The late train to Berchtesgaden is not busy. A group of beefy young men in leather shorts with embroidered braces, who appear utterly Bavarian, get on with another group of young men who are stick-thin and chatting in Somali. I’m with Conor, my son, who now lives in Munich. Could these be recent arrivals? “Doubtful,” he says. “They look like they’re settled in.”
It seems somehow appropriate to start a series of summer travel reports from Germany, a country that most British travellers have never really taken to – not in comparison with Spain, France and Italy, the consistent top choices. I’m hoping this means plenty of unexpected delights and discoveries. It’s also a country looming larger on the European stage as Brexit progresses, and one that has, to some extent, bucked the trend of anti-immigration with people turning out to actually welcome refugees. The Bundesrepublik has, it seems, embraced tolerance and liberal values. I like that. I want to see if it’s true.
There are also sound economic reasons for visiting Germany. Its supermarkets are among the cheapest in the major EU economies, with prices significantly lower than in the UK, so self-catering is a good option, despite the weak pound. This is something I plan to do when my family catch up with me. Well, one of them already has; I mean the rest. This year’s plan is for family to join me on individual stages of my German odyssey.
Berchtesgaden, a lozenge of Alpine land in the extreme south-east almost surrounded by Austria, is a good place to begin. It is, after all, at one end of the country. Over the next few weeks I’ll make my way to the other.
We stand up to disembark at the hamlet of Bischofswiesen. Those strapping lads in shorts have donned feathered felt trilbies and are talking loudly. I realise they are American. The Somali boys have switched to German. This new Germany is experiencing rapid and sometimes unexpected change. On the other hand, it is also staunchly traditional: our hotel proves to be an imposing wooden chalet with acres of geraniums on the balcony and excellent local wheat beer.
Morning brings thick cloud and sheets of fine rain, but we set out anyway through a dripping forest, where veils of mist are reluctantly dragging themselves aloft. Red squirrels and kestrels squeal warnings, but we don’t spot the golden eagles that are sometimes seen here.
By lunchtime the clouds have almost lifted and we emerge at Mordaualm pass, where there is a glorious view south to the snow-flecked Alps and wooden chalets selling glasses of milk and wedges of cheese. These are the Kaser, seasonal dairy stations on high pastures, where farmers sell their products, mostly to hikers. There are at least a dozen Kaser like this in the Berchtesgaden, open from May until late September when, adorned with elaborate headgear, the cattle are brought down again. Our path now follows the contours, giving us great views – until the rain starts to fall in relentless sheets. The hotel at Ramsau is very welcome.
The rain has two good effects: our walk in the Wimbach gorge next morning is thunderingly spectacular – and almost deserted. For about a kilometre we trek on a narrow wooden boardwalk inside a steep-sided gorge, emerging in the upper valley and taking a steep side path through a magical vertical forest to a pass at 2,000 metres. We could continue up – there are several mountain huts – but the heavy cloud is not encouraging. We descend to Ramsau again and next day hike in sunshine over to Königssee, the largest lake, via various refuelling stops. One thing we are discovering about Bavarian hiking is that you find good food, coffee and beer in remote places, especially mountain summits and passes. So it is that we stop at the Grünsteinhütte, overlooking the glacial blue waters of Königssee, and chomp down Kaiserschmarrn, shredded pancakes served with fresh berries.
Most people on the trails are German, and the vast majority Bavarian, judging by their greetings: Servus and Grüss Gott being the most common, rather than the typical High German Guten Tag. But down by the lake we find multinational crowds, coach parties of tourists gathering to head up to the Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. In fact most visitors to the area only do a boat trip and the Nazi hill station, then speed off to Salzburg.
It makes me uneasy. How did he hijack the soaring peaks and flower-decked meadows to become the central attraction? I’m happier when Herr Hitler is kept in a box, like at Munich’s painfully brilliant documentation centre. Conor has gone back to that city himself, but I take the boat trip on the idyllic lake and do some shorter walks.
Next day, my final one, I set off up the hill towards the Eagle’s Nest. There is a maze of forest paths and signposts. I go wrong twice and lose time but I don’t care – the walking is lovely. I eat a late lunch at a great cafe, the Windbeutelbaron, and when I finally make it to the Obersalzberg, where one has to catch a bus for the final leg, I am too late. I’m not disappointed.
I’m as fascinated as anyone by Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi history, but somehow I don’t want him on my walk. I take the cable car back down with a sigh of relief.
• The trip was provided by Inntravel, whose seven-night Where Eagles Soar self-guided walking tour costs from £1,098pp, including half-board, luggage transfers, walking notes and maps, and Königssee boat trip. Flights to Munich or Salzburg extra. Rail travel in Bavaria was provided by Deutsche Bahn. Accommodation in Munich was provided by H’Otello.de (doubles from €119). Airport transfers were provided by Holiday Extras. Further information at bavaria.by