Catacomb Saints and Cowbells: a week in Bavaria (July 2019)
For almost as long as I can remember I've wanted to see Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairytale-like 19th Century castle built in Bavaria by King Ludwig II. It’s almost instantly recognisable (I‘m pretty sure it used to be on cigarette machines here, when such things still existed). This summer I finally got around to organising a trip to visit it, and some of the rest of Bavaria. I spent a week traveling around, so read on for my account.
I arrived in Munich to leaden skies and a massive thunderstorm. This is in the old part of the city.
Before my trip to Bavaria I'd been reading a book about "Catacomb saints" (skeletal relics of early Christian Martyrs) and knew there was one in Munich, so I tracked it down. This is St. Munditia, in a side chapel in St. Peter’s church. In the 17th Century there was a fashion for recovering skeletons of supposed martyrs from the Roman catacombs and displaying them in churches and monasteries in this region. It was seen as helping legitimise the Catholic Church as a counter-reformation measure. In the 18th Century they went out of fashion, but quite a few can still be seen in churches in the area.
They don't seem to be publicised much - my guide book had a description of this church, but there was no mention of St. Munditia at all.
The phial in St. Munditia’s hand supposedly contains dried blood. On top of her shrine is a skull allegedly from a St. Erasmus, also recovered from the catacombs. In reality there was very little evidence for who these bones belonged to (there is a suggestion that some of these catacomb burials were actually Jewish).
I ate a lot of schnitzel when I was in Bavaria - this was Jägerschnitzel, which came in a delicious mushroom sauce and accompanied by spaetzle, a kind of pasta dish.
In Bürgersaalkirche church is a museum dedicated to the anti-Nazi Jesuit priest Rupert Mayer, who is buried in the church. Mayer served as a chaplain in the German army in the First World War (he lost a leg) but he was a ferocious and dogged critic of the Nazis in Munich; he was imprisoned on various occasions for his outspokenness. He actually survived the war and dropped dead saying mass on All Saint's Day in 1945. The glass case in the first picture contains some of his actual clothing.
The soaring arches of Munich's famous Frauenkirche church. I thought it had a wonderfully airy feel.
The Jewish Synagogue in the centre of Munich. It was quite a strange design - it reminded me of the fortified police stations we used to have here in Northern Ireland during the Troubles - but maybe that was the point.
In contrast to the starkness of the synagogue, this is the completely over-the-top Baroque interior of the Asam church. I'm normally not that keen on this style but actually I really liked this church, maybe because it was so small and intimate inside.
Some details from inside the Asam church. Note the incredibly ornate confessional, with nice padded seat for the priest.
During the 1930s Königsplatz (in the photographs above) was used by the Nazis in Munich as a location for mass rallies, and it still has that lingering kind of feeling (the road is a later addition - originally the whole area was paved ). Amazingly, you can still see the remnants of two "honour temples" that Hitler had constructed to honour Nazi soldiers killed in the 1923 Putsch; you can see one in the picture at the bottom, with the overgrown stones.
This building on Königsplatz was where the Munich accord was signed in 1938. Hitler’s office was the one in the centre, with the balcony. Above the window you can still see the marks where the Nazi eagle was attached to the wall - it can be seen in photographs from the time.
Inside the fabulous Antiquarium, part of the Residenz palace complex that was home to the Wittelsbachs, rulers of Bavaria for hundreds of years.
Can there be anything more joyous than a bunch of Peruvians in Munich celebrating getting into the final of some South American football competition for the first time in 40 years? I encountered these celebrations while walking in the old town.
I checked the result the following day - Brazil beat them :(
On my last day in Munich I went out to see Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Nazis, in 1933. Tens of thousands of prisoners died in this camp.
There was something disturbing about the layers of paint and plaster remaining on the walls in these rooms, and the thought of what they would have been witness to. Medical experiments on prisoners were one of the many horrors that happened at Dachau.
These pictures were taken at the crematorium in Dachau, a particularly grim place. The first picture shows the room used to store bodies - pictures from just after the liberation show bodies piled high.This room in particular had a very bad feeling. The second picture shows a fake shower room that was constructed as a gas chamber; canisters of Zyklon-B could be inserted from outside though the holes on the left. There seems to be some dispute about whether or not the gas chamber was ever used. Certainly the intent was to use it. The last picture shows fumigation chambers that used gas to delouse clothing. The US soldiers who liberated Dachau initially thought these were used to kill prisoners, but the information panels here say that this wasn’t the case.
The grim realities written in stone, near the Crematorium.
The old prison block at Dachau ; it‘s been left pretty much untouched (the Americans also used it after liberation). It had a deeply sinister feel (I remember having exactly the same feeling when I visited Dachau years 30 years ago while InterRailing).
The biggest lie - “Arbeit Macht Frei”, work sets you free, the same phrase that was used at the entrance to Auschwitz. This gate is actually a replica (the original is on display in the museum part of Dachau). In what is a rather bizarre story, the original gate was stolen in 2014, then recovered in Norway in 2017.
The Jewish memorial at Dachau. There are also Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox memorials.
After the grimness of Dachau it was a relief to take the train out of Munich and on to my next destination, the beautiful little town of Füssen, in the foothills of the Alps.
Füssen is a beautiful town, full of colourful houses. It can be quite touristy because of the proximity to Neuschwanstein castle, but in the evening, after all the day trippers from Munich had departed, a wonderful calm descended. I loved hearing the church bells echoing across the mountains.
In Füssen I was staying in the lovely family-run Hotel Hirsch. Each room had a name and a theme. Mine was “Sisi”. I had no idea what that meant, so looked it up and discovered a fascinating story.
Sisi was the nickname for Elisabeth of Bavaria, who became Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, died along with his mistress in a murder-suicide in a hunting lodge at Mayerling, near Vienna. As a consequence, the Emperor had no male heir - next in line was his brother, but his death from typhoid resulted in the Emperor’s nephew becoming heir presumptive. His name? Franz Ferdinand - his subsequent assassination led to the First World War. Sisi herself was killed by an anarchist in Geneva in 1898.
I thought the whole story was incredible and found myself sitting in the room thinking how the history of the world hangs on the outcome of random events.
This is inside St. Mang's church, named after the Irish missionary St. Magnus. He seems to have spent a lot of time fighting strange creatures, judging from the paintings. The dragon candlestick holder also seemed a bit crazy.
I thought the church itself was incredible - and I was the only person there.
One of my main reasons for staying in Füssen was to see Neuschwanstein Castle, which is only 10 minutes away by bus. These pictures are on the walk up.
The cigarette machine shot! Just me and 300 other tourists jostling for a positon on the Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge). It was a gorgeous day and the view was stupendous. I felt sorry for tourists who visited the following day - it didn't stop raining, which must have been a totally different experience.
I did the tour of the castle, which I thought was very impressive. It was never actually completed after Ludwig’s sudden (and rather suspicious) death; he was found dead in a lake in 1886, after being deposed for squandering Bavaria's wealth on his grandiose building projects. It was declared suicide but suspicions of murder linger to this day.
You’re not supposed to take pictures but I managed to sneak one - this is in the Throne Room.
The view from the balcony in the castle was absolutely stunning.
Back in Füssen, the following day I hiked out to Lech falls, on the outskirts of the town. The water was a beautiful colour.
Just across from the falls was the start of a hike, Kalvarienberg, which follows Stations of the Cross built across a mountain by the local parish priest in the 19th Century. At the top there was a fantastic view, with Neuschwanstein Castle in the distance.
From the top of Kalvarienberg I hiked back down the mountain and ended up at Neuschwanstein again, passing a beautiful lake along the way. While I was sitting looking at the lake a man climbed in and started swimming across it.
This is probably my favourite picture from the whole trip. I’d seen pictures of St. Coloman’s church and thought its location looked amazing, so starting walking to it from Neuschwanstein. It was alot further than I thought, the weather deteriorated into a constant drizzle and I began to feel thoroughly miserable! But when I got there it was totally worth it, to see the church in such a dramatic location.
After two days in Füssen I travelled on to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, taking a wonderfully dramatic route though the Alps via Reutte in Austria - you can see a video of part of the journey above. The towns are overlooked by Germany’s highest mountain, Mount Zugspitze, which I think is the one in the video.
Garmisch and Partenkirchen were originally two separate towns but they were forced to unite for the Winter Olympics in 1936, which the Nazis used for propaganda purposes.
This is the stadium built for the 1936 Winter Olympics. You can still see the Nazi-era statues from that time.
The two towns are noted for their beautifully decorated houses.
This little church was decorated with a scene depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Partnach Gorge (Partnachklamm) is one of the main tourist attractions in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. There was a tremendous thunder from the water, which was an incredible shade of blue.
This is one of a series of memorials at the gorge commemorating loggers who died while guiding logs through the gorge.
After a day of fairly constant drizzle, the evening was absolutely beautiful as I walked back down from the gorge.
The following day I took the cable-car to the top of the wonderfully-named Mount Wank (pronounced 'Vank'). There were stunning views across the Alps (before the clouds closed in), and happy-looking cows with cowbells wandering around on top. I particularly enjoyed having a beer in the Wank-haus...
The lovely sound of cowbells on Mount Wank....
It means something to someone - a newspaper clipping stuck to a wall in Garmisch.
As I was travelling back to Munich on the train, through rolling hills and beautiful Bavarian villages, I saw what I thought was a line of geese near a hilltop out in the countryside. On looking more closely I could see that it was actually a line of people, in traditional costume, filing up the hill - to who knows what? And that's what I loved about Bavaria - beautiful countryside, a sense of old traditions still in place - and a hint of mystery.