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Journeys: Pedestrian Pleasures: A Land of Fairy Tales and Nightmares

Jack Smith

The simple pleasures of Bavarian folk revels are a world apart from the elaborate displays that greet the hiker farther along Maximilian’s trail. As it continues eastward from Ruhpolding, the purple route winds past Chiemsee Lake (the largest lake in Bavaria) and the Herreninsel, where Maximilian’s son, Ludwig II, built his spectacular, though never completed, homage to Versailles. Farther along stands Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig’s grandfather, Ludwig I, built Bavaria’s first fairy-tale castle, and finally to the best-known of Ludwig II’s creations, Neuschwanstein (www.neuschwanstein.com). Ironically, the castle that has become the epitome of fairy-tale glitz was designed to blend in with its surroundings.

 

So, too, was another tourist attraction, the Kehlsteinhaus (www.kehlsteinhaus.de), in nearby Obersalzburg, though nothing about the place is inviting. The architecture is crude, the decor cold, and its history horrifying, for this, better known to Americans as the Eagle’s Nest, was Adolf Hitler’s hideaway, a mountaintop retreat blasted out of sheer rock that is more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The Eagle’s Nest was designed by Hitler lieutenant Martin Bormann, who presented it to Hitler in 1939 on the occasion of the führer’s 50th birthday. It was considered an engineering marvel of its day. Into the mountainside was carved a four-mile-long road that leads to a tunnel running several hundred feet into the mountain. At the end of the tunnel is a large brass elevator that rises 407 feet to the building. Every day now, thousands of tourists ride the elevator up to the house where Hitler entertained Mussolini and the Nazi elite. The main reception area, which looks out over the town of Berchtesgaden, now serves as a restaurant, and if—despite the view of Berchtesgaden below—the ambience is uniquely banal, it is also fitting.

It is not known whether Bormann’s creation scored points with Hitler, who rarely came to his mountain retreat except on official business, even after an elaborate bunker system with underground barracks and concealed machine gun and antiaircraft emplacements were added in 1942. No matter how impressive the engineering of the Eagle’s Nest, and regardless of the praise it evoked from his guests and the omnipotence his followers ascribed to him, Hitler routinely avoided mountaintops, for he had a fear of heights.

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