Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Nest in the Clouds

We are snuggled in a cozy little Alpine ski chalet (10 rooms) called Pension Waldrast in the tiny village of Ehenbichl, just outside Reutte, (RRoy-tuh) Austria. From our bedroom balcony we can see what is left of the 13th century Ehrenburg castle, high on the hill behind us. This is ski country, and the people here look seasoned, in that good healthy way. Mrs. Huter (the owner), made us feel right at home the minute we walked in the door last night, and we are feeling spoiled this morning with our first included breakfast of the trip. The meadow we are in is filled with a light fog this morning, and it is so peaceful, and beautiful we're not sure we want to leave. But leave we must. On the way out the door, Mrs. Huter, unexpectedly shook my hand, and wished us a good trip. I asked her about all the ski pictures in the lobby, and she said that she and her husband were real enthusiasts who lived to ski. She pointed to one of the pictures on the wall and said "He's dead now" and that she didn't ski anymore. Just the wistful way she said it made me think back to the ladies standing in front Vermeer's necklace girl, and that universal loss we all feel as we get older. It was so touching.

Tuesday - September 28, 2010

Our plan for the day was a leisurely 3 hour drive east to Berchtesgaden to see Hitler's "Eagle's Nest", followed by dinner in nearby Salzburg, and an overnight in a hotel in the suburbs. Thinking I was smart, we headed north back to Germany, my theory being we could pick up the Autobahn just on the other side of the border. I wasn't smart, and it wasn't there. Instead, we ended up on lots of very picturesque country roads with lots of farm vehicles. By the time we got to the Autobahn I had perfected my passing skills. Lesson: like in airplanes, sometimes the nearest exit is behind you.

We got almost everything wrong this day.

First: we couldn't find the place. When we got off the Autobahn we followed our Google directions, but the road was closed with big signs denying auto traffic. We circled around, and finally headed to the train station where a couple of very nice ladies told us that that road has been closed long ago, and there was another one a couple of kilometers farther on.

Second: the "Eagles Nest" is not in Berchtesgaden. It's a building (that is now a restaurant) 6000 feet up the side of the Kehlstein mountain, a short distance from Obersalzberg, which is just outside Berchtesgaden. This building was a 50th birthday gift from the Nazi party to Hitler and he visited it a number of times (estimate is 10 - 14).

Third: it was not where much of the planning for the war was conducted nor where many of the state visits took place. That was at the Berghof down the hill in Obersalzberg (more about that later).

OK, so it's not the historical site we thought it was but it is a bit of an engineering marvel, had a restaurant, and since we were hungry, we decided to go up and visit. We parked down at the Dokumentation Obersalzberg building (3 Euros) and bought bus tickets (31 Euros - 15.5 each)and waited for our bus (number 3 leaving at 14:20). This was beginning to feel like Disneyworld. Right on time our caravan of 3 buses made it's way up the very narrow, 4 mile, winding road (which amazingly has only 1 switchback and very low side railings), to another parking lot. Upon exiting the bus (into a pretty good cloudbank) you have to take your ticket to a little booth where they stamp a return time on your ticket. (This is apparently really important, because we were told to do this every 2 minutes of our 15 minute ride). After quick consultation with Kat we had ours stamped with 15:35 figuring an hour would be more than enough time given the visibility was minus 2 feet.

There is a fancy stone cave entrance with a 406 foot tunnel that leads to a brass elevator that takes you vertically 406 feet to the chalet. If it wasn't so cold and cloudy, thoughts of figuring out the length of the hypotenuse would have kept us occupied while we awaited the elevator. All we wanted to do was to get upstairs. The doors opened, we were directed not to take pictures (why all these rules?), and whisked higher up into the cloud. Given the viewing platform was socked in, the only thing left to do was eat, and the only place to do it was the Kehlsteinhaus. The setting is beautiful, the service was excellent, and not too expensive (17 Euros). The menu reminded me a bit of a fancy Friendly's with beer. People kept coming into the dining room to take a picture of the famous marble fireplace that was nicked up by American GIs for souvenirs at the end of the war. Many of the WWII books and movies show this building and fireplace and that's why we thought this was where Hitler ran his dirty business. Not so.

An hour was more than enough time at the top on this day. We got to the bus stop before the bus, and landed a front row seat for the descent. An interesting little drama unfolded before us. There were 6 or 7 people trying to get on who did not have a departure time stamped on their ticket. Now how is that possible given all the warnings on the way up? After a considerable amount of lively discussion, these rebels (thankfully not Americans), were allowed to stand in the aisle as we descended. It was creepier going down than it had been going up. You could see where you would land.

Back at the bottom we headed to the Docu Center and looking over our shoulders had the best view all day of the Kehlsteinhaus, the clouds floating by. It was cheap money (5 Euros each including audio-guide), sits atop a vast bunker complex, and was built in the shadow of the ruins of the original Berghof. It was on this plateau that Hitler's famous chalet stood, where state visits were conducted and where he and Eva Braun spent most of their time together. Many of the buildings in Obersalzberg were bombed in the last couple of months of the war. Almost all the buildings of historical note were finally destroyed in 1952. From their website:

Based on the agreement between the Bavarian State government and the American occupational forces, the ruins of the Berghof, the houses of Göring and Bormann, the nursery, the SS barracks, the so-called Kamphäusl (where Mein Kampf, vol. 2 was written) and Hitler's teahouse were blown up.

Like Hitler's bunker in Berlin, the government did not want to leave monuments that could become pilgrimage sites to neo-Nazis. (For more details go to a fabulous site called "Third Reich in Ruins" to see before and after pictures. Ed.) The building closes at 17:00 so we had very little time to explore the center or the bunkers. For future visits, our recommendation is less time upstairs (if at all), more time down.

Our last challenge for the day was to find our little hotel - the Hoher Göll, right on Berchtesgadener Strasse. This had to be easy, as it's got to be on the main street. Wrong again. It's on Berchtesgadener Strasse all right, but that's a main road that leads INTO Berchtesgaden, not through it. We'd still be looking if Kat hadn't spotted the TI where we got a great map and good directions (which took us back over the river and out of the town). It's a pretty hotel in a beautiful setting, very clean and obviously cared for with a great deal of pride. My only complaint is the ultra-miniature parking lot. After checking in desiring a light dinner rather than finding a restaurant we figured we'd head off to the local market and have a snack night. That's when this not so good day turned worse.

When backing out of the mini-parking lot I just barely bumped a flimsy makeshift barrier that was protecting a little flower bed. You'd have thought we had driven an 18 wheeler through the dining room the way the owner came storming out of the hotel wailing and carrying on. We were mortified and tried to explain that we would be glad to pay the Euro and a half it would take to fix the little 1x3 inch pine furring strip we had tickled. I pointed out to him that no damage had been done, and in fact this little wooden strip had been hit before and fixed (no doubt by him) with a piece of chicken wire. I straightened it out and as we got into the car he was still yelling and stamping his feet. I heard him volley "scheiße" at us, and we neatly returned a "kopf" as we drove away.

We found the local Tegelmann's (like a Kroger's) and bought some beer, cheese, bread, yoghurt, and fresh fruit, then drove around until it was dark. Upon our return, we parked on the curb in front, scooted in the front door, and hurried up to our room for dinner. We had a few laughs and chalked the day up as a good learning experience. On a three week trip not every day is going to be scrapbook worthy. With full tummies we relaxed into our duvet covered beds wondering what breakfast and checkout was going to be like the next morning.

(Ed note: Upon our return we went to the library and borrowed a wonderful book entitled "The Lost Life of Eva Braun" by Angela Lambert. We only wish we had read it before we went to Berchtesgaden, as we would have known the difference between the Eagles Nest and the Berghof, and might have spent our day on the shores of the Konigsee instead of up the mountain. It is a well researched book on Ms. Braun and her dedication and love for Hitler. We would highly recommend it.)

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