travel

South Germany will fill your heart with wonder and your mug with some of the best brew.

Germany is not just a country of extremely organised people and extremely advanced technology; it is also a place of extreme natural beauty. Its southern reaches have some of the richest vistas in Europe, a region where autumn is a starburst of colours in valleys crowned by the majestic Alps. Oh, and you can get high on beer, too – the Gipfelalm beer garden in Zugspitze, the highest such point in Germany, falls in this region.


The island at Lake Eibsee, in the province of Garmisch. The country’s highest mountain peak, the Zugspitze, overlooks the lake

Our travels took us to some picturesque destinations, lesser known hideouts in the Alps within two hours’ drive of Munich. Starting in a southwest direction, we went to Murnau (90 minutes), Lake Staffelsee (15 minutes from Murnau), then slightly southeast to Oberammergau (90 minutes) and finally southwards to Garmisch Partenkirchen for the stunning Zugspitze bordering Austria (50 minutes).

Munich itself is a heady blend of the old and the new. The city’s character is reflected in its architecture: grand medieval edifices exist alongside dynamic designs, such as the very space-age BMW building and the soccer stadium Allianz Arena, which changes colour at night like some chameleon UFO (or an inflatable raft, if you prefer the affectionate local nickname Schlauchboot). Our hotel, Bayerischer Hof, has its fair share of history. This landmark has hosted everyone from European royalty to world leaders to the pop legend Michael Jackson. Munich is also the city of the boisterous Oktoberfest, though those who prefer a quieter, more photogenic setting for a drink should head out of town.

Leaving Munich, we drove 72 km southwest to the sprawling Murnauer Nature Reserve, home to rare species of birds and aquatic life, nurturing a sensitive Alpine eco-system. The Alpenhof Murnau, an award-winning, eco-friendly Alpine chalet resort, is at the gateway to the vast woodland parks of the region, and it affords a 180 degree view of mystical autumnal landscapes bathed in a sunset glow. An exhilarating bike ride into the nearby woods led us through tiny hamlets and chalets dappled in mellow amber.


A skier at Zugspitze. The mountain peak serves as the viewing point for a vast Alpine vista

The drives along the panoramic Alps are so delightful, one arrives at the next destination not travel-weary but refreshed and ready for more. And anytime you need to wet the windpipe, there is a pint of beer to be had somewhere nearby. We stopped at a beer garden on Lake Staffelsee. Guzzling the dunkel (dark lager) variety of the local brew in mega steins (mugs), we sat watching life on the lake, mirrored in the sun, shifting shades... idyllic moments. Tiny tots squealed with joy, feeding ducks on the gently lapping shores of the lake, as country music from an accordion prompted an extempore jig from visitors near the jetty.


Woodlands like this heighten the charm of the region

On the lake cruise, feeling the chill air on our faces, we caught glimpses of little hamlets tucked away in the lush woodlands, couples canoeing as shadows lengthened on the mountains. Nothing seemed to be in a hurry.

Besides beer, Germany loves its cheese. These two loves have been combined in a unique product, beer kase (beer cheese), at the cheesery Ammergauer Alpen at Estall, adjoining a medieval monastery located close to Oberammergau. The countryside here is full of pine forests, tiny hamlets, etched lanes scaling turfed inclines and swathes of autumn tones.

We parked in tiny Oberammergau village, popping into quaint boutiques stocked with bright Christmas decorations. Several of the chalets in this village display wall frescoes depicting folk lore and house examples of local craftsmanship. Our evening halt here was a ‘frothy’ experience at one of the tiniest micro-breweries we have ever visited. This is within the resort hotel Maximilian, and the brewery is named ‘Maxbrau’.

Off on a stroll, we followed the country paths into the hills, crossing hamlets with cosy chalets bedecked with lace curtains, wooden knick-knacks on the ledges and fluorescent blooms on window sills.

Leaving Oberammergau, it was time for our penultimate stop on this tour, and it would also be the highest point we would climb. Garmisch Partenkirchen, in the very cradle of the Bavarian Alps, is close to Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest peak.

From here, a funicular takes one on an enthralling 40-minute ride through a deep tunnel. Our pinewood balcony at Reindl’s Partenkirchener Hof overlooked the highest reaches of the mountain range. This century-old resort hotel hosted 1936 Olympic Games participants, was taken over by the Nazis and later by American troops during World War II, and is a repository of traditional Bavarian décor.

The next day, the funicular took us up to Zugspitze and our hearts nearly stopped as we stepped out into the sunshine. The very core of the natural world of Europe was in front of us, the snow-capped mountains of Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland stretching away, broken by the ultramarine waters of Lake Eibsee. “Prost!” we exclaimed, raising a toast to the grand views at the highest beer garden in the world.


Cityscape of Garmisch Partenkirchen

Our tour had begun with a generous helping of fantastic panoramas, niche experiences and unforgettable sights and sounds, and we ended on the same note, checking into hotel Corbin, designed according to feng shui principles, at the small town of Freising, a few kilometres north of Munich. Dinner here was at an unusual location – the world’s oldest operating brewery (“Alteste Brauerei der Welt”), called Weihenstephan Brauerei, still produces an award-winning beer, its cellar-cum-beer hall reverberating with squeals from buxom belles whipping up the night’s frothy passions. A happy ending to a magnificent journey.

Fact File

How to go: Lufthansa flies from Mumbai and Delhi direct to Munich. All locales are within 90 minutes’ drive from the German city.

Where to stay: Haus Am Gries (Murnau), Landhotel Bold Ringhotel (Oberammergau), Hotel Gasthof Drei Mohren (Garmisch Partenkirchen), Gasthof Schredl (Freising). They range from B&B to 3-star. Prior booking is advised for all the places.

When to go: The best time is from April to October. Winters are from end-October to end-March and they are very severe.

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