Looking for Grimm’s take on Germany, complete with a storybook castle with a spa, beer garden, 24-hour room service and (maybe even) a local Prince Charming to awaken you with a kiss? Forget about Disney World and head to Bavaria, a state in southeastern Germany where every enchanted village and cobblestone street looks like it popped from a cuckoo clock.
As well as being terminally quaint, Bavaria is the place to go if you love to eat -- and calories be damned! We’re talking 1,500 kinds of sausage — enough to link Earth to Venus and ring around Saturn; potatoes and dumplings prepared in various artery-clogging guises; a cheese shop around every corner (Bavaria produces 75 percent of the country’s cheeses) and enough sauerkraut to blast you to Mars. Wash it all down with bier, Bavaria’s national beverage (or wein, a close second) and no one will suspect you’re a tourist.
Go between March and June, Bavaria’s most fetching season, and you’ll also beat the summer crowds and heat. When spring gesprungen in Bavaria, Munich’s beer gardens are going full tilt under the flowering chestnut trees and every inch of the Alps is pure magic: Sound-of-Music meadows are carpeted with wildflowers, looking-glass lakes brim with glacier melt and Jacobs’ ladders stream through fir-scented forests, forming puddles of light where fairy rings bloom luminous.
They call this an airport?
From the minute I stepped off the plane and into Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss International Airport, I knew I wasn’t in LAX any longer. With its splashing fountains, flowering gardens, farmers markets and sidewalk cafes, Munich’s drop-dead-gorgeous airport looked more like The Left Bank than a gateway to the skies. At Sissi & Franz, an edgy re-imagining of a Vienna coffeehouse, bleary-eyed globe trotters were expresso-ing away their jet lag while over at Bubbles Bar, travelers were toasting the day with premium wines. At Airbräu, a combo open-air beer garden and Europe’s only airport brewery, waitresses in dirndl dresses scooted by carrying tankard-size pitchers of craft beer.
I walked past elegant hotels and swank pay-per-hour sleeping pods, chic bakeries where fresh cream oozed from every flat surface, pricey delis stocked with corned beef to sushi and duty-free shops where you could pick up a toothbrush or a diamond-studded ball gown, a cinema and a miniature golf course, a visitors center where telescopes pointed at the night sky, a multi-cultural playground where the jungle gyms, swings and sand boxes built from materials flown in from five continents…it had almost been worth enduring the 21-hour-long red-eye from LAX just to land here.
I settled into Munich’s 4-star K+K Hotel am Harras just as breakfast was being served in the airy lounge. I passed on the Bavarian Breakfast of Champions (white sausages, soft pretzels, sweet mustard and beer) and before I could decide what to order, a chef in a tall white hat was handing me a plate of French toast dusted with confectioner’s sugar. “This is my favorite thing,” he said in uninflected English. “But if you don’t like it, there are many other choices.” There were heaping bowls of raspberries, blueberries and cherries; mounds of homemade pastries, muffins and scones; enormous platters of deli meats and cheeses; towers of butter cookies and gleaming stations where chefs were flipping Frisbee-sized pancakes or sautéing mushrooms and scallions for made-on-request omelets.
My first morning in Munich
Beyond the hotel, Bavaria’s bacchanalia continued at breakneck speed at Munich’s historic (1880s) Viktualienmarkt farmers market, where a maze of booths hawked fresh, homemade everything — from crafts, kites, toys and cheese to bread, cheese, cakes and toys to every edible part of a pig. Mazes of cobblestone streets lined with centuries-old homes cloaked in geranium suddenly dead-ended at pocket beer gardens where tough-looking motorcycle guys wearing leathers and full-body tattoos raised beer glasses with manicured frauleins in Manolos.
I walked all day in hopes of working up a Bavarian-style appetite worthy of Augustiner-Keller, one of Munich’s oldest (1812) and most beloved beer halls. As we entered, a live oompah band was blaring traditional music and diners who had apparently had one too many were dancing atop the long, wooden tables.
A waitress with multiple piercings who was literally popping out of her peasant blouse approached our table and without warning, slapped down in front of each of us a huge platter heaped with half a duck, a third of a roast suckling pig, several saucer-sized dumplings and a leaning tower of blue cabbage. “So where’s the rest?” I joked. “Nein!”
Within a half hour, I was in a dumpling-induced stupor while my travel companions were growing more jovial with each refill of their steins. The steins were so huge (two pints!) that I was astonished when they announced they were heading out to spend the rest of the night beer hall-hopping. As they set off for Gärtnerplatz and Glockenbachviertel, two trendy ‘hoods housing Munich’s hippest watering holes, I headed back to the hotel for a hot date with my dunenkissen (down pillow).
Someday my prince will come, but until then I’ll set the alarm
The next morning, we drove to the medieval town of Mittenwald, where every crayon-colored house was adorned with gingerbread gables and beautiful murals. At The Geigenbaumuseum, a famous violin-building museum, the violins were hanging out back on laundry lines to dry and work on their Baywatch “tans.” After the museum tour, we followed a hiking trail up into the hills and on to an Alpine meadow with a tiny gilded chapel painted in the same style as the houses in town. Across the sun-dappled lake, a row of jagged peaks crowded the horizon and cable cars strung up a steep mountain slope were lifting slowly to the Karwendelbahnn, a wilderness laced with hiking trails.
After lunch at a rustic lakeside pub, we hiked back to Mittenwald and then drove through rugged mountain countryside to Schloss Elmau Luxury Spa & Cultural Hideaway, a palatial spa resort tucked in the Bavarian Alps with several mansions’ worth of deluxe lodging and four spas --The Nature Spa nestled in a secluded stream valley while The Badehaus had a rooftop saltwater pool overlooking the mountains.
President Obama and his entourage was arriving the next day, so rooms were scarce. Should I ever return, I’ll book a palatial suites (sorry, no Prince Charming included in the rate) and hike the three-mile trail from the hotel to Schloss Neuschwanstein, Bavaria’s famous storybook castle designed in 1869 by the country’s beloved King Ludwig II. Rumored to have his head in the clouds and his hands in the royal coffers, the king spent a fortune on a palace he never finished and in which he lived for just a few months. Yet even in its unfinished state, the castle jump-started Bavaria’s tourism industry and was the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Disneyland castle.
Isn’t it romantic?
From the resort, we followed Bavaria’s Romantic Road through a succession of storybook towns, each one with a fairytale castle where I half expected to find Rapunzel letting down her hair. (Or was she serving suds in some rowdy beer garden tucked down one of the town’s adorable side streets?)
The most beautiful town of all was Rothenberg ob der Tauber, a walled medieval village of turrets, towers and gables — even the police station looked like it was on loan from Hansel and Gretel. We climbed steep, spiral staircases to the top of Town Hall Tower and admired the view as the sunset streaked the sky pink and purple and then surrendering to a canopy of stars. Back down, we dropped by a local bakery for a fortifying strudel before visiting the Medieval Crime Museum to see gruesome medieval instruments of torture.
Hearing a loud cry, we raced out of the museum and on to Market Square, where crowds of tourists had already assembled for the Night Watchman Tour. We followed close on his heels as he delivered a running commentary of long-ago Rothenberg, once so thick with thieves and drunks that a night watchman was required to safeguard slumbering residents. As we walked back to the hotel, Rothenberg’s many clock and church towers simultaneously chimed midnight.
Further along the Romantic Road was the town of Wurzburg, home of the Residence Palace, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Beautiful ceiling frescoes depicted the world view circa 1750: Wurzburg at center stage presiding over the savage Americas, mystical Asia and wild and wooly Africa.
A tale of Bavarian bier and wein
By the time we had toured 430 years of Bavarian wein history at Juliusspital, Germany’s largest wine estate, we were all ready to crash at Maritim Hotel Wurzburg.
It was our last night in Bavaria, and my travel buddies faced a tough decision: Should they hang in the hotel’s wine bar or head into Wurzburg’s old town for one last blitzkrieg in the beer hall? With an early morning flight to catch, I decided to hit the sack early for one last date with my dunenkissen. And my travel companions? They later claimed the night was a complete blank — which may be all you need to know about mixing German bier and wein.
For more info: www.bavaria.by
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