68 Hours in a Snowless Garmisch-Partenkirchen – GaPa Notebook

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.

Garmisch Bobsled Run 5 Garmisch Bobsled Run 4

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.

Other Highlights

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.

Garmisch 23

~ 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.

Getting there

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

Images

My complete Garmisch-Partenkirchen photo gallery is here.

 

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  1. Anonymous says

    Haha, gotta love Germans and their honesty! I’ve grown acquired to it. In fact, I feel pretty at home with how blunt I am anyways.

    1. Brittany Ruth says

      Forgot to add my info ^

      1. Bob R says

        Yes, it’s definitely appreciated. 🙂

  2. Hrvoje Slišković says

    We were there last summer. Lodging at Lermoos in Austria (cca 22 km from Ga-Pa). One of the highlights was going to Zugspitze with Cable Car and return hike down to the Ehrwald Bahn. It was a perfect sunny day

    1. Bob R says

      Nice – I’ll definitely return in the summer at some point. And come and go from the Innsbruck direction. Good idea.

  3. Conversant Traveller says

    Bad luck about the snow, but it does look beautiful anyway, and certainly rather ‘different’ to visit an Olympic ghost town as it were. We’re just back from Turkey where we were planning to go snow-shoeing…but the same thing happened there…instead of snow it was 26 degrees, which was lovely, but also a bit disappointing.

  4. Anastasia Sofia says

    Ah yes, I’ve definitely had a few hikes hampered by fog – annoying. The town looks so picturesque, man! I’d love to hear some genuine yodelling! The views are stunning.

  5. frankaboutcroatia says

    Got to love that stern matter-of-factness and honesty of your German host. Bad for the snow, bit at least you got to see what you came for. I think six girls made yodeling sound better than it actually is 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      They most definitely did. 🙂

  6. Syd says

    Beautiful. I’m especially intrigued by the air painting and the venison wurst. Sorry about the lack of snow. Global warming’s a bitch.

    1. Bob R says

      The venison wurst was pretty good. 🙂

  7. Samantha @mytanfeet says

    At least he was honest! Well, I would be disappointing too for the lack of snow if that was the reason I went there. I’d very intrigued about the yodeling though, I have never heard yodeling live so that would be very interesting to hear!

  8. Nina says

    Too bad about the lack of snow, but it still looks pretty impressive. Love the ‘air paintings’.
    A couple of summers ago we went to the French Alps to do some hiking and actually couldn’t because of snow (in July!).

  9. Sam @ Travelling King says

    Oh no! it sucks there wasnt any snow! But it’s still really pretty ad very impressive.
    Would have loved the Yodelling!!! have never heard anyone yodel before!

    1. Bob R says

      Next time I’ll record the audio. 🙂

  10. Erin says

    Bob, your writing is superb here. Love your style and you’re an excellent photographer. Always enjoy your posts. Glad you didn’t let weather hold you back from seizing the day!

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Erin, much appreciated and glad you enjoyed.

  11. Tara Gorman says

    Loved the photographs accompanying your adventure story. It’s great you still enjoyed even though your original plans didn’t work out – always good to be optimistic and find other ways to enjoy yourself when plans don’t pan out.

  12. Gabor Kovacs says

    Yeah, sometimes the elements are just against you. It can be really annoying when you can’t see anything similar to what you expected. Probably it is a good idea to go back there in summer, it must be really beautiful.

    1. Bob R says

      Yes, will definitely figure out a way to manage a few days here during the summer months.

  13. Raphael Alexander Zoren says

    Amazing photos, it really makes me want to go there!!!

  14. Chris Boothman says

    It’s interesting reading this article on Garmisch-Partenkirchen when I generally relate everything associated with this part of Germany with watching the downhill and other skiing events on Ski Sunday on BBC2 back in England!

    However, this shows there is so much more to the neck of the woods than just winter sports. I love the images that you have included in this post, in particular the one of the historic downtown street which looks idyllic.

    1. Bob R says

      Yes, it’s quite a nice town with an interesting history.

  15. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy says

    Disappointing about the snow, but the views are still gorgeous! I hate not getting to do/see what I went to a place for, but sometimes the best things happen when they don’t go as planned. Lovely photos as usual 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks! 🙂

  16. Henry | @fotoeins says

    The works of Luftmalerei are fantastic in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (GaPa), but also throughout Bavaria. I was fortunate to have had a good look up top at Zugspitze, but visiting GaPa and Zugspitze a couple of times only makes me want to go back and do more, and you have listed a great many options! Things I have in mind are: drive or take the train towards Reutte in Tirol on the “other side of the border” in Austria, and head up Zugspitze from that side. Head out to Mittenwald and have a good long look around there. Do a couple of the valley walks around GaPa, including the Partnachklamm and the Höllental. Go up the nearby hill called Wank. Thanks for writing and for helping me relive my memories! 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks, Henry. Lots of great suggestions. Hopefully the weather will be more cooperative when I return in the summer months.

  17. budget jan says

    We visited GaPa 35 years ago. In fact I quite often think about this (then) idyllic little place. I have memories of Cute Swiss like Chalets and green beautiful countryside. We were there in September and there was no snow then either 🙂 but we were not expecting any 🙂

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