Bavaria (Bayern) is the original home of many of Germany’s best-known clichés: beer-swilling Lederhosen-clad men, sausage dogs, cowbells and Alpine villages, Sauerkraut and Wurst and the fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein. Yet all this is only a small part of the Bavarian picture and one that’s restricted to the southern areas in and around the Alps. Historically and politically, Bavaria has always occupied a special position within Germany. Although a wealthy duchy within the Holy Roman Empire, its rulers preferred artistic patronage to the territorial expansionism and dynastic feuding characteristic of the rest of the nation. A fundamental change in Bavaria’s status occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century when it profited from Napoleon’s decision to re-order the map of Germany: it was doubled in size, and promoted to the rank of a kingdom. Thereafter, it retained much of its independence and its own monarch, even after the union of Germany in 1871. Following the demise of the monarchy at the end of World War I, Bavaria briefly became a free state, but quickly degenerated into a hotbed of right-wing extremism where Hitler had his first successes. This reputation for reactionary politics continues to the present day: Bavaria has continuously been ruled since World War II by the ultra-conservative CSU, whose stranglehold on power seems unshakeable.
Bavaria is made up of four distinct regions, each with its own identity and culture, and its cities are equally varied in character. In Munich, the Land has a cosmopolitan, if conservative, capital that ranks as one of Germany’s star attractions. The city lies at the center of Upper Bavaria, the state’s heartland, a region that ranges from the snow-capped peaks of the Alps to gentle hop-growing farmland. It’s a traditional, deeply Catholic area whose rural traditions continue in spite of the inroads of mass tourism.
Travel is made easy by a generally good network of trains and regional buses, though public transport is sometimes a little thin on the ground in Bavarian Swabia and Eastern Bavaria – having a car makes life easier here. Cycling is an excellent and very popular way to get around and is facilitated by a great many marked cycling paths throughout the state. Accommodation is uniformly good; it’s normally not too difficult to find a bed, though problems may occasionally be experienced in the mountain resorts and some of the more popular tourist towns. An unfortunate restriction for travelers over 27 is that they’re barred from using youth hostels, though reasonably priced private rooms in most places should compensate.
Travel to Bavaria
- Munich to: Augsburg (every 20min; 30min); Cologne (hourly; 5hr 20min); Frankfurt (frequent; 4hr); Garmisch-Partenkirchen (hourly; 1hr 15min); Hamburg (hourly; 8hr); Ingolstadt (frequent; 45min); Innsbruck (hourly; 2hr 25min); Nürnberg (hourly; 1hr); Regensburg (hourly; 2hr); Salzburg (hourly; 2hr 30min); Strasbourg (6 daily; 5hr); Stuttgart (hourly; 2hr 15min); Ulm (hourly; 2hr 15min); Würzburg (hourly; 2hr 20min); Zürich (5 daily; 4hr 20min).
- Nürnberg to: Ansbach (every 30min; 45min); Augsburg (hourly; 1hr); Bamberg (every 30min; 45min); Bayreuth (every 30min; 1hr 10min); Coburg (hourly; 1hr 35min); Frankfurt (hourly; 2hr); Passau (hourly; 2hr 20min).
- Würzburg to: Cologne (hourly; 3hr 40min); Frankfurt (hourly; 1hr 20min); Stuttgart (hourly; 2hr).
West of here is Bavarian Swabia. Detached by Napoleon from the rest of its traditional province (thereafter officially known as Württemberg), it remains stubbornly Swabian in culture – most obviously in its distinctive pasta-based cuisine. Even so, it is home to the most outrageous of the Romantic castles which form such a crucial part of the Bavarian stereotype. Outside of the mountainous Allgäu area in the south, this is a region of undulating agricultural country, ideal for walking and cycling holidays. The pristine local capital of Augsburg has been a place of importance since the days of the Romans, and its resplendent Renaissance buildings give it a highly distinctive appearance.
To the north lies Franconia , which was likewise absorbed into Bavaria in 1803. The most obvious evidence of its distinctiveness can be seen in the wine-growing area around Würzburg in the northwest, where a culture quite at odds with the beer-loving rest of Bavaria exists. In the northeast of Franconia, the difference can be seen most obviously in the elegantly plain Baroque architecture of the Lutheran strongholds of Ansbach and Bayreuth : the Reformation left Franconia more or less split down the middle along religious lines. Nürnberg , a place risen from the rubble of wartime destruction and restored to the splendor of its Middle Ages heyday, was another city that quickly embraced Protestantism. The same is true of Rothenburg ob der Tauber , the most famous of the medieval towns on the Romantic Road , one of Germany’s most famous tourist routes. Yet Bamberg , whose magnificently varied architectural legacy is unsurpassed in all of Germany, remained, like Würzburg, staunchly Catholic.
Eastern Bavaria is the state’s backwater: a rustic, relatively poor region where life in the highlands revolves around logging and workshop industries such as traditional glass production. However, the region also has a number of urban attractions, most notably the wonderfully well-preserved medieval cities of Regensburg and Landshut , and the border town of Passau , which is notable for its harmonious Baroque layout.
Eastern Bavaria (Ostbayern), which incorporates Lower Bavaria (Niederbayern) and the Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz), two of the three provinces into which the medieval duchy was divided, is the least well-known region of the whole state, among Germans as well as visitors. Nonetheless, it includes both the cities that preceded Munich as the capital of Bavaria. Regensburg , the main seat of power in the tribal days of the Dark Ages and nowadays the capital of the Upper Palatinate, survived World War II relatively unscathed and stands today as the most complete and one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Germany. In the region’s southwestern corner is the wonderfully preserved town of Landshut, the capital of Lower Bavaria, which rivaled Munich in wealth and status during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Downstream along the Danube from Regensburg are two other enticing old towns, Straubing and Passau . Most of the southeastern part of the region is taken up by the Bavarian Forest , part of the largest forested area in Central Europe and one that still retains much of its primeval character, as well as an unexpectedly vibrant cultural life, especially during the summer.
The name of Upper Bavaria (Oberbayern), Munich’s own traditional province, is associated above all with the Alps. Quite simply, this is the most spectacular scenery Germany has to offer, a wonderfully contrasting array of glacial lakes and peaks commanding stunning panoramic views, with many dramatic castles and churches thrown in for good measure. Amid this picture-book scenery, you’ll find the Bavarian folklore and customs that are the subject of so many tourist brochures: men still wear Lederhosen and checked shirts, and women the traditional Dirndl dresses. Superficially it can all seem very kitsch, but beyond the packaged culture lies a fascinating mixture of Catholic and pagan rites that dominate the annual calendar – events usually accompanied by large amounts of eating and drinking.
Head for Oberammergau where the world-famous Passion Play is staged every ten years. From here it’s only a few kilometers to the international ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen , above which towers the Zugspitze , Germany’s highest and most famous peak. The most dramatic heights of all are in the Berchtesgadener Land, an area that includes the town of Berchtesgaden as well as the marvellous peak of the Watzmann . The area is intensely geared towards tourism, as are the Upper Bavarian lakes, most of which lie in the glacial valleys of the Alpine foothills.
In contrast, other parts of the province are relatively little known, yet offer plenty of varied attractions. Between the Alps and the capital lie some equally enticing lakes and monasteries; to the east are the valleys of the Inn and Salzach rivers with the pilgrimage site of Altötting and the medieval towns of Wasserburg and Burghausen ; while north of Munich are several wonderful old towns, most notable of which is the old metropolitan see of Freising, the former university and ducal capital of Ingolstadt, the planned residential seat of Neuburg and the little cathedral city of Eichstätt .
As if the scenery wasn’t enough, manifold culinary delights are available in the wonderful old Gaststätten, often with beer gardens, where traditional Bavarian menus and innumerable regional beers are served. There are rail links to many destinations, and a network of connecting bus services between the Alpine towns, the only snag is that some of these only operate once or twice a day. Accommodation shouldn’t be a major problem, except during July and August in the most sought-after destinations. There’s a huge choice of rooms in private houses (identified by the Zimmer frei signs; contact the local tourist office if you want to make an advance booking) where prices are surprisingly reasonable (less than DM60/¬30-DM99/¬49) – even in major resorts such as Garmisch. Youth hostels (for the under-27s) and campsites are also plentiful.
Pending Berlin’s full recovery from its long period of division, MUNICH is the German city that most has the air of capital about it. Even though it has never ruled over a territory any larger than the present-day Land, the grandiose palaces from Bavaria’s era as an independent kingdom give it the appearance of a metropolis of great importance. When this is added to a remarkable postwar economic record (courtesy of such hi-tech giants as the car manufacturer BMW, the aerospace company MBB and the electronics group Siemens), and to its hard-won status as the national trendsetter in fashion matters, it’s easy to see why Munich acts as a magnet to outsiders. Students flock here to study; the rich and jet-set like to live here, as do writers, painters, musicians, and film-makers, while foreign nationals now make up more than a fifth of the population. Munich’s other, more familiar face is of a homely city of provincially minded locals whose zest for drinking, seen at an extreme during the annual Oktoberfest, is kept up all year round in cavernous beer halls and spacious gardens.
The city is something of a late developer in German terms. It was founded in 1158 by Henry the Lion, the powerful Saxon duke who for a short time also ruled Bavaria, as a monastic village ( Mönchen means monks) and toll-collection point on the River Isar, a Danube tributary. In 1180, it was allocated to the Wittelsbachs, who ruled the province continuously until 1918 – the longest period achieved by any of the nation’s dynasties. Munich was initially overshadowed by Landshut, though it became the capital of the upper part of the divided duchy in 1255. Only in 1503 did it become capital of a united Bavaria, and it remained of relatively modest size until the nineteenth century, when it was expanded into a planned city of broad boulevards and spacious squares in accordance with its new role, granted by Napoleon, as a royal capital. Hitler began an even more ambitious construction program in accordance with Munich’s special role as Hauptstadt der Bewegung “Capital city of the (Nazi) Movement”; thankfully, only a part of it was built, surviving to this day as a reminder of this inglorious chapter in the city’s history.
Despite its cosmopolitanism, Munich is small enough to be digestible in one visit and has the added bonus of a great setting, the snow-dusted mountains, and Alpine lakes just an hour’s drive away. The best time of year to come is from June to early October, when all the beer gardens, street cafés, and bars are in full swing