The Complete Guide To: Bavaria

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From the beer halls and museums of Munich, to fairy-tale castles, to picturesque lakes, mountains and forests, Germany's southern state packs a impressive punch

IN A NUTSHELL?

The southern state of Bavaria covers almost one-fifth of Germany. If the name conjures up images of dark forests, lakes, beer halls, "mad" King Ludwig and the Alps – well, that's fairly close to the mark. The region escaped heavy bombing during the Second World War and consequently has many unspoilt towns that still have a medieval feel, with town walls encircling streets of timber-framed buildings with steeply pitched roofs covered in tiny dormer windows. It offers the best walking and cycling country in Germany and has a wealth of museums, castles and art galleries. Its capital, Munich, is said to have the best quality of life of any German city, and its excellent public transport, augmented by cycling and walking routes – some beside the river Isar – make it a pleasure to explore.

WHY NOW?

At the dot of noon on 19 September, Munich's mayor will tap the first barrel to declare open the 2009 Oktoberfest, beginning 16 days of beer and sausage consumption on an epic scale (from 9am at weekends, 10am on weekdays). This is no Camra-style beer festival – only six varieties of beer are available, served by the litre to drinkers with an apparently unquenchable thirst.

A quieter tradition is celebrated in the mountains during September, when locals dress in national costume to mark the "Viehscheid" to accompany hundreds of garlanded cows down from their summer alpine pastures. At Oberstdorf in the Allgäu, the procession is on 11 and 12 September. Beer is consumed here as well, accompanied by local food and oompah bands.

At the end of November, the Christmas Markets begin, the largest or most picturesque being found at Nuremberg, Passau, Regensburg, Ingolstadt, Kempten and Oberammergau.

Incidentally, the great demand for the 41st Oberammergau Passion Play ( oberammergau-passion.com) in 2010, from 15 May to 3 October, makes early booking advisable. The German specialist operator, Dertour (020-7290 1111; dertour. co.uk), is offering four-night packages from £829, including flights and tickets for the passion play.

WHAT CAN I SEE IN MUNICH?

The tower of the red-brick late 15th-century cathedral on Frauenplatz is the best landmark for getting your bearings. To the north-east is the vast English Garden in which Unity Mitford shot herself on the day war was declared; the riverside path extends for miles out of the city as part of the Isar Cycle Route, and the park itself is ideally explored by bike.

If you have only a day, the three Pinakothek galleries on Arcisstrasse should not be missed; the Old (Alte) Pinakothek (00 49 89 23 80 52 16; alte-pinakothek.de) displays works by old masters from the 14th to 18th centuries, and has a fine collection of paintings by Rubens. Open 10am-6pm except Monday; admission €7 (€1 on Sunday). The New (Neue) Pinakothek (00 49 89 23 80 51 95; neue-pinakothek.de) focuses on the 19th century, but spans classicism to Art Nouveau. Open 10am-6pm daily, except Tuesday; admission €7 (€1 on Sunday). The Modern Pinakothek (00 49 89 23 80 53 60; pinakothek-der-moderne.de) covers 20th- and 21st-century art, architecture and design. Open 10am-6pm daily, except Monday; admission €10 (€1 on Sunday).

Adjacent to the Pinakothek galleries is Munich's newly opened Museum Brandhorst (00 49 89 23 80 52 28 6; museum-brandhorst.de); the striking building displays modern art, notably the biggest Cy Twombly collection outside the US, and works by Warhol. Open 10am-6pm except Monday, admission €7 (€1 on Sunday).

The royal palace (the Residenz) on Max-Joseph Platz (00 49 89 29 06 71; schloesser.bayern.de) has many collections, from Egyptian art to stamps, but the highlight is the Treasury, with its exquisite examples of medieval craftsmanship. Open 9am-6pm in summer, 10am-5pm in winter, admission €6.

ROADS FOR DAWDLING?

The Germans are fond of designated tourist routes, which in Bavaria comprise stretches of the Romantic Road and the German Alpine Road. Both are designed to help tourists take in a string of exceptional towns and mountain scenery. Neither road should be rushed. The 360km Romantic Road (romanticroad.com) runs between the southern town of Füssen and Würzburg, the main city of Franconia – a sub-region of Bavaria. It passes through many sites that deserve exploration on foot

Situated on Forggensee, Füssen itself is Bavaria's highest town (808m), and a good base for visiting Ludwig II's castles. Among the Romantic Road's highlights are the fortified town of Landsberg am Lech; the ancient city of Augsburg with its fine banqueting hall and early 16th-century Fuggerei, the world's first housing settlement; the concentrically fortified Nördlingen; the splendid gabled houses and watchtowers of Dinkelsbühl; Rothenburg for Germany's best-preserved medieval old town; and the huge baroque palace at Würzburg, with its Tiepolo fresco – a World Heritage Site.

The Alpine Road runs for 450km from Lindau on Lake Constance past 25 castles, abbeys and palaces and the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Berchtesgaden on Königsee. An unusual experience is offered by the Salzbergwerk (00 49 86 52 60 02 20; salzzeitreise.de) on the outskirts of Berchtesgaden where visitors don leather vests to take a small train into a salt mine worked since 1517. Children love sliding down a chute to reach part of the mine, and there is a cable-hauled boat ride across a low-ceilinged lake. Open daily, 9am-5pm May to October, 11.30am-3pm November to April; admission €14.

WHERE ELSE?

Of Bavaria's main towns, the principal omissions bypassed by the "roads" above are Passau, Nuremberg, Regensburg and Bamberg. Passau's wonderful baroque buildings include the cathedral, with its massive 17,774-pipe organ. From the fortress-palace of the prince-bishops towering over the city (00 49 85 14 93 35 12; oberhausmuseum.de) you can see the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz. Open 9am-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-6pm at weekends, mid-March–mid-November, admission €5.

Albrecht Dürer spent most of his life in Nuremberg, and the city's German National Museum (00 49 91 11 33 10; gnm.de) has one of the best collections of his work. Located on Kartäusergasse, it is open 10am-6pm daily, except Monday, admission €6. Dürer's house, at Albrecht-Dürer-Strasse 39, where he lived from 1509 until his death in 1528, is open to visitors, 10am-5pm daily, except Monday, €5.

Located on the Danube, Regensburg has Bavaria's finest Gothic cathedral with the celebrated Domspatzen boys' choir, but the whole of the old town with its 12th-century stone bridge has been designated a World Heritage Site. In July the city's open spaces and concert venues are filled with the sounds of over 100 jazz, blues and swing bands during the Bavarian Jazz weekend.

Bamberg is worth visiting for its curious old town hall, on an island off the middle of a two-arched bridge, and its old town is another World Heritage Site. The early 17th-century New Residence (00 49 951 51 93 90; schloesser.bayern.de) impresses by its size rather than beauty, but the state rooms make up for it. Open daily, 9am-6pm April-September, 10am-4pm October-March, admission €4.

GREAT WORKS OF MAN?

Ludwig II may have been a political irrelevance by the time he ascended the Bavarian throne in 1864, but during the next 24 years he built three of the world's most recognisable buildings – and inadvertently provided an enduring stimulus to Bavarian tourism.

Near Oberammergau is the Linderhof (00 49 88 22 92 030; linderhof.de), a rococo confection set in glorious grounds. Open daily, 9am-6pm April-October, 10am-4pm, mid-October-March, €7. On the 240-hectare island of Herreninsel in Chiemsee is his version of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee (00 49 80 51 68 87 0; herren-chiemsee.de); open daily, 9am-6pm April-mid-October, 10am-4.45pm mid-October-March, €7), complete with its own Hall of Mirrors. Most notable is NeuschwansteinV CCastle (00 49 83 62 93 08 30; neuschwanstein.de) with its fairytale outline above the trees and lovely setting. Its swan grotto and ballroom decorated in a Parsifal theme reflect Ludwig's love of Wagner. Open daily, 9am-6pm April-September, 10am-4pm October-March, €9. In peak season it is advisable to pre-book timed tickets at Linderhof and Neuschwanstein.

SCHLOSS COUNTRY?

Apart from these great set pieces, and away from the Romantic Road, there are many interesting castles – such as Burghausen on the Austrian border, the country's biggest fortress and Europe's longest castle complex at 1,034m. A castle of Bavaria's great dynastic family, the Wittelsbachs, overlooks the town of Landshut; Trausnitz Castle (00 49 871 92 41 10; burg-trausnitz.de) has two vast halls, but it is the cabinet of curiosities with its stuffed Nile crocodile and parrot-shaped clock that detains most visitors. Open daily, 9am-6pm April-September, 10am-4pm October-March, admission €5.

The small schloss outside Coburg where Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was born is situated in a delightful park; the British monarch liked the Rosenau Palace (00 49 95 63 30 84 10; sgvcoburg.de) so much that she said: "If I was not what I am, this would have been my real home." Open daily, except Monday, 9am-5pm April-September, 10am-3pm October-March, €4.

BESIDE THE SEE SIDE?

Bavaria boasts about 1,600 sees (lakes), with some of the largest lying to the south of Munich including the largest, the 83 sq km Chiemsee (chiemsee.de). It is easily reached from Munich by train, including the short Chiemseebahn steam railway to the pier.

Besides Ludwig's palace on Herrenchiemsee, boats also serve the smaller island of Frauenchiemsee where the Benedictine convent does a roaring trade in the marzipan and Kloster liqueur made by the nuns. Local trains from Munich also reach the shores of Schliersee and Tegernsee, which has beaches of white sand and beech- and ash-shaded lakeside walks. The Königsee near Berchtesgaden is enclosed by craggy peaks and served by a fleet of 18 electric-powered boats.

The highest lake in Germany is the reservoir of Walchensee at 802m, set in woods near Bad Tölz. A cablecar ascends 1,000m to the summit of Herzogstand from where there are spectacular views.

The mystery of Ludwig II's death will forever surround the Starnbergersee (30 minutes from Munich on line S6) on which stood Berg Castle, inherited from his father. Was the drowning of Ludwig and his doctor in 1886 murder or suicide?

ANY FRIEDRICH-STYLE FORESTS?

The great painter of melancholic German forest scenes, Caspar David Friedrich, would have been at home in the Bavarian Forest National Park between Passau and Regensburg, the largest continuous mountain forest in central Europe, which merges into the Bohemian Forest on the other side of the Czech border. Rolling wooded hills, quiet valleys and 60 peaks over 1,000m high cover an area the size of Devon, concealing villages, ruined castles and even brown bears. It's also home to eagle owls, capercaille, hazel grouse, Eurasian Pygmy Owl, wild boar, lynx and otters.

BEST FOR HIKING AND BIKING?

Rucksacks and walking poles are common sights on trains, especially among the rolling hills of the Allgäu, south-west of Munich, which are criss-crossed by 6,000km of marked trails. Oberstdorf, Bad Hindelang and Oberstaufen are three popular walking centres, all with spas to soothe any aching muscles. The National Park has long-distance paths with accommodation en route. Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze at 2,962m is the start of an impressive descent to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, requiring some experience and a head for heights on exposed slopes.

Bavaria has many segregated cycle paths, and Munich is full of cyclists. If you hire a bike in Munich, you can take it on the train to explore the countryside or towns. Most major stations hire bikes, and tourist offices have lists of hirers.

A great way to see Munich is on a guided Mike's Bike Tour (00 49 172 852 0660; mikebike tours.com). They last four hours or a whole day and cost €24 or €49.

There are many long-distance cycle routes in Bavaria, some following rivers (guide-to-bavaria. com). The Danube Cycle Route follows the river for 434km, from Donaueschingen to Passau; while the 248km Isar Cycle Route between Lenggries and Deggendorf cuts through Munich. There's also a 150km circular route in the National Forest.

Downhill all the way

Bavaria has far more ski facilities than anywhere else in Germany. Of the state's two dozen ski resorts, the best regarded are Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Oberstdorf; both their slopes are linked with those across the border in Austria and the latter is a major centre of Nordic skiing.

One of the more perplexing issues in tourism is why the British – Europe's most enthusiastic skiers – are so averse to winter sports in Germany. Indeed, many of us fly into Munich or Friedrichshafen and transfer direct to resorts in Austria, often passing some perfectly good ski facilities within Germany – notably around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, en route between Munich and Innsbruck.

While Germany is missing from the mainstream ski operators' brochures, it is perfectly practicable to organise your own holiday, combining cheap flights (or rail travel) with accommodation at one of the many excellent family-run hotels.

Travel survival kit: Bavaria

GETTING THERE

The quickest option by rail is via Brussels and Cologne (from £128), leaving London St Pancras at 8.34am, arriving Munich 7.04pm (German Railways, 08718 80 80 66; bahn.de/db_uk).

The main airport is FJ Strauss, north-east of Munich. It has flights on Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.co.uk) from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester, with fares beginning at under £100. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, while Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) go from Gatwick; easyJet also flies from Stansted, Edinburgh and, from 6 November, Manchester. Reach the city by S-Bahn line 8 to Hauptbahnhof with a 10-day pass.

Two other gateways serve the east and west of Bavaria respectively; Salzburg (in Austria, but covered by the German Railways' Bavaria Länder ticket), which is served from Stansted by Ryanair and seasonally from other UK airports; and Memmingen, also served from Stansted by Ryanair, which interestingly calls it "Munich West"; the airport is well placed for exploring the Allgäu.

GETTING AROUND

Cycling is encouraged parallel to both tourist roads by alternative signed bike routes, largely avoiding traffic. Predictably the gradients on the Romantic Road are gentler than the Alpine Road.

If you want to stay on the rails, Germany has an extensive network. It is easy to plan car-free visits to towns and cities, and many of Bavaria's rail journeys are scenic delights. The best travel bargain in Bavaria is the Länder ticket, allowing unlimited use of non-express trains, buses and city transport all day from 9am (any time at weekends) for €19 for one traveller, or €28 for up to five – less than €6 per person. Buy it from a ticket machine at any station (buying over the counter adds a couple of euros to the price). STAYING THERE

With its 12th-century turrets, Hotel Burg Wernberg (00 49 9604 9390; burg-wernberg.de) is the epitome of a Bavarian stronghold, but now features two restaurants and romantic bedrooms; double from €199 without breakfast.

Schloss Eggersberg (00 49 9442 9187 0; schloss-eggersberg.com) is in the heart of Bavaria on the river Altmühl at Riedenburg. Built around 400 years ago, the gabled castle has a terrace restaurant with great views; doubles from €85 with breakfast.

For a waterside retreat on Chiemsee, the chalet-style Landgasthof Lambach (00 49 8667 87990; hotel-lambach.de) has its own beach and linden-tree shaded beer garden. Doubles from €110, including breakfast.

Those in search of historic places to stay, perhaps hosting activities such as painting or sculpture classes, can find some among the Sightsleeping hotels (bayern.by).

EATING AND DRINKING

Many consider Bavarian food the best in Germany. Meat is king: venison and boar cooked with wild fruits, white sausage (weisswurst) and Jägerschnitzel, a cutlet in mushroom sauce. Also common are salads made from marinated boiled potatoes (Kartoffelsalat), typical Bavarian soup with a pork-liver dumpling (Leberknödelsuppe), pork served in slices with gravy, accompanied by dumplings (Schweinsbraten) and apple strudel (Münchner Apfelstrudel).

Bavaria's reputation for excellent beer is based on centuries of devotion to the amber nectar. Some beers originated in monastic brewhouses, and there are over 600 breweries in the state. Munich's largest temple to beer is the Hofbräuhaus (Platz 9); a more authentic experience can be had at Neuhauser Strasse 27, in the Augustiner-Gastätte, owned by the oldest brewery.

The only part of Bavaria that produces wine is Franconia around Würzburg. Most are dry whites made from a single grape variety using Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Kerner and Riesling grapes. Red wine accounts for less than 20 per cent of the area. The best wines are to be found in the distinctive rounded and flattened Bocksbeutel.

MORE INFORMATION

German Tourist Office (020 7317 0908; germany-tourism.co.uk).

Bavaria Tourist Office (00 49 8921 23970; bayern.by).

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