The sizzling plate of my beloved spaetzle with a side of vegetables and seared pork cutlets finally arrived at my table. The eight-and-a-half hour drive had left my tastebuds well-prepared for the salty Bavarian cooking, and the first bite of the succulent pork brought a wave of umami-esque chills throughout my nervous system. I sipped the Wieninger beer, delighting in that crisp goldeness that is German pilsner, although mildly disappointed that a traditional restaurant with a name like Brenner Bräu didn’t have their own beer.
An oompah band set up and started playing shortly after beginning my meal, serenading my internal thoughts about the next day’s hike. My eyes scanned the environment, wordlessly soaking in the atmosphere, drawing every vibe out of the moment, moving from the architecture, the band, the people and the din of overlaying conversations, taking note of the scrumptious looking dishes whisking by in the waitresses’ hands, and then into the scenery and back. I admired the mountains in the distance several times with a generic reverence, but at some point after my meal as I was nursing a Wieninger Weißbier, something caught my eye. I got up from my table and walked to the edge of the terrace for a better look. Had I been looking at it this whole time? Cursing myself for not bringing the good camera and relying on my cellphone. When I zoomed in, my jaw dropped. Yes I had. There it was. As impressive and imposing as I had read about. Tomorrow’s hike destination.
Better known as Hitler’s Eagles Nest.
One of the most unnerving footages of Hitler that you will ever see is not one of his despotic speeches in front of a sea of mesmerized people and Nazi flags, but one taken in the sunshine where he is smiling, talking to a child, playing with a dog, while his mistress Eva Braun sunbathes against the back drop of the German Alps. To view Hitler with any sort of humanity goes against nature. It makes you want to look away and do a quick brain reset. Such is the chilling fascination inflicted by the home videos of Hitler visiting his mountain fortress retreat on the Kehlstein mountain.
The Kehlsteinhaus was built for Hitler between 1937-1939, making it an authentic Nazi-era building. The more commonly used name of “Eagle’s Nest” or Aldershorst was ironically christened by the French Ambassador in 1938, one year before France declared war on Germany. It was used as a place for Hitler to entertain other European leaders and do Nazi things. Today it serves a much better and moral purpose for hikers, beer lovers, and people who enjoy riding a bus up nail-biting hairpin turns.
76 years before this American blazed a trail up the Kehlstein mountain, some other Americans sauntered into the neighborhood. Below the Kehlstein mountain sits the beautiful Bavarian city of Berchtesgaden, one of the two German place names along with Neuschwanstein, where even when I pronounce it correctly, it never feels like I pronounce it correctly. Berchtesgaden in May 1945 was not just any picturesque village. The entire area with it’s plethora of salt mines was where the Nazis stashed most of their loot, including priceless art stolen from museums around Europe. By the time the Americans, British and French were approaching, the war was essentially over. Tired, war-hardened, vengeful U.S. soldiers from the Normandy Invasion and the campaigns in North Africa and Italy were about to converge and be unleashed on the Nazi horde of riches.
Two popular books which recount this moment are The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose. Neither agree on who arrived first.
First Battalion entered Berchtesgaden at 3:58pm on May 3, 1945 followed two minutes later by the Third Battalion.The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel
(My Note: Both were part of the Seventh Infantry Regiment in the Third Infantry Division of the Seventh Army coming up from Italy who had captured Munich and toured Dachau.)
Everybody wanted to get there — French advancing side by side with the 101st, British coming up from Italy, German leaders who wanted to get their possessions, and every American in Europe.
Easy Company got their first.
The following morning, May 5, with Easy Company leading the way, the 2nd Battalion rode unopposed to Berchtesgaden and took the town without having to fire a shot.Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose
Wikipedia, the great settler of all disputes, seems to give the nod to the 7th Infantry Regiment for Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest to the 101st Airborne (Easy Company).
One thing that is not in dispute is that the soldiers took advantage of what the Nazis left behind and had themselves a week of festive drunken looting, despite orders to go “on the wagon” for one week. Yeah, right.
Soon, the men of the Seventh Infantry Regiment were rolling giant wheels of cheese down the streets and helping themselves to Göring’s personal collection of liquor from his nearby house, which numbered 16,000 bottles.The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel
Ambrose puts the total at 10,000 bottles.
One thing that cannot be disputed by either author is that 76 years after the jubilant events of May 1945…
I was finally arriving late to the party.
|Starting Point||Hofbräuhaus Berchtesgaden|
|My Total/Moving Time||7h35m / 5h20m|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
By the time I showed up, regretably there was nothing left of Göring’s liquor stash. Not even a Rembrandt lying around. However, Berchtesgaden does still have it’s brewery, Hofbräuhaus Berchtesgaden, which has existed since 1645. Don’t mistake it though for a touristy franchise of Hofbräu München. The prefix Hof refers to it’s origins as a brewery commissioned by the State, in this case the Prince-Provost of Berchtesgaden. It has no affliation with the other Hofbräus.
The brewery is a good launching point for the assault up the Kehlstein. Whether I was following in the footsteps of the 101st Airborne or the 7th Infantry, it was a moment I had long waited for.
One of the things I discovered… twice… on this hike was that the bus roads are not your back-up plan if segments of the trail are blocked due to lebensgefahr… risk of death. The roads have little to no room for both vehicles and humans. So if you are forced to detour using a bus road, as Gandalf the Grey once said…
Run, you fools!
The first encounter with Death was avoided, thankfully due to a segment of road which was a bit wider than one I would encounter later. Finding my way back to a trail, I continued my detour back towards the peak.
Don’t let the pretty trail fool you. I would discover a particular characteristic of the trails here in Berchtesgaden. They are swarming with ants. The photos that I took on the way up had to be strategically planned because if I stopped for too long, it was inevitable to find one or two crawling up my leg. I don’t know if this is normal or if the 101st Airborne simply left a trail of candy. But I have never seen anything like it.
After braving the insect world, I finally arrived at the entrance to the elevator shaft which Hitler and others used to reach the Kehlsteinhaus. This is also where the busses turn around. I, however, preferred to take the winding path.
Along the final stretch of path, the view opens wide.
And right near the top, a Poplar Admiral.
The biergarten was totally mobbed with people probably all finishing off the last of Hitler’s Champagne, so I had to be content to eat some nuts and drink tepid sugar water from my water bottle while jealously and frustratingly keeping my distance. Curse all those busses. But what a view!
Up on top, you can get a good view of the nearby Königsee which would factor in to the activities of the next couple days.
On the hike back down, I also encountered Death once again and was forced to run down a segment of road, while listening for the sound of an approaching bus motor, to reach a trail which would take me down a different way than I came up.
Eventually I returned back to the Hofbräuhaus to ponder my near death experiences and bask in the memory of that week in May 1945, when my American brethren made complete nuisances of themselves.
I promised myself I wouldn’t mention COVID anymore in my blog posts. I am fairly certain everyone is sick of that term, and I think the impact it has had on our lives and travels is self-explanatory. However this was my first solo trip outside Belgium since the Summer of 2020, and I decided to return to my roots by ditching the hotel room comfort and pitching a tent. I suppose in this case, mentioning COVID helps to understand the need I felt to avoid the complete commercial experience of travel. Despite the annoyance of waking up at 3am having to pee, and the sound of unzipping your tent registering like an earthquake around the quiet campground, then trudging in dew-soaked sandals in the cold alpine air towards the bathroom, every footfall on the stones like an avalanche pummeling the valley, or brushing your teeth next to a pot-bellied dude who has no qualms about standing less than 1.5 meters away from you in his underwear, or the dice rolls from a game being played in the camper next to you sounding like someone perpetually scraping the last bit of yogurt from the bottom of a plastic yogurt cup… despite all of that inconvenience, there was a sense of returning to one’s childhood, of pinching yourself and being reminded of being alive, free, not being limited to four walls and a door.
I have been to the Normandy beaches. I have been to Bastogne. Berchtesgaden stood for a long time as the glaring omission in my WWII travel experiences. It was the perfect awakening, the exhilarating rebirth into the world, where copious new pilgrimages still await.
You can’t imagine what power we had. Whatever we wanted, we just took.Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose
That quote came from Major Winters, a teetotaller who is credited with discovering Göring’s liquor collection and ordering a futile week long alcohol ban. Can you imagine surviving the beach landings at Normandy, the Winter of 1944 in Bastogne, and the march thru a hostile but defeated Germany to find yourself surrounded by the beauty of the German Alps and booze?
But surviving the pandemic and enjoying the German Alps with Hofbräuhaus Berchtesgaden beer will just have to do.