In the year 1105, Augustinian monks from Rottenbuch were went to settle down in the area round Berchtesgaden, which was described as a frightening wilderness, packed with ice and snow, a region of wild beasts which not too long ago must have been a breeding place for dragons. Their abbot became the Prince Prior; he owned the land, held the power, and controlled the rights to the salt mine of Berchtesgaden. Independent of any other local ruler, the abbot answered directly to the emperor and the Pope. But as a result of the reorganization of Europe by Napoleon, Berchtesgaden was secularized and annexed by Bavaria in 1810. A magnificent church built by the monks still stands, as does the Prior’s place, which, after secularization, served as a summer residence for the Bavarian kings, and is now a museum of the Wittelsbach family.
Berchtesgaden was the preferred summer residence of King Maximilian II. Ludwig II, however, did not share his father’s preference. But when Luitpold succeeded Ludwig to the throne, Berchtesgaden once again was a favorite royal spot, this time for hunting.
It is not surprising that Berchtesgaden ranks among the leading German resorts, known for its picturesque houses, fountains and old churches, as well as for its many shops and a modern convention center. Berchtesgaden enjoys so intense a tourist trade in summer that the village streets are sometimes completely blocked. The village is surrounded by a magnificent mountain range which, of course, carries its own legend. The main mountain is the Watzmann, named for a cruel king. The legend says that Watzmann, along with his family, was turned into stone by the curse of a peasant whose child the king had killed. The shape of the mountain supports this story: Watzmann stands as the tallest peak, the mother somewhat smaller, while in between stand their seven children.
The nearby Untersberg also had a legend behind it. The story says that a medieval king is standing there with his attendants and warriors, waiting for his chance to erect a new empire based on peace – a golden age.
The opposite side of Berchtesgaden, called Obersalzberg, was a key location during the third Reich. At one time, this pastoral plateau had attracted members of high society; later it was the site of the Berghof, the private chateau of Hitler. He chose Obersalzberg because there he had family associations and friends. Most high ranked Nazis followed their leader up to the Obersalzberg. Hitler’s compound also included an underground shelter system, equipped with everything necessary for survival. Despite the fogbombs used by the Nazis to hide their sanctuary, an air attack on April 25, 1945, destroyed the buildings. Their ruins were completely removed. Hitler’s chalet, the Berghof, has also since disappeared. A large hotel, the Platterhof, was, according to Hitler’s plans, built to house the faithful who came to Obersalzberg to show him their loyalty. It is now used by the American army as the General Walker Hotel.
Obersalzberg is also the starting point of the road to the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest). Special busses transport visitors via a remarkable road which was blasted into the rocky terrain of the Kehlstein. The road winds around hair-raising hairpin turns, then passes through a tunnel and, finally, an elevator takes the tourists up to the Tea House. The Tea House sits at 6,000 feet, and is run by the town of Berchtesgaden. The Eagle’s Nest never was a military stronghold, as its name suggests.
Since 1517, the prosperity of the prior depended on the production of the salt mines at Berchtesgaden. Today’s mining methods are the same as they were 400 years ago. Water fills huge underground caves to wash the salt out of the rock, forming lakes of brine. When the salt content has reached 27%, the brine is transported to Bad Reichenhall, where it is then refined. Some 65,000 tons of refined salt are produced annually. The visit to the salt mines in Berchtesgaden can be a lot of fun. First visitors dress in miners’ clothes, then board a mini-train which takes them through the salt galleries and across the brine lakes. Lower levels of the mine are reached by sliding down steep chutes, a favorite for younger visitors.
The old distillery for Enzian Schanps was founded in Berchtesgaden, but has since moved out of town. Enzian Schnaps in a bitter-tasting brandy made from the root of the Alpine flower, yellow gentian. The distillery has been in the hands of the same family for hundreds of years, and they alone have the rights to the gentian roots. To preserve the plants, a section of them can only be harvested once every ten years.
Mountain goats, or chamois, which are hunted here, supply the hair for the pride of the native resident: the traditional brush decoration sported on Bavarian hats. Only a small amount of hair from the back of each animal is of the right quality for the brushes, so it’s no surprise that prices are as high as the region where the chamois live.
Skins of stage and red deer are also prepared in this area for use in making the famous Lederhosen. What blue jeans were to the gold miners in the States, the leather pants were to the Alpine lumberers. Once worn as working clothes, Lederhosen have been stylized, and are worn now as a traditional local outfit on Sundays.
An expert can always identify the area of the wearer of a traditional costume, because each mountain valley, sometimes even each village in the valley , has a specific style. The variations are numerous. Generally, though, men wear short leather pants in summer, knickers when it is cooler. They are made according to traditional patterns, with no zippers. The pants are held in place by leather suspenders, often decorated with patterns made of quills. The linen shirts and woolen jackets worn with the Lederhosen have buttons made of deer horn. The hats come many styles, especially regarding their various decorations.
The traditional female costume is called the Dirndl. It is combination of several parts, generally completed by the apron and scarf. On festival days, many women wear corsages of fresh geraniums. The colorful outfits are especially beautiful when many are seen together, as is possible during the many Bavarian festivals.
Just a few miles after Berchtesgaden we reach the Austrian border. Staying on the autobahn and going directly on to Salzburg we pass the village of Anger. King Ludwig I descrilbed Anger as the most beautiful village in Bavaria. The picturesque town lies around the bottom and on the sides of a hill. On its highest pint stands a Late Gothic church, its slender tower topped by an elegant double onion. Anger is easily visible form the autobahn. Also visible from the highway is the medieval Castle of Staufeneck. Built high above the peasants’ settlement, Staufeneck was the seat of the chamberlain of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. The torture chamber, a common installation until the 18th century, still can be visited. According to the old laws, nobody could be condemned to death without a confession – so the rulers created the means to get the confession!