The Complete Guide To: Bavaria

Romantic castles and fairy-tale forests, medieval towns and villages, brown bears and golden beer - Germany's southern state has got it all, says Anthony Lambert

IN A NUTSHELL?

The southern state of Bavaria covers almost a fifth of Germany and conjures up images of dark forests, lakes, beer halls, "mad" King Ludwig and the Alps. 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 steep pitched roofs. It offers the best walking and cycling country in Germany, and a wealth of museums and galleries. Its capital, Munich, is said to have the best quality of life of any German city, and its excellent tram and U-Bahn system, and cycle and walking routes - some beside the river Isar - make it a pleasure to explore.

WHY NOW?

A good reason to start your visit in Munich is the biennial national garden festival (00 49 89 41 2005 41; www.buga2005.de), which opened on Thursday on the site of the city's old airport. Until 9 October, the landscaped park of 30,000 trees will have 25 changing displays with millions of flowers. For children, there are activities and playgrounds and swimming in the self-cleaning lake. Needless to say, there will be beer gardens galore. The festival is a 12-minute ride from the city centre on subway U2/U7 to Messestadt West. Open 9am to sunset, admission €14 (£10) adults, €3 (£2.15) children (includes travel on the underground).

WHAT CAN I SEE IN MUNICH?

The red-brick late-15th-century cathedral on Frauenplatz is a good place to orient oneself. To the north-east is the vast English Garden in which Unity Mitford shot herself on the day war was declared; it extends for miles out of the city. If you have only a day, the three Pinakothek galleries on Arcisstrasse should not be missed; the Old (Alte) Pinakothek displays works by old masters from the 14th-18th centuries, and has a fine collection of Rubens. Open 10am-5pm except Sunday, admission €5 (£3.50). The royal palace (the Residenz) on Max-Joseph-Platz 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-4pm in winter; admission €8 (£6).

TIME TO HIT THE ROAD

Two "roads", the Romantic Road and the German Alpine Road, have been devised to help tourists take in a string of exceptional towns and mountain scenery. Neither road should be rushed. The 360km Romantic Road ( www.romanticroad.com) runs between the southern town of Füssen and Franconia's principal city, Würzburg. It passes through many places deserving exploration on foot. Situated on Forgensee, Füssen itself is Bavaria's highest town and a good base for exploring 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 Nordlingen, with its museum devoted to the nearby crater caused 15 million years ago by a meteorite a kilometre wide; the splendid gabled houses and watchtowers of Dinkelsbühl; Rothenburg for Germany's best-preserved medieval old town; and the vast baroque palace at Würzburg, with its Tiepolo fresco - a World Heritage Site.

The Alpine Road ( www.german-alpine-road.de) runs for almost 600km from Lindau on Lake Constance past Ludwig II's castles, the 1936 Olympic skiing resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berchtesgaden with its lakes, to Bad Reichenhall, founded on salt springs that fed into a saltworks with marble-lined passages, now a museum.

WHAT DO THE 'ROADS' BYPASS?

Of Bavaria's towns, the principal omissions are Passau, Nuremberg and Bamberg. Passau's wonderful baroque buildings include the cathedral, with its massive 17,774-pipe organ (daily concerts at noon). From the fortress-palace of the prince-bishops towering over the city you can see the confluence of three rivers. Open mid-March-October, 9am-5pm, admission €5 (£3.50).

Albrecht Dürer spent most of his life in Nuremberg, and the city's German National Museum has one of the best collections of his work. Located on Kartausergasse, it is open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, admission €5 (£3.50). Dürer's house, at Albrecht-Dürer Strasse 31, is also open to visitors, 10am-5pm daily except Monday, €5 (£3.50).

Bamberg is worth visiting for its curious old town hall, sited on an island off the middle of a two-arched bridge, and its old town is a World Heritage Site. The exterior of the early-17th-century New Residence impresses by its size rather than beauty, but the state rooms make up for it. Open 9am-6pm in summer, 10am-4pm in winter; admission €4 (£3). There is little to see at Oberammergau unless it is Passion-play time; the next is in 2010.

MUST I GO BY CAR?

No. Cycling is feasible on the Romantic Road as its gradients are much gentler than the Alpine Road. And if you want to stay on the rails, Germany has an extensive and efficient network, Deutsche Bahn, which has a helpful UK office (08702 43 53 63; www.bahn.co.uk). So it is easy to plan a car-free visit to towns and cities. Predictably, many of Bavaria's railway journeys are scenic delights, notably Munich-Lindau and Munich-Garmisch-Partekirchen, from where it is worth making a visit across the Austrian border to Innsbruck for the dizzying descent along the flank of the Inn valley.

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, which attract millions of visitors every year. Near Oberammergau is the Linderhof, a rococo confection based on Ludwig I's hunting lodge, set in glorious grounds. Open 9am-6pm in summer, 10am-4pm in winter, €7 (£5) (00 49 88 22 92 03 49; www.linderhof.de). On the 240-hectare island of Herreninsel in Chiemsee is his version of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee (9am-6pm; admission €3-€7/ £2-£5), complete with its own Hall of Mirrors (00 49 80 51 68 87 0; www.herren-chiemsee.de). Most famous is Neuschwanstein Castle (00 49 83 62 93 98 80; www.neuschwanstein.de), with its fairy-tale outline above the trees and lovely setting. Its swan grotto and ballroom decorated to a Parsifal theme reflect Ludwig's love of Wagner. Open 8.30am-5.30pm in summer, 10am-4pm in winter, €8 (£6).

OTHER CASTLES WORTH VISITING?

Away from the Romantic Road there are many other interesting castles, such as Burghausen on the Austrian border, the country's biggest fortress, developed to withstand a Turkish incursion. The small schloss outside Coburg where Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was born is situated in a delightful park; Victoria liked the Rosenau Palace (00 49 95 63 30 84 10; www.sgvcoburg.de) so much that she said: "If I was not what I am, this would have been my real home." Open 9am-6pm in summer, 10am-4pm in winter; admission €6 (£4).

WATER, WATER ANYWHERE?

South of Munich lie over 20 sees (lakes), ranging from the tiny and remote Haslachersee, to Chiemsee with its 10 ships. The latter is easily reached from Munich by train ( www.herren-chiemsee.de), including the short Chiemseebahn steam railway to the pier. Königsee near Berchtesgaden is enclosed by craggy peaks and served by a fleet of 21 electric-powered boats. The highest lake in Germany is the reservoir of Walchensee at 802m, set in woods near Bad Tölz. A cable car 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? We will probably never know.

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 (3,280ft) high cover 6,000 square kilometres, concealing villages, ruined castles and even brown bears.

WHERE IS BEST FOR HIKING?

Rucksacks and walking poles are common sights on trains, and the rolling hills of the Allgäu, south-west of Munich, are criss-crossed by 6,000km of marked trails. The National Park has long-distance trails with accommodation en route.

AND CYCLING?

There are plenty of cycle paths and it's easy to hire a bike. If you hire one 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 89 24 54 99 88; www.mikesbiketours.com). They last four or seven hours and cost €22 (£16) or €33 (£24). There are many long-distance cycle routes in Bavaria, some following rivers (00 49 94 15 85 390; www.bayernbike.de). 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.

I'M ONLY HERE FOR THE BEER

Bavaria's fame for beer is based on centuries of devotion to the amber nectar. Some local beers originated in monastic brewhouses, and there are 629 breweries in the state. Among the strictly governed styles are wheat beers (Hefeweizen and Kristallweizen) and the strong March beer (Marzen). Munich's largest temple to beer, the Hofbraühaus (Platzl 9), also has live folk music; a more authentic experience can be had at Neuhauser Strasse 27, in the Augustiner-Gastätte, owned by the oldest brewery. Although the Oktoberfest (17 September-3 October, 10.30am-11.30pm) attracts over six million visitors to Munich, it is no Camra-style beerfest - only six varieties of beer are available.

WHAT'S GOOD TO EAT?

Many consider Bavarian food the best in Germany. Meat is king: venison and boar cooked with wild fruits, white sausages, pork roasted in beer sauce, and Jägerschnitzel, a cutlet in mushroom sauce. Dumplings are also a speciality. A phrase book is useful - restaurants seldom have bilingual menus.

I WANT A RURAL RETREAT

With its 12th-century turrets, Hotel Burg Wernberg (00 49 9604 9390; www.burg-wernberg.de) is the epitome of a Bavarian stronghold, but now features two restaurants and romantic bedrooms; doubles from €157 (£112) without breakfast. Schloss Eggersberg is in the heart of Bavaria on the river Altmuhl at Riedenburg; built c1600, the gabled castle has a terrace restaurant with great views, and you can even borrow a horse; doubles from €70 (£50) with breakfast. For a waterside retreat on Chiemsee, the chalet-style Landgasthof Lambach (00 49 8667 87990; www.hotel-lambach.de) has its own beach and linden tree-shaded beer garden.

HOW CAN I GET THERE?

Lufthansa (0870 833 0340; www.lufthansa.co.uk) flies to Munich from Heathrow (from £98), Birmingham (from £143) and Manchester (from £134). British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow (from £99), Gatwick (from £69) and Bristol (from £139). EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies to Munich from Stansted (from £40.98). Reach the city by S-Bahn line 8 to Hauptbahnhof with a €9 day pass. The cheapest option by rail is via Brussels and Cologne (from £152), leaving Waterloo at 8.39am, arriving Munich at 8.30pm (Deutsche Bahn 08702 43 53 63; www.bahn.co.uk). All prices are for return flights inclusive of taxes.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE DETAILS?

German National Tourist Office (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.co.uk). Bavaria Tourist Office (00 49 89 21 23 970; www.bavaria.by).

AN OPERA-LOVER'S MECCA

Richard Wagner himself had the wedge-shaped Festival House built in Bayreuth where his operas are still celebrated at an annual festival directed by his descendants. This year Tristan, Holländer, Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Lohengrin are being performed, from 25 July to 28 August (00 49 921 78 78 0; www.bayreuther-festspiele.de). The use of wood inside the auditorium makes for superb acoustics.

Since 1875, the Munich Opera Festival has presented a very broad repertoire. Held between 27 June and 31 July in the National Theatre on Max-Joseph-Platz (00 49 89 21 85 19 20; www.muenchner-opern-festspiele.de), a post-war reconstruction of the neoclassical 1818 original, the festival this year is staging 18 productions by 12 composers, from Cavalli to Handel to Britten. Tickets cost €3-€240.

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