The German Alpine road or Alpenstrasse
The German Alpenstrasse (Alpine road) is an exhilarating route full of twists and turns that runs over a distance of 450 km between Lindau and Berchtesgaden. The stunning Alpine landscapes offers the visitor a varied and magnificent panorama. The route takes you past numerous mountain lakes, Alpine meadows, magnificent castles and guys in lederhosen (we promise you’ll see one at least). This is a German road, not a French one, so the lanes are wide and the speed limits generous.
Unlike the more popular (but more boring) Romantic Road, the Alpenstrasse has both long lengths of straight as well as some hill climbs and hairpins. You'll feel comfortable at high speed, but thanks to the German raod engineers, it won't get unsafe.
If you're hankering for a more exhilarating drive, there are plenty of opportunities for detours around Berchtesgaden with narrow twists and steep climbs. The occasional hoon (or convoy of hoons) will pass you from time to time in their Porche 911’s or BMW M series but that won’t spoil the fun. The fact you can leave your car cooling off at dusk while enjoying some local brews in front of your chalet fireplace makes it all the more ideal.
The idea for the road came from medical officer Dr. Knorz. In 1927 he introduced his plans to connect several valleys on the east-west direction of the Bavarian Alps. This would link Lake Constance to Lake Königssee by a fixed set of roads.
The route we know today was built in the 1930s as one of Hitler’s prestige projects. Some existing streets were included, other parts were traced from scratch, for example the trajectory from Ramsau to Berchtesgaden. Local customs and traditions are still very much alive in this region. You can still experience the old-fashioned way of life, including joyful country weddings and colorful local fairs. Bavaria is also home to traditional German music, zither ensembles and brass bands.
Flowers and wellness
The official route starts in Lindau, but we’re going to start our journey in Konstanz, which is also a city on the shores of Lake Constance. This change of plans has only one reason: the isle of Mainau. Mainau is a "flowering island" notable for its parks and gardens. The island's arboretum contains 500 different species of trees, many exotic and valuable, including fine specimens of the giant sequoia. The island also contains about 200 rhododendron and azalea varieties.
The Italian Rose Garden is laid out geometrically with pergolas, sculptures, and fountains, and includes some 500 rose varieties. The Mediterranean terraces contain exotic pot plants, including palm trees. The island as a whole contains about 30,000 rose bushes and about 20,000 dahlias.
After all these flowers, it’s a 80km drive on the borders of the lake to the route’s real starting point, Lindau. The historic city of Lindau is located on an 0.68-square-kilometre (0.26 sq mi) island which is connected with the mainland by a road bridge. The old town hall is certainly worth a visit. The small historic streets are also a pleasure to discover.
We leave Lindau eastward on road B308, the alpenstrasse. On our way we see a lot of green alpine meadows and pine forests. After 36km we reach Oberstaufen, the capital of wellness. Around Oberstaufen alone there are 80 hotels offering beauty treatments. Today’s luxurious spas have their origins in spartan regimes, and a certain rigour is still maintained.
After Oberstaufen, the B308 road leads past Immenstadt, through lush, green forests and pastures, with the 1300m (4000ft) peaks of the Voralpenland (Alpine Upland) forming a guard of honour. We drive past the Grosser Alpsee (see means lake in German) and continue to Oberstdorf, Germany’s most southerly village. Here you can walk a high-wire 33m (100ft) up that spans between the towers of the local ski-jumping arena.
The Breitachklamm near Oberstdorf is possibly Europe’s most beautiful gorge. It’s deep, narrow, and the tumbling waters of the Breitach are tempting for brave, or sometimes mad, rafters.
Alpine lakes and fairytale castles
Back on the Alpine Road, we head for the neighboring health resort of Bad Hindelang, another important spa town (bad means ‘bath or ‘spa’) and drive further to Wertag and then to Nesselwang.
After Wertach we reach the Grüntensee, an ideal stop for a refreshing dive in the clear water or for a pedal boat ride. When entering the town of Nesselwang, we stop at the parking lot just before town. It’s the best place to take a picture of the authentic little town surrounded by high alpine peaks. In bad weather, you can visit the Alpspitz wave pool. The spacious sauna area there is ideal to loosen your contracted driver muscles.
Leaving Nesselwang we take the B309 and then the B310 to Fussen. Just north of Fussen, the road joins the B16 also known as the Romantic Road. We cross the bridge over the river Lech and follow the signs to Hohenschwangau / castles. Here you have the opportunity to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau Castle and the Museum of the Bavarian kings.
The neo-Gothic Schloss Hohenschwangau was built in the 19th century by Maximilian II of Bavaria. His successor, Ludwig II continued living there after the death of the old king. But in 1868, Ludwig's building anger prevailed and he ordered a new castle built on a high ledge that he had chosen. Neuschwanstein would be even bigger and more luxurious than Hohenschwangau, but the castle brought Ludwig no luck. He spent just six months in the palace, after which he drowned in suspicious circumstances.
Schloss Neuschwanstein in winter
From the hamlet of Hohenschwangau Castle, the road leads to the village of Schwangau. Here you can follow the right turn to the valley of the Tegelberg and visit the excavations of a Roman villa. A cable car takes you to the summit of 1730 m high mountain Tegel to enjoy a beautiful Alpine panorama.
Back in the valley we drive past the pilgrimage church of St. Coloman and take the B17 past the Bannwaldsee to Steingaden.
Churches and small villages
We drive through a unique landscape with lots of churches and monasteries, and a variety of recreational opportunities. Many smaller and larger lakes invite you to relax and swim. Steingaden, a small peasant and artisan village, has a famous monastery with a beautiful cloister and convent garden.
A few kilometers away from the road you can find Dominic Zimmermann’s masterpiece - the Wies Church (Wieskirche, UNESCO World Heritage). Here you can marvel at the finest Bavarian rococo, and then stop off at one of the cozy pubs. Next, we pass Wildsteig, a small mountain village a few stone throws away from the Schwaig Lake, and drive to the Echelsbach Bridge.
The Echelsbach Bridge is with 130m the longest concrete span bridge in the world and is towering 80m over the Ammer river. Just after crossing the bridge, we turn south and take the B23 towards Bayersoien. The road rises steadily until after 4km we have the first clear view of the Ammer Mountains. Of particular interest is the mountain that looks as if a giant had bitten out a large chunk of rock just where the top was supposed to be. These are the summits of Teufelstättkopf and Laubeneck.
The road is winding further down the valley, past Unterammergau, the village where there were once more than 50 whetstone makers. They must have had really sharp knives here. In Oberammergau, the next place down the road, you can spend the whole afternoon in a shop full of Christmas items, even in plain summer. 6km later we reach the end of the valley and are almost in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Bad Tölz
Spiritually and physically rejuvenated, we can permit ourselves a little self-indulgence. There is only one place for this: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany’s leading ski resort, 80kms southwest of Munich, which sits at the foot of the Zugspitze, the highest peak on our road. The two towns joined together for the 1936 Winter Olympics, and have very distinct characters; Garmisch is swanky and expensive, Partenkirchen a little cheaper and more traditionally charming.
While Garmisch is fun, no one should leave without having ascended the Zugspitze, and the journey to it is a lot of fun. A cogwheel-driven railway, the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, takes you up to the top of the Schneefern glacier, where the Schneefern cable car will transport you to the summit, and then the Eibsee cable car, with spectacular views of the Eibsee lake, will bring you down again. Be carefull and dress warmly; even in summer, a cold wind blows over the ice, and it can reach minus 30°C in winter. From the top, you can see Austria, Italy and Switzerland. You can also send a postcard from Germany’s highest post office and if you’re in romantic mood, you can even get married up there.
View on the zugspitze from Garmisch-Partenkirchen
We continue to Wallgau at the shores of the Walchensee, one of the few remaining pristine lakes in the Bavarian Alps, and a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. You can rent a boat and some fishing gear if you like, so bring your fishing license with you to show the officials. From the Walchensee we continues we drive to another lake nearby, the Kochelsee, which is connected to the Walchensee through a hydropower plant.
Shortly after this lake, the impressive onion domes of a monastery appear in the distance. The monastery village of Benediktbeuern is considered the spiritual and cultural center of the region. We’ve seen enough churches already and drive straight to Bad Tolz.
Bad Tölz is known for its spas, historic medieval town, and spectacular views of the alps. On the western bank of the Isar River lies the Kurverwaltung spa, whose iodine-rich waters are known for their soothing and healing powers. A major attraction is the Alpamare, Europe's first indoor water park with long waterslides, wave pool, a surf wave and a range of thermal outdoor pools with iodine water. Another attraction is Stadtpfarrkirche, a church built in 1466, which is an excellent example of German late-Gothic architecture.
The last part
Halfway between Bad Tolz and Berchtesgaden, we enter the Chiemgau Alps, rising up to an elevation of 1800m. Keep an eye out for Ruhpolding, Inzell and Riet im Winkl, renowned for cross country skiing, ice-skating, and downhill skiing in that order. This is Germany's hotspot for winter sports, but in summer you'll still be spoilt for choice with mountain biking and hiking trails. For the less energetic, there are 40 golf courses in and around Ruhpolding and the region is also well known for trout fishing.
Approaching Berchtesgaden, expect roadside snow (even during spring) and more precipitous scenery. Home to Germany's second tallest mountain, the Watzmann, Berchtesgaden is an apt conclusion for our mountain adventure. Berchtesgaden is not only known for the scenery however, during WWII this was Hitler’s favorite holiday destination.
The Kehlsteinhaus (better known as eagle’s nest) is a reminder of this Nazi history in the region. It was built as an extension of the Obersalzberg complex erected in the mountains above Berchtesgaden. The Kehlsteinhaus was intended as a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler to serve as a teahouse, and a place for him to entertain visiting dignitaries.
Today the building is owned by a charitable trust, and serves as a restaurant. The restaurant features an indoor dining area and an outdoor beer garden. It is a popular tourist attraction, particularly for Britons, Canadians and Americans attracted by the historical significance of the Eagle's Nest. The house can be reached on foot (two hours of walking) or by bus from Obersalzberg, the road having been closed to private vehicles since 1952.
Another attraction in the area is the Konigssee. Approx 7 km long and almost 2 km wide, it is known to be Germany's cleanest lake and has only been accessible by electric boat, foot, and rowboats since 1909. Expect breathtaking views and eerily silent crystal clear emerald waters. We couldn’t find a better way to end our trip.