The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest peak. At 2,962m (9,717ft) It’s also among the highest places in the Alps where you can get a decent glass of sparkling wine. Reason enough to make a small detour last month to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany’s premiere winter sport center on my way home after a quick trip to Ohio.
But thanks to uncooperative mid-February weather, I didn’t see it. I didn’t even come remotely close.
“Not a very good day out today,” my guest house manager said as she set two hefty breakfast plates in front of me. “You probably shouldn’t have planned on the mountain today. Really bad idea.”
Her stern matter-of-factness was a welcome interjection of service industry honesty that I miss whenever I spend any time in the U.S. I got the impression that this woman never directed a rehearsed and insincere “Hi, my name is Suzana and I’ll be making sure you have a great day today and How are YOU!?!” to anyone.
Rain was beating on the window behind me. “It’s pretty bad here, but isn’t visibility better on the Zugspitze?”
“It’s one kilometer visibility. Good is one hundred.”
The eye roll that I pretended to see, and one that saved me the €41.50 cost of the cogwheel train and cable car ticket to the summit, was the proverbial last nail. My one serious attempt in this tragically warm winter to do some skiing wasn’t going to happen. I already knew that when my train was rolling through the green countryside between Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen –GaPa from hereon– two days earlier. And before that when my plane was buzzing dozens of shades of green on approach to Munich.
So I did what I’m most comfortable doing. I walked. A lot. I had 68 hours to kill in a winter wonderland sans snow.
The world fondly remembers the 1936 Summer Olympics Games in Berlin where Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track were the athletic equivalent of a middle finger colonoscopy deep up Adolph Hitler’s ass. But Germany also hosted the Winter Games earlier that year in GaPa, and I couldn’t help but focus almost solely on that connection as views of the Bavarian Alps drew closer through the slightly mud-dusted windows of Regionalbahn 5421.
There was a Winter Olympics happening on the other end of the continent in a country firmly ruled by an autocrat. The city’s name even came about when the Fuhrer ordered that the two towns – Garmisch to the west and the older Partenkirchen to the east– merge as one for the Olympics’ sake. Billboard at Munich’s airport prominently featured Germany’s winter athletes. Live bobsled races were on every public television monitor at the airport and train station.
I watched those broadcasts with surprisingly wide and attentive eyes. We touched down just a few minutes after 10; the lack of sleep on trans-Atlantic flights rarely catches up to me until sometime on the second day and that would be the case this time too. Not that you need to be fully rested to find your way out of Munich’s sprawling airport. It’s a snap, as is getting to Munich’s busy central station, or Hauptbahnhof via S-bahn, a 45-minute €10.40 ride. [Here’s a concise up-to-date guide.]
There are regional trains to GaPa every hour. The 82-minute ride (€20 one-way) takes you through a few small suburban cities that then turn into towns which gradually evolve into villages as the valley narrows on its approach to the Alps. There are many piles of neatly stacked wood but no snow anywhere. The bright sunshine that stung my eyes on the outskirts of Munich is long gone when we pull into GaPa a few minutes before two. Here the skies are gray but that doesn’t detract from the station’s attractiveness.
My hotel, the Haus Höllental, is in Garmisch, about a five minute taxi ride from the bahnhof. It’s on Höllentalstraße, a quiet street not far from Garmisch’s center which I’m attracted to immediately and will grow to appreciate over the next 60 hours. [A 45-second review is here]. I check in, grab a few brochures and a map. I’m told there’s rain in the forecast. I don’t bother with the ski rental brochure. But I do have an Olympic experience.
Reissersee and the Olympic bob run
Jet lag kept me up until about 4am the next morning and kept me down until nearly noon. But I awoke relatively refreshed. I followed the clear skies towards the Riessersee Fußweg, a walking path that cuts through a pleasant residential section of the southern part of Garmisch and leads eventually, after a ten minute climb up a hill, to the Riessersee Hotel Resort at the edge of the lake whose name it bears.
The Riesersee (that’s a lake) sits in a beautiful setting, surrounded by forest on two sides, a four star hotel on another, and the majestic peaks of the Waxenstein Mountain in the distance to the southwest. Kleiner, or smaller Waxenstein, to the right stands at 2,136m (7,007ft) while Großer Waxenstein reaches 2,277m (7,470ft).
At the 1936 Games, the frozen surface of the Reissersee was the host venue for speed skating and the Olympic Hockey tournament, a notion that seemed all but laughable on the day I visited. There was a thin sheet of ice covering most of the lake, one that would probably support the weight of a few squirrels. Minus hockey gear.
An access road that winds up into the mountain to the southeast leads to the Olympic bobsled run, a 1.5km track that was used from 1910 until 1966. It’s a pleasant hike to the top where you’ll find a small structure at the start and a few info displays set in a lush and invigorating Bavarian forest. The walk down was along the entire course, now little more than a dirt track, which finishes at the shore of the Reissersee. It almost made me want to be a bobsledder.
A pair of videos coming soon.
Warm and rainy February
This was the topic of the day, every day. Warm temperatures and a lack of snow forced the cancellation of the annual women’s World Cup ski races scheduled for Jan. 25-25 and the men’s downhill and giant slalom races slated for Feb. 1-2. The losses were a big hit for the local economy; one restaurant owner said it essentially ruined her winter season. Another called this winter’s dip in fortunes “dramatic”. An employee at the tourist office said she didn’t have official figures to provide, but did say the decline was notable.
The only snow I saw was midway up the most nearby ski slopes –even those were not operating at full capacity– and about a centimeter’s worth of slushy fluff along the path that circles the Reissersee –and there, only in spots shielded from the sun.
That said, most visitors come during the summer months, when the melted snow and hardened mud make way for a lifetime’s supply of hiking and walking trails through one of the most beautiful settings in the Alps. For that I will return.
In no particular order:
- Exploring the town’s Lüftlmalerei, or “air painting”, murals painted on houses, hotels, stores and other buildings. Many are religious in nature, some elaborate scenes, but some are also more simple designs. Like this lonely hockey player. [More about this beautiful style and several more examples here.]
- Local yodel. I can’t guarantee that you’ll hear traditional Alps yodeling, but I did, courtesy of six high school girls shrieking alpine style through an afternoon rain, snowboards in hand.
- Free public transport for visitors. Be sure you’re given a guest bus card at your hotel. If you’re not, ask. A very nice touch indeed.
- Hirschbratwurst, or venison-wurst, with a hefty serving of homemade potato salad, €7.40, at the Bistro Extrawurst. Tegernseer, a light beer brewed about an hour away, accompanied it pretty well. €1.20 for a small draft.
- Art Café. A local coffee shop and small gallery where you’ll likely share the space with youngsters participating in an art workshop.
~ Endnotes ~
I’m not a shopper but for those of you who are know that GaPa is small enough to still have shops that close in the afternoon, while hosting pricey boutiques that don’t.
English is common enough, but not as prominent as in bigger German cities.
Train: Hourly departures from Munich, just under 90 minutes. €20.10 one way at station, €19 EUR in advance via bahn.de
Plane: Munich (munich-airport.de) and Innsbruck (Innsbruck-airport.com) airports
My complete Garmisch-Partenkirchen photo gallery is here.