It was mating season in Oberstdorf, the brightly frescoed village in the south of Bavaria, and all over town the young folks were pulling on their lederhosen and hiking boots and packing lunches of wurst and strudel for the migration up the surrounding hillsides. Perhaps, suggested my friend Heidi, a medical student home for the spring holidays, I would care to join them?
Would I? Far be it from me to turn up my nose at rustic courtship rituals. Count me in. Good, she said with a delighted smile. It would not be far to the spot she had in mind: six, maybe seven miles, uphill. And it would be a great day for marmots.
Marmots? Must be the local dialect, I thought. But this was no time to quibble over grammar, not at the outset of such a promising morning. Later that day, however, I was beginning to have second thoughts. After I had trudged three hours uphill, my heart was pumping from oxygen depletion, not anticipation. My legs felt leaden, and my backpack—laden with several bottles of the local lager—was digging into my shoulders. It seemed our hike would never end, when Heidi turned and held a finger to her lips. “Shh. Marmots.”
Sure enough, the upper slope was rife with the little varmints popping up from their burrows as they emerged from hibernation. With winter over, the hillside resonated with the sounds of marmot romance, as the furry creatures whistled back and forth in their quest for Mr. or Ms. Right. It was beginning to dawn on me that we really had hiked this far to see marmots.
“Wasn’t that splendid?” asked Heidi, as we trudged back down the mountain after our picnic.
It might have been if I were a marmot, or a German. Who else would march for hours up a hill to watch a bunch of overgrown gophers flirt? It confirmed what I already suspected: that Germans would use any excuse to go for a long, brisk hike. Back home, this was not so, not at that time. Americans of the 1970s played golf, tennis, squash, or bowled. Germans did none of these; instead, they hiked. In German culture, hiking transcended the concept of exercise: It was a ritual, and the more random it appeared, the more it was charged with mystery and meaning. For such literary eminences as Goethe, Schopenhauer, Hesse, and Nietzsche, the Wanderjahr—which roughly translates to “a year spent roaming around aimlessly”—was a rite of passage, a quest for the meaning of life.
In the decades since my visit to Oberstdorf, Americans by the millions have taken up hiking, though our purposes for doing so are more physical, even cosmetic, than spiritual. Hiking, we now know, is good for us. Still, Americans continue to pale next to the Germans and their all-consuming zeal for hiking. Their country, which is roughly the size of Montana, contains some 80,000 officially designated hiking and walking trails. And nowhere do the Germans perambulate with such gusto as in the Bavarian Alps.This is the Germany of travel posters, a never-never land of snowcapped mountain peaks and lush valleys, where life appears to move to the unhurried rhythm of cowbells clanking in the distance. The vistas are much the same as those that the Bavarian emperor Maximilian II enjoyed in 1858, when—accompanied by a retinue of courtiers, artists, musicians, and poets—he endeared himself to his subjects by trekking the length of the Alps from Lake Constance to Lake Königssee, a distance of nearly 200 miles over rough terrain.
The most enlightening way to explore the Bavarian Alps still is on foot, an experience that in 2005 became even more rewarding with the completion of the Via Alpina, a system of trails that runs through eight countries: Monaco, France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia, and, along the mountain range’s northern fringe, Germany. The trails, which are coded in five colors, represent a network more than 3,000 miles long over terrain that constantly changes while leading to spectacular ravines and gorges, glacier peaks, nature parks, museums, fashionable resort towns, and lavish castles. So it was coincidence, not nostalgia for bygone collegiate trysts, that has led me back to Oberstdorf, where three of the Via Alpina’s five trails converge.
The village looks exactly as I recall it, a picture-postcard sprinkling of homes and shops and a gleaming white church spire, all set at the confluence of seven valleys. With a population of some 10,000, Oberstdorf is not a large town. American TV viewers may remember it as the place where in 1970 Wide World of Sports captured ski jumper Vinko Bogataj in mid-crash, thereupon transforming him into the embodiment of “the agony of defeat.” Oberstdorf, which hosted the 2005 International Ski Federation Nordic World Ski Championships, remains a world-class winter sports destination. It is one of the world’s five venues for ski flying, a sport that is so much more demanding and hazardous than ski jumping that its competitions are held only twice a year.
Europeans have been visiting Oberstdorf since long before anybody thought of launching himself into the air with boards on his feet. In the 1400s, the Bavarian nobility descended on the village to soak in the village’s sulfur baths. In time, the environs became known for the allegedly curative powers of its mud baths and cow’s milk baths. The most renowned and influential of the town’s healers was the 19th-century Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp, the founder of the eponymous water cure, which is employed for treating all kinds of maladies, from gout to a lame libido.
Other therapies involve simply strolling around the town and surrounding hillsides while breathing deeply of the fresh alpine air, an experience so invigorating that German doctors often prescribe visits to Bavarian Luftkurorten—literally “air cure places”—such as Oberstdorf.
It stands to reason, then, that the village would be a mecca for hikers, a dozen of whom I find, not long after the sun has risen, gathered around the Via Alpina signpost at the edge of town. From here, the purple trail will lead them past Burg Falkenstein, Germany’s highest castle ruin, and continue through Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and then over the eerie Stony Sea plateau—so named because the plateau contains only rocks, no trees—to Lake Königssee.
The yellow trail, on the other hand, travels into Austria and the Dolomites, through rock formations heaved by volcanoes from ancient seas, past Bolzano in Italy, and finally to the Adriatic coast. The red trail winds west to Monaco and east to Trieste, crisscrossing borders dozens of times in either direction. Besides these trails there are countless other local footpaths.
Feeling in an imperial mood, I set out along the purple trail—most of its 66 stages retrace Maximilian’s route over the mountains. Three hours later I arrive at the end of the first stage and, lacking a retinue to spur me on, decide to return to the village via cable car. But first, for old times’ sake, I position myself atop a promontory that seems vaguely familiar and whistle. It must be the wrong time of year, however, for my whistle goes unrequited.
About an hour away from Oberstdorf—by car, not by foot—the red Via Alpina trail leads past Mittenwald, the village that Goethe, a visitor in 1786, described as “a living picture book.” At first glance, the lofty hamlet appears the epitome of the Bavarian ski resort, with rustic chalets and mountain peaks all around, but its seeming gemütlichkeit to the contrary, Mittenwald is renowned internationally for its contributions to high culture.
For many of the visitors passing by the gaily decorated inns and shops, the drawing card is the violins that luthiers craft in studios hidden among the village’s alleys and backstreets. Mittenwald is also famed for the elaborate, Italianate frescoes that adorn the villagers’ homes and shops. Known as Luftlmalerei (“air paintings”), they might depict the homeowner’s or shopkeeper’s trade or local patron saints. Although buildings in other parts of Germany may be similarly painted, the ones in Mittenwald are done in the traditional manner, with mineral water colors dissolved in limewater applied to the still-damp mortar, thereby forming a waterproof and highly weather-resistant surface.
Although the village is famous for violins, the instrument most often played in the cafés, in the parks, and even in the huts on the mountains at the end of the ski lifts and cable cars is the zither. I have nothing against the zither, but it seems the tune played to the exclusion of all others is the theme from the Orson Welles film The Third Man. To escape the unrelenting plunking, I head out toward the Karwendel, the mountain chain that rises from the valley between Germany and Austria, casting its shadow over Mittenwald.
With ominously steep inclines and peaks that look like fangs, the Karwendel is the kind of place a medieval storyteller would populate with trolls and dragons. But it also contains Europe’s largest nature preserve, a 350-square-mile expanse of rocky outcroppings, near-vertical faces, and rugged forest, where intrepid hikers can find themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with golden eagles riding thermals up the slopes.
A cable car takes me over the valley to the nearest face of the Karwendel, where I pick up the trail to the Falkenhuette, a mountainside guesthouse and restaurant. When I catch sight of the large, chaletlike structure, after a two-hour hike, I am famished and ready for what a flyer described as “refined alpine gastronomy.” Drawing closer, I hear a familiar plunking sound—a zither! Did I like music? asks the zither’s owner, a friendly fellow in lederhosen and Tyrolean cap, during a momentary lull in his performance. Oh, yes, I reply, I love music, and, I resist adding, this is the problem.
East of Mittenwald, the Via Alpina’s eastward purple route runs through Ruhpolding, a Luftkurort (health resort) set in the shadow of the Rauschberg, a sizable hill about a mile high. The mooing of cows and the clanking of cowbells greet us as we step out of the gondola that carried my fellow hikers and me from Ruhpolding to the 5,600-foot summit. From here, explains our guide, Herbert, we have a descent of about five miles. If nothing else, it promised to be a change of pace—no pun intended—from the solitary trekking I have been doing. Because we will be descending through a steep, little-trafficked forest, it makes sense to travel with a group, though I expect the other hikers will slow me down.We had gathered that morning at a hotel, where Herbert, an athletic, or thirtyish, fellow, gave a brief demonstration of his Nordic hiking sticks, which look like ski poles without the baskets. I had seen a few people use them in the States, but in doing so, those hikers always looked a little silly, as if somebody had taken their skis and they did not know it. It took only a few steps to discover that the hiking sticks make an undeniable difference, as they propelled me along faster and with less effort. Even so, the purist in me recoiled from performance enhancers, and I handed the sticks back to my guide.
Once we begin our descent from the gondola, it becomes clear that the slope is fairly steep, so much so that I wonder about the mountain-going bovines. Herbert confirms my darkest imaginings. “Every now and then one of the cows falls,” he says. This, he explains, is seen as a bad omen for the village. On the other hand, if the cows spend their allotted 100 days grazing on the upper slopes of the mountains with nary a mishap, their return in September—the Almabtrieb—is the occasion for great fanfare. The animals are wreathed in flowers and driven back to the meadows on the lowlands with much pomp and circumstance. “Everybody comes from far and wide to see the Almabtrieb,” says Herbert, and then he breaks into a series of celebratory yodels, as if warming up for the next cow parade.
While the Almabtreib sounds like a good time—who doesn’t enjoy parading cows?—I am becoming bored with the pace of our trek. If a cow can spend much of the year on the slope without falling, surely there is no point picking my way so carefully down the mountain. Thus I begin to trot. After about four miles, I stop to wait for the others. Ten minutes later they appear, and I turn to continue, only to find my legs—good grief—incapable of continuing. The thousands of little shocks on the way downhill seem to have traumatized my knees. Oddly, I have no difficulty moving uphill, but that will not get me back to Ruhpolding, which lies at the bottom of the hill. However, I can move backward as long as I stabilize myself with Herbert’s hiking sticks. And so I continue in this novel manner down the hill until reaching level ground.
Although the hiking sticks prove useful, my stay in Ruhpolding reminds me that Bavarians take seriously a number of things that the rest of the world—even the rest of Germany—finds odd. This notion is reinforced later that day when Herbert leads his covey of hikers to a little cabin in the woods outside Ruhpolding. There, awaiting our arrival, are a half-dozen young men in lederhosen and a pair of young ladies in dirndls.
To the casual observer, lederhosen are lederhosen: short pants of leather with stitching on the flap and legs. But to the cognoscenti, that is to say, other Bavarians, the most subtle variations in cut and stitching make a world of difference. The color of the stitching and the pattern identify the wearer as being from a specific region or club. And although lederhosen can be worn for any occasion, they are indispensable for doing the Schuplattl, a dance that involves much high stepping and kicking and slapping of the thighs and hips and shoes. As with the lederhosen, minute differences in the dance steps—allegedly inspired by the courtship strut of the Auerhahn, a kind of Bavarian pheasant—distinguish one village’s from another’s.
As for the dirndls, the low-cut folk dresses worn by the young ladies who poured us drinks, well, no problem there.