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.
A sumptuous basilica
Cycling along the Romantische Strasse – a 440km trail devised in the ’50s to link Bavaria’s best romantic-era buildings – I come across a sumptuous expression of religiousness. Appearing out of the blue near Steingaden’s dairy pastures rises an immense oval-shaped basilica: the Unesco-listed Wieskirche. The wedding cake exterior, impressive enough, is forgotten upon entering the 18th-century rococo interior. Every available centimetre heaves with cherubs, gilded saints and heavenly clouds, treading a fine line between kitsch and devotion.
How had such a treasure come to be built in a farming area? There’s a rational answer – well, kind of. In 1738 a peasant farmer, Maria Lory, discovered drops of moisture in the eyes of a long-forgotten wooden icon of Jesus in her barn. Before she knew it, cartloads of marble and pilgrims were rumbling through her cow fields en route to building Wieskirche.
The inspiration for bold, expressionistic paintings
But while the coach parties roll into this honey pot, I discover an expression of Bavarian culture a few kilometres away in Unterammergau where the locals have just commenced a day of music and drinking. The bands have struck up (definitely oompah-ish), while the men are dressed in white shirts with lederhosen and feathered alpine hats. There isn’t a visitor in sight. These folks are simply enjoying themselves, and I feel I can finally see beyond the slightly paramilitary connotation of the lederhosen.
These same traditions and the glassy blue lakes surrounding Murnau – my final stopover – inspired the art movement Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), known for its bold, expressionistic paintings. ‘Blue is the classic heavenly colour calling man into the infinite and awakening in him the longing for the pure and the supernatural,’ pronounced Wassily Kandinsky in 1912, when he was living with local artist Gabriele Münter, co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter. Murnau’s Schloßmuseum has a selection of Blue Rider works but it’s light on Kandinskys, so I visit the little bohemian house he shared with Münter between 1909 and 1914. Vivid examples of Kandinsky’s evolving colour range and imagery are captured on clothing chests and a stairwell he painted in a burst of expressionistic enthusiasm.
Kandinsky may even have enjoyed a stein at the 17th-century Griesbräu brewery-hotel in Murnau where I stay. My dinner there starts with hop soup with croutons and ends with a hop parfait, after a main of ox stew brewed in dark hops.
Ascending the Ammergauer Alps
This fuels me for my most intoxicating cycle of the week, into the Ammergauer Alps. After crossing more marshy fenland, I ascend into the Alps, with 2,000m peaks in touching distance. I find heaven in a gorgeous green alpine valley around Graswang that induces a worrying urge to sing with Von Trapp gusto (altitudinal hypoxia?) on my way to yet another offering from Ludwig II.
Linderhof, built in 1878, is the finest of all spendaholic Ludwig’s castles. Its opulence melds extravagant genius with delusional fantasy – the latter taking the form of an absolutist world that existed in Ludwig’s vivid imagination. Queues of visitors confirm his status as patron saint of the Bavarian Tourist Board.
The late baroque corker pays homage, in a sort of Neverland fashion, to the glory of the French aristocracy and the court of Versailles. It’s a mini-replica of the latter, replete with formal gardens and fountains. On a staccato-rhythmed, stucco-themed tour, a palace guide shunts us between rooms. The best is a bedroom chamber designed to look like Louis XIV’s, with the largest bed I’ve ever seen, and a mirrored room of infinite reflections with Bohemian-glass chandeliers and a lapis lazuli table. Most revealing is his dining room with a state-of-the-art automatic dumbwaiter that delivered a table of food through a floorboard trapdoor without servants being present, thus suiting his growing sociopath tendencies. ‘He never really liked guests,’ says guide Frau Ejeil. ‘If he had to host people, he’d order music to be played loudly so he couldn’t
hear them, and flowers were placed in front of him so he couldn’t be seen.’
As I freewheel back down to Murnau, I think just how much Ludwig would have detested visitors traipsing through his landmark castles. Yet even he would have been delighted to see the conservative traditions and rustic topographies of Bavaria little changed since his demise.
Need to know
Lufthansa flies direct from Dubai to Munich from Dhs2,300 return (www.lufthansa.com; 04 343 2121).
Where to stay
Park Hotel Bayersoien: A lakeside spa hotel in the Pfaffenwinkel, with rooms starting from Dhs550.
www.parkhotel-bayersoien.de (+49 088 451 20).
Altstadthotel zum Hechten: A family-run hotel in centre of the old Füssen. Rooms from Dhs350.
Inntravel offers a week’s self-guided Bavarian Castles and Villages cycling tour from Dhs4,870 per person, including seven nights’ B&B accommodation, some meals, luggage transportation, cycle hire, and route notes, although flights aren’t included.
www.inntravel.co.uk (+44 1653 617 001).