Cycling in Bavaria

Time Out goes in search of the authentic German experience - on a bike Discuss this article

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I’m two hours south of Munich in Füssen, the gateway to Bavaria’s Allgäu region, pedalling along cobbled streets beneath a whitewashed 15th-century castle. In the background are the foothills of the Ammergauer Alps – beyond these Austria – and it’s all picturesquely easy on the eye. Yet there’s something perplexing me besides cobble-induced saddle-soreness.

Lusty folk music and fairy-tale castles
Embarking on a six-day, self-guided bike ride, I’d hoped to discover the real Bavaria – the one beyond the stereotypes and the oompah bands, lederhosen and Munich’s Oktoberfest. But here I am, wondering if the town of Füssen’s quaint theatricality is authentic or simply gilding the Bavarian lily for the delectation of large crowds of German, Italian and, increasingly, Chinese tourists. For instance, on Reichenstrasse, where as many shops sell cuckoo clocks as groceries, the fräuleins are indeed in corseted dirndl dresses, hauling beer to pavement cafés while men in leather shorts sing – lustily, natürlich – folk music. And what self-respecting Bavarian town is complete without a fairy-tale castle?

Outside Füssen, Neuschwanstein’s needle-sharp turrets add pizzazz to a castle (the model for the Disney one) built in the late nineteenth century by ‘fairy-tale king’ Ludwig II. Or maybe the ‘away-with-the-fairies’ king – his family and ministers had him sectioned for blowing the family fortune on Wagner-inspired mega-follies. He died mysteriously in 1886.

Modern versus ancient Bavaria
Crazy kings, costumes and castles. Is modern Bavaria undergoing any kind of reinvention, or is the ancient model kept alive to skim over more recent history? Am I seeing a region that has come to terms with once being the ideological heartland of Germany’s darkest days – or am I travelling with a baggage of prejudices?

Erih Goessler, a local guide, has heard the stereotyping spiel before. ‘When I first moved here from northern Germany, my friends said how awful it must be to wear traditional costume and yodel all day long,’ she says. ‘Bavarians wear regional dress because they want to maintain their traditions, not just for tourists; it’s even becoming popular for young girls to wear dirndl but often with much shorter skirts.’

Füssen is an intensive course in Bavarianism. Elsewhere it’s still there, but more diffuse. Pedalling along the best-developed cycleway network I’ve ever encountered, I pass through an intensely conservative, Roman Catholic land of baroque churches, picture-postcard villages and verdant dairy pasture. All the way, the Alps are as pointy as the locals’ felt hats.

Westwards to vintage tractors
Progressing westwards over the undulating Allgäu towards Murnau (my luggage conveniently transferred by car), I cycle across meadows of wild orchids and crocuses, through tall swaying rushes and forests fluttering with butterflies. Cowbells chime, woodpeckers hammer and I routinely see generations of families out hay-cutting together: grandparents and grandchildren driving vintage tractors. In high afternoon temperatures, I dip in crystal-clear lakes to cool down. ‘The water’s so clean you can drink it,’ a hotel receptionist tells me.

Every neat village boasts an impressive church with an onion-domed tower. Blooming flower boxes, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ shutters and log piles – laid out as tidily as a geometrical puzzle – seem obligatory. The village gasthaus always offers kaffee und küchen, so I indulge in sweet specialities such as zwetschgendatschi (plum tart) and cold tall glasses of weissbier.

What really surprises me is Catholicism’s grip on the region. I’ve always thought of Germany as a secular state and my experience of the north has taught me it is, if anything, pragmatically Protestant. But in Bavaria crucifixes are a common sight on country lanes and I’m greeted with ‘grüß Gott’ (‘greet God’) rather than ‘guten tag’ on many occasions.

By Nyree McFarlane
Time Out Dubai,

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