Thursday, May 14, 2015

crazy louie's castles

Hello family and friends!  We are very behind on blogging about all of our adventures, so here is a report about a trip we made in February to Southern Germany.  I'll see about writing about our more recent trips to Switzerland for Easter and the Netherlands for the weekend later.

As you doubtless know, we are a bit (OK, or more than a bit) castle obsessed, so you might be surprised it has taken us this long to get to the most famous castles in Germany.  And, because they are down in the German Alps, we combined some castle visiting with a cross country ski weekend; both castles and skiing were pretty awesome.
Skiing!! On snow!!

One of the mural covered buildings in Oberammergau
We went to the town Oberammergau, which is most famous for having hosted a passion play every 10 years since 1634 in honor of having been spared from the plague, and also known for having adorable painted buildings in the town center.  I knew about it as a ski destination because the town holds a big ski race in early February every year, so I knew that they had to have a decent number of kilometers of ski trails.  I'm not going to lie; Ramsau, Austria has way better skiing (we went there 2 years ago, if you remember) with more varied and longer and harder trails, but Oberammergau is significantly closer to Marburg, and for gestational reasons (and low fitness) I was OK this year with fewer, easier trails, and a town center with good touristing.  What I hadn't realized is that besides the dozen loops in the Ammer valley itself (the Ammer is a river, and the one that gives Oberammergau and its neighbor Unterammergau their names), tons of towns in the area have short ski loops in the fields and such, and as far as we could tell, you don't need to buy passes for any of them.  It doesn't look like every network is very extensive, although most of the various trails near Oberammergau itself are connected, so you could get a fairly long ski in if you are in shape and the conditions are fast, although neither of those were true for me this trip.  We stopped on Friday to ski in Bad Bayersoien, which is in the Ammer valley itself and looked like the trailhead access would be easier from the trail map I found on-line.  The trails there loop around a little pond, and although there were a fair number of road crossings, there were also some lovely stretches of trail in the woods and although the snow was very warm and wet and sloppy and slow, it was really great to be on skis again. When the sun started going down, we headed on to check into our hotel (Pension Zwink, which was inexpensive and very nice with friendly hosts, if you don't mind the occasional crucifix...say, directly over your bed) and then went out for dinner with friends Nuria and Marek who had joined us for the weekend, although they didn't join us for the skiing parts.



Saturday, we decided that things had re-frozen overnight and were going to be icy, so we wandered around town for a few hours, shopping, before going skiing to let things soften up a bit and get a bit safer. We found some really cute things, including a small wood carving, for which the region is famous, and a traditional Bavarian men's hat that looks good on Sasha and coincidentally also fits me. We grabbed sandwiches and pretzels from a bakery to eat for lunch, then drove down to a trailhead near Ettal, so that we could ski to a castle, which we then did.  Now, this isn't our usual "two rocks on top of each other that you can envision once was part of a castle if you squint"; rather, this was Schloss Linderhof, one of the famous castles of Crazy Louie himself.  OK, we have started calling him that because it is more fun than saying "K├Ânig Ludwig II of Bayern" every time we want to talk about him.  Anyway, he was born in 1845, and pretty quickly after he became king, Bavaria became part of the German empire and he effectively didn't need to govern so spent his time and his money (and then some more money that he didn't have) building 3 elaborate castles around Bavaria, because after visiting Versailles, he decided that Bavaria needed more castles.  At some point, the people around him realized that he was pushing the monarchy into insolvency, they decided that the best way to reign him in was to get him declared insane, and shortly thereafter he drowned under mysterious circumstances.  The castles then quickly became tourist attractions, in an attempt to recoup some of the losses of their construction.
Don't you agree, that's a stylish hat for Sasha!

Financial issues aside, in the end, I think Ludwig did Bavaria a great service, because those castles are awesome, and help bring tons of tourists and money to the area. Linderhof is the smallest of the castles, and since we didn't feel comfortable touring it in ski boots or leaving our skis and poles sitting around outside, we just looked at it from the outside and stopped at a small cafe for cocoa and apple strudel.  The gardens are supposed to be lovely, but everything was in hibernation for the winter. We thought it looked like the fountains or statues or planters were in little outhouses...




Hohenschwangau
Sunday, we ended up going for a short ski because it was snowing, and I like skiing in fresh snow, although it was slow skiing, and I was too lazy to pick a kick wax so ended up skating, when classic would have been much more fun.  Then we drove to Fussen to visit probable the famousest of all German castles; Neuschwanstein.  Neuschwanstein is another of Crazy Louie's castles, and it is very impressive in size and position half-way up a big hill/mountain.  It is overlooking another cool but less huge castle built by Ludwig's dad, Schloss Hohenschwangau.  One thing to know about these castles is that they are NOT undiscovered.  We're talking 1.5 million visitors a year, and up to 7000 or so people a day in the summer.  We weren't there in high season, but never were out of sight of dozens of people (even when walking along a closed path for a good photo).  Because of the wet fresh snow, the buses up to the castle weren't running, so we had to walk up to each of the castles, and this meant that we decided to skip the tour of Hohenschwangau, although we did walk up to admire it from the outside. 

I have to say, from the outside, I was almost a bit disappointed with Neuschwanstein.  Yes, it is huge, and with the towers and such, looks like an ideal castle.  But it doesn't look "real" to me, it looks more Disney.  And it's not just because this castle is one of the main influences for Disney's castles, it is also because it is so new and pale in color that it looks like it just was taken out of its castle box; the stonework is too crisp and perfect, which makes sense, I suppose, since it is less than 150 years old (a baby by castle standards) and was barely lived in.  Only a handful of rooms were completed by the time that Ludwig died, and he stayed there I think something like 113 days total, and never with guests and musicians, etc.  The inside, though, changed my opinions.  Unfortunately (although not surprisingly given the number of tourists), we weren't allowed to photograph inside, but the walls are completely covered in murals and such, and there were plenty of fancy curtains and brocaded furniture for it to seem suitably palace-like.
Neuschwanstein (doesn't it look new and shiny?)

But I still have to admit that my favorite thing was probably the freshly fried donut things we bought on the way up.  Hot, covered in powdered sugar, with moist quark-rich dough... Yum!