Many years ago, a German friend of mine told me how Christmas was her favourite time of year, and how Christmas was a very big deal in Germany. As she described it for me, I had images of villages lit up like the ones I’d seen on the mantel at home when I was young. She told me of Christmas markets, glühwein and gingerbread. It sounded like everything there was to love about Christmas, and so I filed it away as a “bucket list” thing to do.
For the six years my wife and I lived in Asia, we celebrated Christmas quietly, but it’s not as culturally celebrated or festive as it is in the west. We had to request Christmas day off as a personal day each year we worked there. There are many practicing Christians in Asia. For them I suppose it’s about the religious meaning, but in general Christmas isn’t shared as much as a cultural tradition or a marketing and consumerist bonanza as it is in the west. Or at least on the same scale as it is in the west.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, or are religious or not, you would know that Christmas is a tradition that invokes feelings of warmth and good cheer (if you can get past the shopping and ironic mean-spiritedness induced by seasonal stress.) It can typically be a time of great memories, just as any culture I know of has special traditions that bring them times of joy.
After being away from our traditional sense of the holiday for that long, we thought it might be a good time to go for gold and visit Bavaria at Christmas.
We looked at a map and chose our locations.
Where we wandered through the Christkindlmarkt and wafted from stall to stall.
I had been to Munich before, but had never visited Dachau Concentration Camp. It felt like it was time to go. It was so completely wet and cold that day, and it was impossible to imagine what kind of horror life would have been there.
We chose Grainau because it was tucked way down in Bavarian Germany at the foot of the Alps. It seemed like it could be a cozy place to spend Christmas.
We left Munich in a rental. Christmas surprise! They gave us a BMW.
We were going to drive through the Alps in this:
We stopped for a few photos in Starnberg, on Lake Starnberg, where Ludvig II mysteriously drowned. We would be crossing his path again soon.
We got off the road again in Schlehdorf, because I thought the lake might give a nice view. It did. It was also the first time we’d seen the sun in days.
When we got to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I knew we were in for something special. It was a real-life Christmas village, covered in snow. By the time I took photos a couple of days later, most of the snow had melted away.
We stayed in Grainau, a smaller town next to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which was really just up the road. We also drove a little further down to Lake Eibsee. The mountain seen here is Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitz.
view from the hotel
Drove around, visited Wallgau. Bavaria!
In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we visited the Partnachklamm (Partnach Gorge).
At the top of the gorge. We took the cable car down.
We took a day trip to visit Neuschwanstein Castle. What would a trip to Bavaria be without a castle visit? This was built by Ludwig II (referenced earlier at Lake Starnberg). He had spent a great deal of his family’s wealth on his Wagnerian obsession, and mysteriously died before the castle was finished. Many reviews I read of this castle said that because it was unfinished, it’s not worth touring the inside. Untrue! The tour was totally worth it and really fills out Ludwig’s vision and obsession. Book your tickets in advance and avoid a huge line.
It was a cloudy day. I waited two hours for this little sliver of light. Then it covered over and the light never came back. When you come this far and think about a photo for so long, two hours wait is okay. Special thanks to my ever-patient wife who actually sat there for 90 minutes with me. (Please, no mention of ‘vemödalen‘.)
The trip to this part of Germany was one of the greatest trips my wife and I have ever taken. We would have loved to see more snow (being from Canada and currently living in Africa), but in every way the trip was absolutely amazing. Our visit to Grainau / Garmisch-Partenkirchen was our favourite part of the whole trip.
Austria was as great as Germany, and was like going a whole degree deeper into the culture of this part of the world. We stopped in Innsbruck for lunch, which was incredibly busy after Christmas / before New Year (a time called ‘Jul’, or ‘Interscotia’, as I recently found out.) The alpine range rose behind the city like a giant salt rock wall, and the architecture of the city indicated that we were in a place set apart from its neighbour to the north.
Now I had this brilliant idea (sarcasm should be noted) that we were going to drive through the Alps. Take the scenic route.
So the last third of the trip was in darkness since we didn’t get there until the night time – which began around 5pm. However, the first part through the Alps was incredible. I felt like I was in a car ad. I did take a few photos as we drove through valleys, ski villages and around crazy bends that revealed massive panoramas, but I don’t feel any of them did the scenery any justice.
This was one of the only photos I took in Salzburg, in the Salzburg Cathedral. There was a lot to photograph, but there are times on vacation that I don’t want to carry the gear.
Salzburg was a beautiful city, and although we didn’t visit a lot of the cultural landmarks, I would like to go back during a less touristy time and visit again. It was very congested at Christmas, and I can only imagine summer must be intense.
We had returned the rental car and booked a trip to Vienna by train. I was glad to have reserved seats as well, because the train was packed with people cramming the aisles. Everyone was traveling for New Year’s Eve.
Vienna! The architecture and vastness of this city are dizzying. We walked for days and saw so much, yet visited so little of the city. This is a place worthy of the hype in its history and grandeur. It’s one of those European cities that you wish you could live in some dream.
The famous Café Central.
The Wiener Riesenrad
The winter markets in Vienna were similar to the ones we’d seen in Munich, but with an Austrian distinction. We had also seen the winter markets in Salzburg and partly in Innsbruck. They sold a great assortment of hot drinks to walk you through the cold nights, which was a great way to spend New Year’s Eve.
We wandered through the wide, busy streets of the old city, drinking, eating, and dodging massive crowds. Before midnight, in one of the spots we had stopped for some glühwein, a waltz began to play over the loud speakers. Everyone around us suddenly started to dance. It was the perfect New Years in Vienna.
And so Austria, from its alpine spine to its historical city wonderlands (winter wonderlands, for us) was a great way to conclude the trip. If you love Christmas, you will love Germany and Austria!
(A final note – I was surprised at the amount of people who smoke in Germany and Austria. It’s a huge part of the culture there, perhaps even bigger than when we were in Asia. It was especially noticeable in Austria where people were smoking in most cafes, restaurants and bars. I read that the law is changing but that it’s been so slow because no one wants to enforce it. Really, Austria?)