photo gallery of Mark’s Bavarian travels.

A month – if you’re fortunate enough to have that much time – driving through the state will give you a bundle of experiences you can’t get anywhere else in this country. After a day of paddling on pristine lakes specked with romantic islands, pitch your tent and roll out a picnic at a shoreline campground. Take a cable-car in the Alps to the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain – and its highest beer garden. Visit working monasteries dating to the 1300s, or take your pick of Germany’s most diverse cuisine – much of which is still produced by local families using mediaeval recipes. And go ahead, visit tourist-trapping, woodcarving mecca Oberammergau and Ludwig II’s fairytale-inspired castle Neuschwanstein, two of Germany’s guiltiest pleasures.

You may feel a bit silly before you go, and your friends may even question your sanity. But a trip here has more to offer than just kings, castles and kitsch.

Avoid the Bavarian bends

Exploring Bavaria requires one to think like a deep-sea diver: descend and ascend very slowly. Immersing yourself too quickly can be disorienting, so it’s a smart idea to spend some time in a few safe spots on the way in.

Bayreuth is a great space to start. Once an important administrative and cultural centre in Upper Franconia, this easily walkable city straddling the Roter Main is most renowned for its 18th century opera house. Richard Wagner conducted at this alarmingly beautiful Baroque theatre in 1871, drawn by its three gilded tiers, lavish chandeliers and 27-meter-deep stage, which at the time was the largest in Europe.

Sinking further south, one would be wise to stop for a breather in Nuremberg. Its main square features numerous 14th century treasures, including the Town Hall and Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). If you’re here when the church clock strikes noon, you’ll see little figures of the seven electors marching around Emperor Karl IV. A short walk from the city centre past pleasant cafes and shops (including a homemade mustard store with window-service for famed Nürnberger Rostbratwurst) and you’ll reach the Kaiserburg castle. This 11th-century hilltop monstrosity provides nice views of the city – even nicer if you climb the 113 steps to the top of the Sinwell Tower.

The next big decision: how much time should you spend in Munich? Here’s a radical answer: none. Thinking you can understand Bavaria by seeing Munich is like saying you know the Czech Republic after visiting Prague, or equating the Netherlands with Amsterdam. Skip Munich altogether – or save it for your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Oktoberfest.

You’ve now been in Bayern long enough to go to maximum depth. It’s time to meet Ludwig II, the fairytale king. Growing up in Hohenschwangau Castle deep in the Bavarian Alps, Ludwig passed his youth staring at paintings of German legends, reading Schiller and roaming through forests and valleys. At 15 he experienced an epiphany at a performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” identifying with the lonely knight who rescues a maiden in a boat pulled by swans.

Still clouded by obsessions with Wagner and romantic tales, Ludwig II was crowned king of Bavaria at 18. He soon became disillusioned with politics after losing a war with Prussia and began a castle-building binge that, along with his purported orgies and other antics, led to him being declared insane. On June 13, 1886, he and his physician were found drowned in Lake Starnberg. Their deaths remain a mystery to this day.

While his life has made him a source of fascination and titillation among historians and movie-makers, Ludwig II’s castles are true wonders. Herrenchiemsee, built on an island in the Chiemsee, is a replica of Versailles that dazzles the visitor with its gilded bedrooms, candelabra-riddled Hall of Mirrors, a 100,000-litre bathtub enterable via a staircase, and a dinner table that could be lowered to the kitchen one floor below, allowing Ludwig to eat in solitude.

All things Allgäu

Bavarians say the Almighty himself created the Gottesacker – God’s own meadow. Cruising through the hills and valleys of the Allgäu region southwest of Munich, you might have a tough time disagreeing.

It’s easy to understand why Ludwig II chose to build his magnum opus here. A monument to Ludwig’s inner fantasy world, Neuschwanstein is among the most recognisable castles in the world, a status aided by the fact it was used as a model for “Cinderella’s Castle” at Disney World. Located up the hill from his father’s Hohenschwangau, it took 17 years to build – including four and a half years just for the king’s bedroom.

The Allgäu is also home to the other-worldly village of Oberammergau, which has to be one of the smallest places in the world that is famous for three major traditions. Its dozens of galleries, shops and artist-run Werkstätten sell medieval-style as well as modern wood carvings of biblical figures. Nearly every decade since 1634, townspeople have also put on a Cecil B. DeMille-esque production of the Passion Play, in recognition of Oberammergau being spared the worst effects of the Black Death. Thirdly, hundreds of buildings here are painted with Lüftlmalerei – frescoes illustrating Bavarian myths, religious scenes and fairytales.

All within striking distance of Neuschwanstein and Oberammergau are the Partnachklamm, a wet-and-wild, 80-meter-deep gorge best explored while wearing a wetsuit, the Zugspitze, at 2,962 metres Germany’s highest mountain, and Ettal, site of a 14th-century monastery still operated by Benedictine monks known for its stunning Baroque-Rococo church and awesome Kräuterlikör – be sure try the Heidelbeere!

And when you need some time to absorb all of these new impressions – which is inevitable at this point – chill out at one of Bavaria’s many lakes. Most of them have beaches, boats for rent, campgrounds and easygoing beer gardens and cafes. You can easily lose track of all time at the Kochelsee, Riegsee, Staffelsee and Starnberger See.

Put in the time and you’ll have a whole new set of images to go with those Lederhosen– wearing stereotypes you brought with you on your Bavarian travels. But don’t worry if you still can’t understand a word people say. Just smile and offer a traditional Grüss Gott.