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In September 2015, my mom, my wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘romantic road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.
Ainring—A peaceful retreat in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps
Once we had soaked in enough of the medieval atmosphere of the romantic road, we headed south-east, further into Bavaria and towards the border with Austria. There, just on the border, is the tiny little village of Ainring—known mainly for its golfing and as a stepping stone to Salzburg, a quick hop across the border in Austria.
On the three-hour drive to Ainring, and when the first of the Alps appeared over the horizon, we had the distinct feeling of actually being in Bavaria for the first time (even though the romantic road is also in Bavaria). The Alps and their foothills, and the drive through pine forests and hill meadows, conjured up visions of carefree cowherds in lederhosen and blonde maids in their dirndls. Of course, no one besides foreign tourists at Munich’s Oktoberfest wears these anymore, but it was still fun imagining it.
A different feeling from the rest of the country
We got to Ainring that evening, and were going to spend a few days with my Mom’s cousin at her retirement home (the rather posh Mozart Residence, with lovely rooms, incredible views and a dining room that wouldn’t have been out of place in a good hotel). That evening, we went out to a local inn for dinner, the very charming Hotel Rupertihof, and we couldn’t help but notice how much more uninhibited and boisterous the Bavarian locals seemed to be, compared to people from other parts of Germany. After two weeks of being around rather reserved people, this came as quite a relief!
A less-than-ideal visit to Salzburg, with some fun moments thrown in
The next day, my wife and I decided we would take a look around Salzburg while my Mom and her cousin took a trip to the nearby—and similarly named—Obersalzberg, famous for being the site of Adolf Hitler’s Berghof mountain retreat, popularly known as the ‘eagle’s nest’. At the time, though, Bavaria was dealing with a large number of refugees from the Syrian conflict trying to get into Germany from Austria, and we were warned that getting back across the border after our visit to Salzburg could easily take a few hours. With that in mind, we set off.
Things go wrong in Salzburg
Salzburg seemed like any romantic German town. That’s probably why the subtle differences in road markings and traffic signs threw us a bit, at first. That, and the fact that the city actually encompasses five mountains! The one that sits in its center even has the fortress of Hohensalzburg on top! We parked our car in a public parking hollowed out of one of the mountains, and made our way on foot to the center of the old town. There, we encountered the first in a series of avoidable snafus. These would result in a less-than-ideal experience during our Salzburg visit.
To our intense irritation, we realized that the data connection on our German SIM cards didn’t work in Austria! This meant that our phones could only show us our GPS location and nothing much else. The local guide we picked up at the public parking wasn’t of much use either, because it didn’t include a map. So we made do the best we could. Luckily, the stone theatre—made famous in one of The Sound of Music’s more dramatic scenes—was right around the corner. Not so luckily, there was no guided tour on at the moment, and it was closed. Right next to it, though, we discovered a path that led up the hill to the fortress. So we decided to hike up there instead.
The Hohensalzburg fortress
The steep path led us along narrow streets and between charming houses. This made our frequent breaks along the way more bearable (the weather was unusually warm). We finally made our way through the massive gates of the fortress and up to the ramparts. And the view made it all worthwhile. Seeing the historic old town spread out below us, with its river and baroque architecture, made us feel like we had stepped into a postcard! After wandering around for a while, we decided to have lunch at the restaurant on the ramparts. As luck would have it, there weren’t any tables available, and wouldn’t be for a while. We were trying to come to terms with hiking back down, we discovered that our entry pass included a free ride down the hill in the fortress’s funicular railway.
A glimpse of home
Once at the bottom, we tried scouting around for a place to eat. I got it into my head that we should eat at a restaurant with a view. I also figured that we should be able to find one on one of the mountains in Salzburg. To that end, we made our way back to our car. To our horror, I discovered that I had lost our parking ticket! We weren’t in the mood to pay a full day’s parking charges as a fine, but reluctantly walked up to the ticketing supervisor’s cabin anyway. There we discovered that the supervisor was a Sikh sardarji! It was hard to tell who was more surprised. Us, to discover someone from India behind the counter, or he, to suddenly hear someone speaking Hindi! Eventually, after some typically Indian small talk, he very nicely let us off with only a half day’s parking charges. And we were back on the hunt for a hilltop restaurant.
Hungry and grouchy
Since we didn’t have a map and our phones were useless—and we hadn’t asked our sardarji friend—I decided that we should follow our car’s navi up the nearest hill. Surely any hill in Salzburg must have a restaurant! No such luck. After driving up and through increasingly narrow lanes between cottages and farmhouses, we gave up and turned around. We then discovered that it was already three o’clock. We had heard that the border closed at six, and that it could sometimes take three hours to get back across. So we decided—hungry and grumpy though we were—to skip lunch and head back. Surprisingly, it only took us an hour of crawling along the highway with other impatient and bad-tempered drivers. So once over the border, we headed back to the trusty Rupertihof for a very late lunch to end our less-than-perfect visit to Salzburg.
The Jenner mountain—Magical views from the misty peak
The next city on our itinerary was Munich, and we had planned our visit to coincide with the first day of the Oktoberfest. But first, we decided to take a little detour to the famous Koenigssee and the Jenner (a mountain whose name is pronounced ‘yenner’, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the extended Kardashian family) on its shores.
Having the mountain to ourselves
When we got to the massive parking space at the foot of the Jenner, it was overcast and drizzling. Not surprisingly, given the weather, there weren’t too many visitors—though we did see a few intrepid hikers start up the path up mountainside. We had neither the inclination nor the time to follow in their footsteps, so we took the cable car instead. The view on bright, sunny days is said to be spectacular, but I must say that riding that cable car up through the mist to the cloud-wreathed top of that mountain was in incredible experience in its own right!
At the end of the cable car ride, at the top of the mountain, we had reason to be thankful for the overcast weather: the visitors’ complex was empty, and we encountered only two or three other visitors during our entire time at the top! In my opinion, this more than made up for any so-called improvement in the view had the day been clear.
As much fun going back down
We spent an hour or two wandering around the misty paths at the top of the mountain, took in the view of the Koenigssee far below (which we sadly didn’t have time enough to visit), watched a few blackbirds go about their business at the rocky top of the path, and finally trekked back to the visitors’ center for a nice lunch with a view. At the end, taking the cable car back down was almost as much fun, even though we knew what to expect: pine trees shrouded in mist, brown and white cows grazing in the alpine meadows, and even a little lake halfway down the mountainside.
Once back down, we hopped back into the car for the next leg of our journey: Munich, and its legendary Oktoberfest.
IQ’s top tips for Ainring, Salzburg and the Jenner
- If you do visit Ainring, or any other town in the Berchtesgaden area, it might be a good idea to take a trip up to the Obersalzberg (including an elevator ride through the heart of the mountain) for a glimpse of what Hitler saw when he was up there.
- If you depend on your phone to navigate, make sure your data plan works in the countries you plan to visit. If not, buy a detailed map.
- The Sound of Music tours in Salzburg seem to be organized only during the tourist season. Check beforehand to avoid disappointment.
- Keep your parking ticket very carefully. Lose it, and you will need to pay an entire day’s parking charges—and possibly a fine.
- Salzburg is a lovely old city, with lots to see and experience. I recommend giving yourself at least two days there.
- The Jenner is a great place to visit, and each kind of weather makes for its own unique experiences. Keep in mind, though, that it is most popular in summer and winter (the mountain has some nice skiing, I believe).
- If you do visit the Jenner, it might also be worthwhile to take a look at the picturesque Koenigssee, with its deep blue colour and steep mountains on all sides.
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