In a clearing at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, a weasel breaks through its trench. The little creature scurries across the grass, eyes forward, its ice-white fur only broken by the black tip of its tail. The glamor of his winter coat provides zero camouflage on this cold mid-January morning – all the snow is higher up on the slopes – but the button nose and elegant color are equally a vision, a cartoon brought to life in Germany’s far south. .
Weasel isn’t the only thing falling out of a Disney animation. Moments away, a palace atop a hill rises like a spear into the sky, set against a rocky landscape of dark peaks covered in frozen dust. An ivory castle that seems to have been built in a dream is magnificent and mind-blowing. Towers rise to the clouds, asymmetrical balconies overlook the landscape, knights stand on the summits. This is Neuschwanstein Castle – the most spectacular of many such works in the hills – and the story behind it is as crazy as its design.
Ludwig is drawn into a luxurious fantasy world, spending tearful sums on fake medieval palaces.
I arrived by train for a newly launched winter getaway to the Allgäu region in Southern Bavaria. It’s a trip with several outlets, including roller coaster mountains and a hotel that is one of the greenest hotels in the country. Another blessing is the silence of the season. The destination attracts summer visitors, many of whom are drawn by its old world towns and castles. Fewer people stop by during the winter months, when the lakes and pine forests in the region are quiet and the historical sights are at their most magnificent. Meanwhile, the clichés of the Bavarian countryside – bubbling beers, ironic dirndls, piles of logs outside the windows – are here year-round. Is there a German word for the smug feeling you get from being in a special place out of season? Probably.
“The king found the public unnerving,” my guide Walter says as we pass through Neuschwanstein’s ornate interior. The bright-eyed ruler King II, who built the castle in the middle of the 19th century. He’s talking about Ludwig. “He loved the opera but hated when people came to see him. So he held his own private concerts: 209 of them, to be precise.” We stand in front of a room modeled to resemble a dripstone cave, complete with stalactites and rock walls. “He had some interesting ideas, as you can see.”
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Ludwig’s face now graces mugs and mousepads in all local gift shops, but his story is sad. A lonely, romantic boy became the young king of then-independent Bavaria in 1864. The kingdom soon became part of the new German empire, leaving it with little responsibility. So he was drawn into a lavish fantasy world, spending eye-watering sums on fake medieval palaces. The construction of Neuschwanstein was a step too far. Ludwig was declared incurably insane, deposed, and later found drowned in a lake. Despite its size, the chateau, which only has a dining table for two, has been used as a museum ever since.
His story finds a natural home in the Allgäu, where the scene has its own twisted fairy-tale quality. The meadows of the Bavarian countryside are lush and low, adorned with wooden farms. But as you stretch south, something strange happens. Just beyond Füssen, the main settlement of the region (originally Rome, later a wealthy commercial centre, nowadays a historic town full of bars and restaurants), the fields turn into mountains. Just like that. There is no gradual buckling of the terrain. One moment grassy pastures, the next the dreadful slopes of the Alps. “It’s like a wall,” one of the locals says with a smile. “A big one.”
The cliffs roll into the valley; invisible woodpeckers drum in the trees; Austria’s peaks visible in the distance
In geological terms, this equivalent of volume cranked from one to 10 gives good walking. The trip I sampled doesn’t have a set itinerary – it’s designed as a winter vacation for non-skiers – so I choose to spend most of my time walking. The sparse snowfall in mid-January means I won’t give snowshoe hiking a chance (though that’s what visitors on snowier excursions will no doubt do), but hiking trails abound. Trailheads are reached by bus, and the routes themselves are usually either flat plains or hilly slopes.
I try one of the latter, a long hike through squirrel pines to cross the dragon-backed Zirmgrat ridge. Cliffs roll into the valley, unseen woodpeckers drum in the trees, and the peaks of Austria appear in the distance. I extend the walk for a few hours through the forests to Füssen and stop on a cafe terrace by a half-frozen lake. When my beer comes – dark, rich dunkel – the presenter naturally puts a heavy sheepskin on my knees.
My base for sightseeing is the outstanding Biohotel Eggensberger, located in the village of Hopfen-am-See, about 10 minutes outside of Füssen. Totally organic since 2001 and now 100% climate neutral – thanks to solar panels, hydroelectricity and a biogas made from food waste – a converted VW Beetle engine powering biogas in the hotel basement, a wellness center with herbal steam showers, and e-bikes and a garage full of e-cars. “When we first started eating organic, we had to keep it a secret,” laughs hotel owner Andreas Eggensberger, who also serves as a physiotherapist. “At the time, people thought we were just some kind of convent full of green food.”
This is definitely not so. Sporty septuagenarians with glowing skin roam the aisles fueled by a buffet of local goodies. The hotel has several commendable policies. Among them is the method of combining Eurostar with long-distance trains through France (or Belgium) and Germany, where any guest arriving by train can be picked up and dropped off free of charge, meaning that it can be done from London to Füssen in one day. And cleverly, anyone who chooses not to clean their room any morning is given a €5 drink voucher. My duvet looks frilly all over.
Go back to the open air. One morning I take a slow turn around Hopfensee. The surface of the lake is a rippling blue in the breeze, and the shoreline is full of evergreens. Bells ring in the distance from an onion-domed church. Both the lake and the tall, shaggy spruce trees are filled with familiar birds from their homeland – wrens, coal tits, tufted ducks, but when I look at their German names, they sound foreign: Zaunkonig, Kohlemeise, Reherent. Halfway through, I lingered with coffee and chocolate cake, not really wanting the walk to end.
I rent an e-bike on my last day and drive around the countryside for hours. The highlight comes when I park under the bulky summit of Tegelberg and board a cable car that rises to an altitude of 1,730 meters. Neuschwanstein can be seen from afar as they ascend, their turrets tiny like a kitschy muffin tin. At the summit, I smash through the uneven snow and find a perch overlooking the mountains. In the freezing air, the peaks rush into the distance. I stay there for years, banging my gloves together to keep warm. St Pancras station feels so far away.
Of course it is. When I got back to the UK, I got an email in my inbox saying that the seasonal snow had come into effect. Such is life. But somewhere at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, there is now an even more fantastic-looking castle and a white-coat weasel that feels at home.
The trip was provided by Inntravel, a seven-night half-board at Biohotel Eggensberger with light lunch, return train ride from London and walking notes and maps. Starting from 1,550 pp, Available until March 26, 2023. Travel to Paris provided by Eurostar: London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord £39. For more information about the Füssen region, visit: en.fuessen.de