Schloss Neuschwanstein – Take a steep 20-minute climb up from the village of Hohenschwangau and you’ll be greeted by the grey granite façade of the mighty Schloss Neuschwanstein. This is the fairytale castle to beat them all: Germany’s most iconic, best-loved and most visited; Neuschwanstein was King Ludwig’s personal dream brought to life and it has been the sole inspiration for the famous ‘Disney’ citadel.
King Ludwig wanted the castle to represent many things which were important to him, including a symbol of his belief that he was a divinely chosen king. It is also a tribute to medieval Germany chivalry and to the great composer Wagner, who likewise evoked this era so intoxicatingly in his epic musical creations. Wagner fans will be delighted to see that many of the rooms are decorated with scenes from Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde.
The castle was not architect-designed; instead it fell to the theatre designer Christian Jank to bring the plans to life, in close collaboration with the king. This theatrical influence can be felt throughout as the interior feels much like a series of stage sets.
Construction of the mighty castle began in 1869 but it was never completed (only 20 out of 70 rooms were ready at the time of the king’s death).
A short ramble down a path behind Neuschwanstein leads you to one of the nineteenth century’s greatest feats of engineering: the Marienbrücke. This is an impressive steel bridge which traverses the rushing waters of the Poellat gorge. A further climb of around one hour up the steep, marked footpath will bring you to the greatest vantage point from which to view Neuschwanstein, where the castle is framed by the glorious scenery of the Alpsee, the Schwansee, the Ammergauer Alps and the Tyrolean Alps. If you’re feeling fit, then it is well worth tackling another 2 hours of hiking to reach the top of the Tegelberg (1,720m/5,643ft), where the panorama stretches as far as Munich on a clear day. It is also possible to get here via cable car (Tegelbergbahn).
The top tip for visiting Neuschwanstein is to arrive as early as possible, to avoid the many visiting tour groups.
Lake Constance & Lindau – If you fancy a day off from hiking in the mountains, then lovely Lindau makes for a perfect day trip. Enjoy exploring the streets of this tiny island perched in the northeastern corner of Lake Constance, then rent a boat or board a ferry for a float around the lake itself.
Lindau, which offers the most priceless views of the Alps, is a place full of romance and old-world charm. During the warmer months, the Seepromenade along the harbour has an almost Mediterranean feel about it: balmy sun, blue sky and collection of white boats moored up. Enjoying a refreshing glass of wine whilst enjoying the view here is probably the ultimate Lake Constance experience.
The story of Kleinwalsertal…
The Kleinwalsertal Valley may be part of the Austrian Alps, but it can only be accessed via Germany, due to its natural enclave formation. When you cross the border between the two countries (the “Walserschanze”), you can enjoy one of the most spectacular views in the Alps. The Kleinwalsertal valley lies at between 1,086m/3,562ft to 2,536m/8,320ft altitude and makes for a perfect walking holiday destination with its charming villages, 150 km of waymarked walking paths, a high-adrenaline Via Ferrata and an abundance of themed walking trails.
During the 13th century, the Walser (German emigrants from the Upper Valais, which is now in Switzerland) – settled in the high and remote valley of the Breitach river, building traditional valais-style houses in areas such as the tiny hamlet of Bödmen, just beyond Mittelberg. Life for these mountain farmers became even more challenging when the land was seized by the dukes of Tyrol and a couple of centuries further on, they suddenly found themselves at the mercy of Austria, located on the other side of the impassable Allgäu Alps. A treaty signed in 1891 ended the unrest by allowing the community to be ruled by Austria, but at the same time, remain economically united with Germany.
Füssen – In a beautiful setting in the Eastern Allgäu, not far from the Austrian border, lies the town of Füssen. Although mainly used as a hopping-off point for visiting the two royal castles situated some 4km/2.5mi to the south-east, this place is worth some exploration. Perched high up in the old town (Altstadt) is the Hohes Schloss castle. Back in the sixteenth century, it was re-built as a summer residence of the Augsburg royalty, which is why it is late-gothic in appearance. The inner courtyard contains trompe d’oeil paintings, to create the illusion of many doors, windows and oriels. However, the main attraction of this castle lies in the Rittersaal, a magnificent banqueting hall, with a large, coffered vault.
Oberstdorf – Pretty Oberstdorf makes a perfect base for hiking, as you can choose between no less than seven noble mountain valleys which fan out from the village. The ten highest peaks of the Allgäu Alps – all around 2,600 metres/8,530 feet high – are situated around Oberstdorf, including Mt. Nebelhorn, which rewards hikers with sweeping panoramas from the Zugspitze across to the Austrian and Swiss Alps. If you’re not up for the hike, then you can take a cable car up to enjoy the views. Mid-summer is a particularly lovely time here, when alpine roses and rare flora bring vibrant colour to the mountainsides.
Allgäu Cheese & Allgäu Cows – No less than 25 per cent of Germany’s cheese is produced by the Allgäu’s half a million cows, and these creatures can often be encountered in the alpine foothills, before they are led back downhill in early September. Every year, the safe return of the cows is celebrated throughout the region’s towns and villages in a festival called the Viehscheid. There is one ‘lead cow’ per herd, which will be visible by its large, ornamental headdress and giant bell.
Cheese is, in fact, a relatively recent addition to the region, having been introduced in the mid-19th century by Dutch and Swiss cheesemakers. They created the tasty, Allgäu-style Emmenthaler and Limburger. However, another now famous cheese was created out of pure chance by two farmers, Josef and Anton Kramer. One day, while making some Limburger, they got the balance of ingredients a little wrong and left the sorry result in a cellar to see if it would improve with time. When they removed it six months later, the wonderful Weisslacker was born. No visit to the Allgäu region is complete without sampling this strong-flavoured, semi-hard cheese!
Oberstaufen – The serene Alpine village of Oberstaufen is best known locally for an intense detox treatment called Schrothkur, which was devised in the 19th century by Johann Schroth and is still practiced to this very day. The programme usually involves being awakened at 4am with a specially-blended tea, before being cocooned in ‘purifying’ linen sheets. It also includes a very strict diet. Not, as you can imagine, one for the faint-heated! However, while thousands of devoted Germans subject themselves to the ritual for 2-3 weeks per year, it’s certainly not a mandatory part of your visit! Instead, simply enjoy the beauty of Oberstaufen and its surrounds. This spot in the south-east of Bavaria offers visitors many delights, including panoramic views of the Alps, serene meadow scenery, outdoor adventures and walking, the freshest, cleanest air and delicious local food specialties.
What’ more, Oberstaufen remains something of a hidden gem. International travellers who are headed for the likes of Munich or Berchtesgaden often make the mistake of bypassing this little-known town. Yet there is so much to draw visitors, including gorgeous, alpine-style hotels offering unusual spa treatments such as a bath filled with local hay. For those who prefer a less sedentary activity, there are 300km of walking,in the Nagelfluhkette nature park, with hikes taking you as high as 1,833 metres/6,014 feet.
The fertile land of the Allgäu Alps invites visitors to immerse themselves in the local food culture and one specialty which must be sampled is Kässpätzle, which uses a special type of pasta along with lashings of the local cheese. It’s very tasty but also very filling. Over-indulge on it, and that Schroth detox might not seem like such a bad idea after all…!
History & Culture
About King Ludwig: King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86) has been known by various nicknames over the years, including the ‘Fairytale King’, the ‘Dream King’, the ‘Last True King’ and simply ‘Mad Ludwig’. The names are apt, given that Ludwig didn’t just live in a fantasy world, he actually built one as well. His castle Neuschwanstein became the model for Walt Disney’s fairytale castles (and the iconic ‘citadel’ used in the Disney logo) and tourists from all corners of the globe flock here to marvel at his creation. Ludwig was the penultimate member of the House of Wittelsbach, the family that reigned over Bavaria for an incredible 738 years, from 1180 to 1918. In one of his more famous quotes, Ludwig proclaimed: “It is necessary to create paradises that allow one to forget the terrible times in which we live.”
Being forced into a war against Prussia, which Bavaria lost, marked the beginning of the end of Ludwig’s reign. His ministers plotted to overturn him and, on 10 June, 1886 he was officially declared insane by a panel of medics. Just three days later, he drowned in Starnberger Lake in suspicious circumstances. It is still not known whether it was suicide, an accident or murder.
It started with the Celts…
It is widely believed that the area was originally settled by Celts, and then later overtaken by the Romans. Kempten in Upper Allgäu is considered by archaeologists to be one of the oldest urban settlements in Germany. You can explore the historical remains of the original town – which was known as Cambodunum in Roman times – in an archaeological park. The Roman heritage is keenly felt throughout the town, and during the summer evenings, the Rathausplatz square evokes the heady atmosphere of an Italian piazza. Also worth a visit is the magnificent ‘Residence’ in Kempten, a former Benedictine abbey which was destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War but re-built as a church and palace in 1652 to become Germany’s first monumental rococo monastery.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
Wildlife lovers will delight in spotting snow hares and marmots in the Allgäu Alps (the marmot below the tree line, the snow hare above) as well as chamois and deer. This is also great bird-watching territory: watch out for jays, with their darting flight and imitating calls; and if you get really lucky, you may catch a sighting of the splendid golden eagle.
During spring and summer, The Allgäu Alps are carpeted with wildflowers, including orchids, edelweiss, cyclamen, alpine roses, gentians, pulsatilla and buttercups. The ecosystems in Alpine areas are fragile, and visitors should always take care to stick to the walking paths and help preserve the natural beauty of the area.