Wild Bavaria: Lake Königssee and Berchtesgaden
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
"Whom God loves, he drops in this country"
-Bavarian poet Ludwig Ganghofer, describing Berchtesgaden
Few travellers to Germany have natural beauty at the top of their list of must-sees. After all, it’s a largely developed and populated country, famed more for its hearty food, turbulent history and charming towns than its landscape. However, the flat map of the country is wrinkled in the south by a chain of peaks that form a blockade between Germany and Austria. Berchtesgadener Land is a tiny pocket of Germany that juts into Austria. It hosts lakes, waterfalls and mountains whose beauty dashes any notion that Western Europe’s splendour lies only in churches or artwork.
Gouged out of the rock by ancient glaciers, the deep waters of Lake Konigssee - the deepest in Germany - lay at the southern tip of Berchtesgadener Land, right by the Austrian border. Looking more like a Norwegian or Alaskan fjord than a typical mountain lake, its shimmering emerald waters are jealously guarded by sheer stone walls on either side. These steep rock flanks mean that there is no path around the lake; the only way of getting from one side to the other is an electric powered passenger boat. These boats glide across the water, stopping at several points to let off passengers.
The last point of call for the boat is a trail that snakes between the end of Konigssee and the start of a smaller lake: Obersee. Obersee has lush green pastures that are still used by local Bavarian farmers for their cattle, transported by boat every year at the start of the season during a folk festival called “Almabtrieb” that culminates in the cows being decked out in lavish and colourful decorations.
A trail from Obersee also winds its way up to Rothbach, the highest waterfall in Germany. The waterfall spills down a sheer rock face, the cold mountain air crystallizing its mist into a patina of ice.
The weather at Konigssee was dreadful and dramatic the day we visited. We gratefully snatched moments of sunshine whenever blue sky poked through but most of the time the sky remained grey and gloomy, becoming worse as the day went on. Intermittent drizzle became a full-fledged downpour as we made our final boat ride, insistent rain pelting the boat as it tossed around in waves whipped up by a sudden wind. Tendrils of mist, which had been curling around the peaks all day, weaved downslope between the trees to settle on the surface of the lake itself, obscuring our view of the lakeshore.
Soon, it felt like our boat was chugging through the sea rather than a mountain lake. The wooden boat, the last scheduled boat trip of the day, was packed with hikers and Bavarian retirees but the grim weather hung heavy over everyone and conversations were stilled, the only sound the quiet hum of the electric engine as it whisked everyone back to the head of the lake. The weather was sunny and bright by the time we stepped ashore.
The lakes press against a series of hulking peaks on the north, chief among them Mount Watzmann, the third highest in Germany. Mount Watzmann has long challenged Germans to ascend it’s icy heights (at least 100 people have died in the attempt since people began climbing it 200 years ago) and it is supposedly named after a cruel king who terrorized his subjects and was turned into this stone mountain as divine punishment. Buried in its cloak of ice and snow are the remains of a German plane from the Second World War and an ice cave named the Eiskapelle (or Ice Chapel), which can be visited by hiking up from St. Bartholoma, a stop on the electric boat circuit. St. Bartholoma is a pilgrimage church built 300 years ago to memorialize the victims of a flood that crushed their village here. It’s rust-coloured domes look more Middle Eastern than Catholic and it is an icon of the region.
Running along Watzmann is a cluster of mountains known as the Untersberg. These peaks are riddled with natural caves and tunnels, including the largest in Germany. We’ve written before about how some mountains play a large role in the mythology of the people living in their shadow and Untersberg is no different. According to medieval legend, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa slumbers in the mountain’s dark depths, his long red beard slowly growing around a round stone table. His beard has already encircled the table twice and when it completes its third circle the end of the world is nigh; an epic battle will take place at a field near to Berchtesgaden and the sleeping Emperor will awake and rise to do battle one last time.
Other legends place the Emperor’s sleeping place in a range of hills in Central Germany and claim that Untersberg is home to Emperor Charlemagne. Supposedly, Charlemagne sleeps in the dark belly of the mountain, tended to by a group of dwarves and waking up only once every hundred years. At the strike of a new century, Charlemagne emerges from his cave and looks outside to see if ravens still soar above the mountains; if they do, he descends back to his cave to sleep for another hundred years. If no ravens appear, Charlemagne will stride out, blinking, into the sun and fresh air as he knows that the world is about to end.
The legends of these “kings in the mountain” may seem like a bit of German folklore blended with Snow White and mixed with Groundhog Day. However, the legends are connected with the darkest part of Berchtesgadener Land. Hitler was supposedly obsessed with these legends, seeing himself as the leader of a Third Reich to succeed the First and Second Reich of these two previous emperors. He placed one of his vacation homes, the Eagles Nest, on a spur of rock that looked over the mountain and Konigssee and spent around a third of his time as Fuehrer relaxing and plotting in Berchtesgaden.
In fact, Berchtesgaden became the premiere vacation destination for top ranking Nazis, whose presence led to a whole underground network of tunnels that could be used for sheltering from Allied bombing raids. Hermann Goring, head of the German Air Force, in particular loved spending time in the area and constructed a personal hunting lodge in the thick forest above the lake. Heinrich Himmler, architect of the Holocaust, had a cabin built for his mistress in the area too.
A popular urban legend says that Nazi treasure is still buried in the mountains around the lake, hidden to save it from American troops who rolled into Berchtesgaden at the end of the war. Several years ago a teenage girl, swimming in the lake on family vacation, found a bar of solid gold in the water worth 15,000 Euros, sparking further tales of Nazi loot (though there was no evidence the gold bar was from the Nazi-era).
Clustered by the pier at the foot of Konigssee is a small settlement of inns and restaurants geared to the families and groups who vacation at the lake. We preferred to use the village of Ramsau bei Berchtesgaden, a short meandering drive away from the lake, as our home base while we were travelling in Berchtesgadener Land.
Ramsau is no more than a collection of timbered houses and B&Bs strung along a quick, blue river near a lake called Hintersee but the village church is one of the most scenic religious buildings I’ve ever seen. The steeple stabs upward at the sky, mirroring the thrust of the mountains behind it, and the cold river bubbles and tumbles close beside it. For a brief moment when we returned to town after a day on the lake, the clouds melted and the mountains caught sunset’s pink light.