From Vilnius we flew to Munich where Oktoberfest was in full swing. It’s been held at Theresienwiese in central Munich for 187 consecutive years, barring a two year hiatus in 2020/21 due to COVID. For the last two weeks of September, the 42 hectare open space is transformed with 38 beer ‘tents’ which are more like demountable buildings. The largest has capacity for 6,000 people. There’s also over 100 food vendors, as well as side show alley attractions and fairground rides. In 15 days, 5.7 million visitors consume 7.5 million litres of beer. It’s bedlam.
Next day we caught the train to Chiemsee to meet up with David and Noreen, our good friends and walking buddies from Cornwall, for a hike in the Bavarian Alps.
The Salzalpensteig is a 233km hiking trail which begins in Prien am Chiemsee in Germany and ends in Obertraun on Lake Hallstatt in Austria, loosely following one of the many trails used by salt traders in medieval times to transport salt from source to market.
The four of us did a six day self-guided hike from the start of the trail to Lake Konigsee.
Curiously, the walk company had booked us into a hotel in Aschau en Chiemgau, which isn’t really near the trail starting point at all. We arrived mid afternoon to find a pleasant, sleepy little town. Sunday afternoon – everything was closed. Perhaps they were all at Oktoberfest.
Day 1: Prien am Chiemsee to Marquartstein-Pettendorf
Next morning the rain had cleared. We caught a local train to Prien and headed off across some fields and around Lake Chiemsee. The weather cleared completely and it was a perfect day for a walk in the country.
As we were to find all along the walk, the towns are spotless and photogenic.
We stopped for a picnic lunch by a tiny chapel with views over the farms.
Shortly we crossed a bridge and entered the forest.
We climbed for a while and then descended down, down, down a steep, muddy track. We must have missed a turn somewhere because at the bottom we came to an abandoned salt processing plant that definitely was not in our hiking notes.
It had some signage but it was all in German, so we weren’t any the wiser about the specifics of the operation. We poked around the old place and then after a short back track, picked up the trail again.
Down in the valley we emerged from the forest and walked through the farms to the town of Pettendorf.
It was a great walk but our day wasn’t finished yet. We had to catch a local bus from Pettendorf to our hotel in Unterwossen. It should have been simple. We waited for a bus that never arrived, belatedly discovering that it was a public holiday so the buses were running on the weekend timetable. We tried to get a taxi but the response was a simple ‘no’. No reasons given. We got a bus in the end, after standing in the increasing cold and gloom for what seemed an eternity. If only we’d known, we could have waited in the warm tavern with beers. But finally in Unterwossen, a warm room, hot shower and hearty German meal thawed us out again.
Total walk distance: 21.3km
Day 2: Unterwossen to Bergen
From our hotel we set off up a forest path. Climbing steadily up, after several kilometres we reached the Schappenkirche, built between 1637 and 1640.
The church is dedicated to St Wolfgang of Regensberg, who is regarded as one of the three great German saints of the 10th century. St Wolfgang is the German patron saint of carpenters and woodcutters, and is often depicted holding his bishop’s crozier in one hand and an axe in the other. In the church altarpiece which dates from 1644, the angel at Wolfgang’s feet holds them while Wolfgang cradles a model of the church.
There’s also a cute local legend that a stag once sought refuge in the church during a storm. The wind blew the door shut and the stag was trapped. The stag became desperately hungry and started to gnaw on the bell ringing ropes. A local hunter came to investigate the ringing bells and freed the stag. After that, the stag could be seen returning to the church from time to time.
He might have just come back to admire the view out over Lake Chiemsee. It’s a lovely one.
Moving on, we continued uphill on a forest trail and passed a little sign on a tree with the tantalising offer of refreshments further ahead.
When the forest ended, we reached what the Bavarians call an ‘alm’ and the Swiss call an ‘alp’ – the seasonal mountain pastures where for centuries dairy herds have grazed through the summer. A herd of cows still spend their summers up here at Staudacher-alp, a rustic hut nestled under the summit of Mount Hochgern, part of the Chiemgau Alps.
These days the hut serves drinks, delicious cakes and pastries, cheese plates and simple meals. It was a perfect spot to rest a while. The cows seem to have an idyllic life.
It would have been tempting to settle in, but we had a long way to go. We headed through the pasture, resisting the siren call of the Bracht-alp, where we could see other walkers enjoying themselves.
It was a glorious afternoon with the sun on the autumn leaves.
Back down in the valley we were once again struck with how ridiculously tidy and orderly everything is here.
No waiting for buses today. We walked directly into Bergen – only to find that our hotel was closed until 5.30pm! But we weren’t about to repeat yesterday’s pain. We retired to the local for a well-earned beer.
Total walk distance: 18.3km
Day 3: Bergen to Ruhpolding
To begin the day we caught the cable car from Bergen to the summit of Mount Hochfelln. As we ascended we could see other poor souls toiling up a path. Were we cheating? If we were, none of us felt guilty about it. Gaining 1,000 metres in a few minutes instead of a few hours seemed like a damn good idea. And anyway, we still had to get down…
The weather was stunningly clear and the views from the top were stupendous. It is rightly called the ‘viewing terrace of the Chiemgau Alps’.
A cross was erected here in 1886 and is said to have been carried up from the valley below by 40 locals. Beside it is a mountain inn built a couple of years later, now a restaurant.
A church built at the true summit in 1889/90 was struck by lightning and burned down in 1970. A replacement was built in 1971 which seems to mostly be used by hikers as a rest spot.
The track down was rather brutal. Stony and uneven, losing 600 metres in elevation in less than 4km, it was a juggling act to appreciate the views and keep a careful eye on the path at the same time.
Down in the valley, the autumn colours seemed to be intensifying by the day.
The route led us through the Fairy Forest (‘Marchenwald’) where lots of moss-covered rocks and logs provide housing for elves and fairies.
Then we once again reached green open space and started to pass some really lovely homes and guesthouses.
Some lucky kids get to enjoy this fun treehouse.
In town, we enjoyed dinner at this more traditional establishment.
In fact, Ruhpolding was full of exquisitely decorated traditional buildings.
Many towns in Bavaria have a maypole (‘maibaum’). In past times they were erected in April and would be dismantled after May festivities ended. The pole would be decorated with symbols reflecting the various trades important in their region. Villages competed to produce more elaborate ones than their neighbours. If one village managed to steal the maypole of another, the entire village of the thieves was entitled to free beer from the victims’ village on May Day.
Now many villages have a permanent maypole. And some of the images are a little more modern.
Total walk distance: 14.2km
Day 4: Ruhpolding to Inzell
From Ruhpolding we walked through more of those perfect farms, with shrines and chapels dotted at random along the way.
The trail then followed the Traun River for a few kilometres.
We were then supposed to catch a cable car to the summit of Mount Rauschberg but we’d been advised by our hotel the night before that the cable car wasn’t operating. And indeed it was not. Our walking notes had alternative instructions to hike instead, which involved following trails around the side of the mountain.
So we missed out on seeing the views from the top, but the trail took us through some beautiful autumn forest, and pine forest with glimpses of the dolomite peaks above.
And eventually we ascended high enough to get some views.
On the inevitable walk back down to the valley we passed a little chapel in the middle of the forest.
The track was now just a rocky stream bed heading steadily down. We popped out of the forest at the little town of Schmelz.
It seemed like a long day by the time we reached Inzell. Looking behind at where we’d come from, you can see why. We didn’t summit the mountains but we’d gone up and down, up and down through from somewhere back there.
Total walk distance: 18.5km
Day 5: Inzell to Bad Reichenhall
Next morning it was like the seasons had suddenly changed. Everything was shrouded in mist and it was chilly. Very chilly.
The trail led down into the forest, criss-crossing a stream and, near the bottom, a short side trail to the base of WeiBbach-Fall.
Along the river, holztrift (literally ‘wood drift’) was used to transport huge quantities of timber for use in the salt works. The Trift Monument explains the history of holztrift here, but unfortunately there was no English translation.
We weren’t sure if the cutesy wood carved animals nearby were a reference to the timber cutting days or just coincidental.
By the time we climbed out of the forest the fog had long since burned off and it was a glorious blue day. We stopped at Hollenbach-alp, another of the alpine huts. It’s still a working dairy and they serve fantastic banana smoothies with full cream milk straight from the cow, and plates of their own cheeses.
We could have stayed for hours basking in the sun and watching the happy cows but we were on a mission to reach Bad Reichenhall in time to see the Salt Museum before it closed at 5pm. We were only half way there.
From the top of the next mountain we could see down to beautiful Lake Thumsee.
Eventually we reached the bottom and skirted the lake.
And then in the last section of forest before Bad Reichenhall we kept seeing these little fairy houses scattered along the sides of the track.
We reached Bad Reichenhall and made our way to Alte Saline, the salt museum.
Salt has been produced in this area since at least the 700s by boiling water from local brine springs and collecting the residue. In 1150, the town of Reichenhall was established, geared entirely around salt production. By the 1300s it was one of the largest producers in Europe and the salt was exported as far away as Hungary via the Danube River. Indeed, Germany is still the world’s fourth largest producer of salt, after China, the USA and India.
The original salt works burned down in 1834 and the (now) Old Saltworks was built. It boasts of being the most beautiful salt factory in the world.
In the mid 1800s, a spa was built in the town, extolling the medicinal benefits of bathing in the briny waters. In 1890 Reichenhall was officially recognised as a spa town and renamed Bad Reichenhall – ‘Bad’ designates a spa.
Salt production was moved to the New Saltworks in 1912 but the Old Saltworks’ waterwheel is still used today to pump brine for the spas.
Viewing the Old Saltworks complex is by guided tour only and requires a minimum number of visitors, which this late in the day was not met. So, disappointingly, we couldn’t do the tour. OK, we had a beer instead.
Total walk distance: 19.4km
Day 6: Bischofswiesen to Lake Konigsee
Despite a forecast of rain, the day dawned clear. We caught a local train from Bad Reichenhall to Bischofswiesen and began a relentless ascent through the forest. It was a hard slog, but the autumn colours seemed to be getting even more beautiful.
After what seemed an eternity we were high enough for a break in the tree line to reveal the mountains beyond.
More climbing and we could see our target – the river valley below.
It looked like a long way down. It was.
The clouds looked ominous but the weather held. On the way down we passed a cute hikers’ hut and then a restaurant perched on its own on a crest.
As we followed the road down, men in matching traditional lederhosen were making their way up in cars and a few on foot, headed to the restaurant. We guessed a guild function. We would have loved to take a photo but didn’t want to treat people like a zoo exhibit.
At the bottom we had a choice of catching a bus to Berchtesgaden and walking along the river to Lake Konigsee, or hiking up and over another mountain to get there. We chose option one, and were glad we did. It was an easy, flat, enjoyable stroll along a riverside path popular with locals and day walkers.
And eventually, a short walk uphill from the end of the path, we reached our final hotel in Schonau am Konigsee, a touristy enclave clustered around the lower station for the cable car in the Berchtesgaden National Park.
In time for a few beverages in the late afternoon sun to celebrate the end of our hike. Perfect.
Total walk distance: 17.3km
Wrap up: Another beautiful walk. The autumn colours were a highlight and an unexpected pleasure. We had worried it might be cold or wet this late in the year but once again our weather fairy worked her magic for us. Thanks to David and Noreen for putting up with us, and with Julie’s sometimes dodgy orienteering. You were as always great company.
We organised the walk through Eurohike and thought their service was really good. Some of the days were long but nothing too taxing. And those Bavarian towns are as pretty as a picture.