Growing up in New England, it was fairly easy to find opportunities to learn how to ski. Now, I didn’t start ski school right out of diapers, but we had Wednesday half days in elementary school; and for 4th & 5th grade in the winter there was a ski program that took us to a local slope for classes. And that is about where my formal instruction ended and the rest was experience skiing about 8 days a year (3-4 days over February vacation & and then day trips on the weekends).
But in college I was down in DC, and my skis were up in Boston, and that is about when I started to fall out of ‘ski shape.’ I was probably only skiing one day a year over Christmas break. (And it was around this time that my husband started to come with us on our trips and learn.) After college, I relocated permanently to DC, and did bring my skis, but I was still only getting about 3 days in a year. Now, I’ve never been super athletic, but skiing uses muscles in your legs that you don’t use when walking, so skiing only a few times a year always left my legs very sore. In that ski shape, my husband and I were fairly equal ski partners (which is kind of romantic). He often skis faster than I, but most of that is psychological. My father always said that I can ski quite fast when motivated (like out of the fear of being left behind). I’m a leisurely skier – like all those people who clog up the roads in the fall to look at the leaves.
Our move to the UK, hasn’t improved our ability to ski on a regular basis. From where I live it is 6-8 hours into Scotland to get skiing similar to the Mid-Atlantic. But the UK does have a number of indoor ski slopes and dry slopes. And it a dry slope in Bristol that produced the UK’s first ever Olympic medalist, Jenny Jones, on snow this week in slopestyle. However, our move has put us in reasonable reach of the Alps, which is where we headed to get our skiing in.
I hadn’t skied consecutive days in over 10 years, and my husband never had, so when we were trying to decide where to ski we settled on the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen about an hour south of Munich. Based on the hyphenated name, it is not a surprising to learn that the town was originally two; with a history of overland European trade and witchcraft hysteria. However, in 1935 Hitler forced the two towns to combine in preparation of the the 1936 Winter Olympics, which was the first Winter Olympics to feature Alpine skiing. For us Garmisch-Partenkirchen is in a position to visit several ski resorts and do day trips to castles and Munich. Today, the town is fairly large
I’ve thought a little bit about how I want to structure this post, for what was a very successful and long trip. And instead of giving you the day by day for the whole week (I think that could get tedious – we skied, and skied), I’ve decided to break it down by: Skiing, Day Trips, Food. But for those of you who are a sucker for chronological order here is our itinerary:
Sunday Night – Arrival (late)
Monday – Skiing at Ehrwalder in Austria
Tuesday – Visiting Neuschwanstein Castle
Wednesday – Skiing Zugspitz
Thursday – Ski Lesson at Garmisch Classic
Friday – Trip to Munich
Saturday – Skiing Garmisch Classic
Sunday – Munich to see Kooza & Departure
Going in to this trip we were very excited to ski and wanted to make the most of it. There are multi-day combination passes available from the Zugspitz area ski resorts, but as we looked into them they didn’t seem to be saving you much than purchasing individual tickets, and we were still uncertain if we wanted to ski 3 or 4 days, take a lesson (which has other deals but not with the multi-day pass). So we decided to just purchase our tickets each day we skied from. [Observation on prices: We found that the cost of lift tickets (at least for the Zugspitz area) were cheaper than the local (much smaller & more crowded) mountain we’d go to in southern Pennsylvania, even after you factor in the currency exchange rate.]
When we passed through immigration in Munich, we told the officer that they purpose of our visit was to ski. She asked us where we were staying and when we told her Garmisch she informed us there was not snow (I worried for a split second that she wouldn’t let us into Germany). It turns out that they were having a pretty mild winter and that most of the resorts were making their own snow, so not much powder. Now my time spent East Coast skiing meant that I was familiar with these conditions; and from what I experienced on this trip, it seems that a bad season in the Alps is still pretty good coverage for the East Coast.
The only place that they lack of snow was a real problem was at Zugspitz. Zugspitz is the highest peak in Germany and accessible by a sky cable or a cog railway. At the top is a restaurant, look out point, and museum that is open year round. And you can buy a ticket that doesn’t include a ski pass. So you can go there on a rest day or in the summer. From a scenic view stand point I think summer would be better.
Slightly down from the peak is the ski bowl, which my husband (who has skied out in Colorado when he tacked on a few vacation days following business trips) described to me as ‘just a big open area that you can ski, no trails, just get back on the lift when you are done.‘ Well, the mild winter meant that we were skiing on ‘old snow’ (glacial snow there year round), and that there wasn’t full coverage so you did have to stick to trails. Some of the trails went uphill, which despite me pointing my skis directly down hill and doing a slight tuck I still ran out of speed and would come to a stop if I didn’t use my poles to push me along (while my husband would cruise from behind and shout ‘later’ like Nelson from the Simpsons. The other draw back of Zugspitz is that with out full coverage, there was only about three trails we felt we could do, and that got a little repetitive. Of the places we skied, it is the only one I would say don’t go to unless there has been a lot of snow.
The nicest place we skied was Ehrwalder, in terms of facilities, and is a spot of would recommend to beginning skiers as it has fairly gentle slopes. It terms of the resort with the best fit, it would be Garmisch Classic in terms of: number & variety of trails and quality & number of facilities. Garmish Classic is where we took our lesson which I think really helped us. It was just my husband and I, and we focused on being an efficient skier. So a lot of work on posture and poles. I think in the past I’ve had my legs do most of the work, which probably explained why I’d get so fatigued. But on this trip by the end I felt like I had my ski legs back! I was less sore on the fourth day of skiing than on the first and was now skiing faster than my husband!
If your interested, you can check out these two videos of my skiing:
Notes on skiing in Germany: It’s Europe, so everyone is more fashionable. Their ski jackets don’t make them look like the Michelin Man, and when they take off their helmet (which almost everyone wears) they don’t look like a homeless person. Your left ticket isn’t a sticker you attach to the zipper of your jacket. It is a small card that has a computer chip in it that you put in your chest pocket and a turn-style gate (like in a subway) senses it as you go through. But since there is no one to check your ticket to get on the lift, there isn’t really a line for the chairs or the gondola, you just sort of scramble to the front, which when it is busy, makes it difficult to ride with people. And that then leads to people crowding in front of the lift as you get off waiting for their companions. Also (not surprisingly), Germans drink beer all the time. Well maybe not while skiing, but at 10am on a Thursday there are people at the ski bars underneath the lifts. I don’t even think you could get served at 10am in most places in the US. The labeling of trails is also different. From easiest to hardest it is: blue, red, black. And the trails are numbered, which makes them much easier to remember than some of the cutesy trail names in the US (it is easy to confuse ‘Peter Rabbit’s Garden’ with ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’). And with any ski area, if you are able to go during the week (and early in the week), the slopes will be considerably less crowded; which is a big advantage, particularly if you are learning how to ski.
Located in Fussen, Neuschwanstein Castle was the dream project of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The project started in the late 1860s (around the time of German unification, which drastically reduced the role German kings would play). King Ludwig had the over the top castle designed not by an architecture, but by a stage set designer from the theater, and the inspiration for the castle were the operatic works of Richard Wagner. [I shudder to think about what the castle would be like if 1 Direction was the inspiration.]
About a 45 minute walk to the opposite mountain side is Hohenschwangau Castle, the boyhood home of King Ludwig. You can purchase a combination ticket (which give you a 1 euro discount on admission), but it requires you to visit Hohenschwangau first. The tickets are a little expensive (but not outrageous), so we decided to only visit Neuschwanstein. Tours are through guide only and are offered in German, English, and audio guide (to accommodate other languages). Purchase your tickets in the village (they are not available at the castle) and then it is a fairly steep walk to up to the castle, so why make it twice. (For €5 you can take a group horse & carriage ride up). Based on how busy it was for a Tuesday morning in February, if you are going in the summer I recommend that you book online, or get there very early.
When we arrived at the ticket office it was an hour and a half to until the next English tour, and the agent could tell that was longer than we wanted to wait. He said that there was one in 45 minutes (I guess we looked like we could make the hike quickly). We made it with plenty of time to check out the view. Up in the distance I could see footbridge that would give a beautiful view of the castle (and the guide book said it was about a 10 minute walk), but the Hubs, and the more experienced hiker, thought it looked walk for warmer months (or when appropriate dressed for a hike).
The tours are staged about 5 minutes apart, which had me worried that the inside would be crowded; but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Occasionally you saw the tour ahead of you snake by to the hallway or staircase, but they weren’t ever on top of your space. The other thing that I think helped was that photography wasn’t allowed inside the castle, which at first I was bummed about but later appreciated. It keeps the group moving together through the rooms. And it also helps you focus on what the guide is saying. Both my husband and I were enjoyed our tour guide. She was very knowledgeable and highlighted the interior design features of the castle, the connection to Wagner’s works, the technological innovations for the time (central heating and a flush toilet).
King Ludwig paid for Neuschwanstein from his own finances, which left him heavily in debt, and with some economic impact on the state of Bavaria. As a result, in 1886 government ministers legally deposed him as King of Bavaria on the grounds of mental insanity, despite never having been examined by the psychologist. Ludwig learned of his deposition at Neuschwanstein, and following a few (not very strong) attempts to retain power, he was taken to Berg Castle along Lake Starnberg for his confinement. The next day he was found dead, along with his doctor, along the shores of Lake Starnberg. The official ruling was suicide by drowning, but no water was found in his lungs. A week after Ludwig’s death Neuschwanstein was opened to the public to generate revenue for the government.
Was Ludwig mentally ill? I don’t know; and what is mentally ill in the late 19th century is probably different from today. He certainly was odd. But in reading about him I feel a lot of sympathy for him. He was a very introverted man, whose mother’s diaries reveal concerns over whether or not he could with stand the public image and responsibilities of King. He never married and broke off the one engagement he had. Copies of portions of his diaries that survive reveal homosexual desires and their conflict with his Roman Catholic faith, at a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted and with the ascendancy of Prussia was once again punishable. Combined with the diminishing power of Bavaria in the German Empire, at is not too surprising that Ludwig focused on escapist pursuits like castles; though spending recklessly.
Out other day trips were to Munich in two parts. The first one was primarily to visit the BMW factory & museum. I misread the instructions online about getting a tour and thought you just got one at the factory (my confusion stemmed from not being able to book the tour online – like most places that required bookings – and instead needing the email the tour office for the time you would like). However, BMW allows you to book tours 6 months in advance and since we only booked this trip a month and a half ahead of time it was unlikely that there would have been spaces available. Even with out a tour there are two things to visit at BMW (which is right next to Olympic park – from the 1972 Summer Games – and on the subway line) the Welt and the Museum.
The Welt is basically a giant show room of cars with a store and several cafes. Current car models are on display and visitors are free to open the doors and sit in the cars. There are staff around to answer questions and I’m sure if you wanted to buy a car they would assist with that, but otherwise it is a basically no pressure car showroom. They had their all electric car driving around the floor (no emissions) offering rides, as well as a vintage Isetta (to small of an engine to give us carbon monoxide poisoning?).
There is a sky bridge across the busy city street to the BMW Museum. The museum chronicles the history of the BMW empire, from airplane engine manufacturers to auto-sports racers. There is a common them among the exhibits; each new innovation was a great risk to the company, but they succeeded. From a historical narrative perspective; I felt the museum started off very strongly placing the origins of the company in connection with the social & political developments of the time, as well as with the technological advances. But come the 1940s the social/political history doesn’t appear. Until you go down this decades hallway, filled with books to look through. There is the 1940s book that deals with BMWs use of forced labor during WWII. Most of it came from Nazi occupied territories, but necessarily Jewish forced labor.
All in all the BMW museum is good, even if you aren’t a car aficionado. We left the car at the BMW car park and took the metro to downtown Munich, where we walked around the historical building, grabbed lunch at a cafe; before we went for a drink & a pretzel at the Hofbrauhaus, one of Germany’s oldest beer halls. After which we headed back to Garmisch.
On the final day of our vacation we returned to Munich. We had tickets to Cirque du Soliel’s Kooza, on the Oktoberfest grounds (got make use of the space the other 50 weeks of the year). Where my husband reminded me that we had seen 9 years ago in college. But the good news is that in those 9 years acts in the show have cycled through, so there were still elements of the show that are new to us.
We really enjoyed Bavaria food, and I came around to sauerkraut since it didn’t seem to taste as vinegary as I remembered it. A lot of dishes focus on roasted cuts of meat or sausage and dumplings (potato, bread, and pasta varieties). If you are in Garmisch-Partenkirchen I would recomend these two restaurants: Gasthof Fraundorfer, where there is music and traditional folk dancing; and Braustuberl. But what we particularly enjoyed was schnapps following the meal. Each restaurant has their own house specialty. But our favorite, which we encountered at Gasthof Fraundorfer (we went there twice), was beer schnapps and tasted like a mixture of beer and Jagermeister warmed and served with non sweetened whipped cream.