It used to be that virtually all my “holidays” involved being on a mission of some kind or other; whether it was exploring a new part of the world by bike, going on a mountain trek or on a badly planned kayaking adventure in hostile weather conditions. Having itchy feet is not something easily cured.
However these days I’m feeling my age somewhat and experiencing something relatively new; the dreaded and unchartered waters of the family holiday ! With small kids, finding a base that suits everyone’s needs becomes the determining factor when planning a break. This is not always as easy as it sounds.
The Karwendel Region, however, straddling the border between Bavaria and Tyrol really does seem to offer everything that we could ask for; whether its mountain walks, al-fresco swimming, playparks or city tours. We spent 2 great weeks there, last summer and will be heading back again that way soon. Here are a few of the memorable places we found, many of them by accident…
Base Camp: Krün
We based ourselves in the laid back alpine resort of Krün which is located approximately 20km East of Garmisch Patenkirchen in the broad green valley of the River Isar. Krün is a charming place with traditional flower bedecked chalets, a baroque church (my son who is a fan of such things) and a great network of trails for cycling and walking branching off in all directions towards neighbouring peaks and lakes.
For kiddies there is also a fabulous new play park down by the river with a watery theme which will keep children absorbed for hours. Best of all for me were the striking views of the Karwendel Alps , especially as the evening sun casts its last rays on the peaks.
Herzogstand and the Walchensee
Just South of Krün is the Walchensee, one of Bavaria’s largest and most beautiful lakes. The water is a fantastic turquoise colour and the lake is popular for all manner of watersports, particularly sail-boarding with strong and reliable wind conditions. We also went for a swim in the Walchensee but found the water a bit on the chilly side. However, there are numerous other smaller lakes for swimming round about where the water temperature is much warmer.
Towering above the Walchensee is the mountain of Herzogstand (1731m) a favourite mountain of the eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II. You can take a cable car part way up and from then on up it’s a slow plod for another hour or so to the top to the pavilion on the summit which was originally constructed by Ludwig II.
The views from the top are fabulous, especially as you’re right on the edge of the Alps and can look across the flat plains towards Munich on one hand or across the dramatic limestone peaks of the Karwendel and Wetterstein Ranges to the South (including the Zugspitz, Germany’s highest mountain at 2962m). Remarkably my daughter made it to the summit on her own accord; something that she is still very proud of. There is a fantastic, airy, ridge walk to the neighbouring peak of Heimgarten. This is an adventure for another day without kids.
Along the Isar to Eng Alm
The crystal clear river Isar flows NE from Krün and the neighboring village of Wallgau before passing through a steep forested valley reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies (without the grizzlies). This beautiful section of the river down as far as the Sylvensteinsee apparently makes for a great canoe trip (I’ll have to try it some time) though the flow of the river is normally greatly reduced due to hydro abstraction further upstream.
At Vorderiß the Rißtal joins the main valley and it’s possible to turn South and follow the long “no through” road along the Rißbach towards the hamlet of Eng which is famous for its extensive areas of alpine meadows and unique sycamore woodlands. You soon pass into the Austrian province of Tyrol and shortly after that enter the Alpineparc Karwendal; a protected wilderness area of 920 square km featuring some of the best mountain scenery in the Northern Limestone Alps including extensive areas of alpine meadows. The Park is home to Ibex, chamoix, golden eagles, marmots and a whole host of other spectacular fauna and flora.
Eng Alm is an alpine hamlet straight out of a Heidi story with its collection of old traditional houses and barns. It is still worked as a traditional alpine meadow and is a great place to watch farmers at work tending “the coos” for production of distinctive local cheeses and dairy products. Kids will love it; we found our two were fascinated just to watch the cows coming in for milking; a rare sight for those brought up in the days of factory farming and supermarkets. Despite the fascination of watching cows, Zoe and Kai always manage to find a play area, even in the most unlikely of locations (ho,hum).
Flower Power Bavarian Style
Heading back down the Rißtal we found a particularly cool place to eat out and sample some traditional Bavarian food. I liked the unusual style of the place; an eclectic blend of Bavarian Kitsch, 60s “Flower Power”, Easter Island ancestor worship and Appalachian hillbilly; a rare combination indeed !
We were the only guests; fortunately the natives were friendly (an old Austrian couple) and it was great to sit out amongst the flowers on the terrace surrounded by stunning mountain views. Definitely a good place to go back too sometime and fortunately not a banjo in sight (for those who’ve ever seen the film “Deliverance”).
In the Buchelwiesen
South of Krün there is a remarkable landscape left behind by glacial moraines called the “Buckelwiesen”. These rolling drumlins are now converted to soft pastures and are a brilliant green that could be straight out of a “Dulux” paint commercial. They are also very species-rich and support lots of interesting flowers as well as being a rare surviving example of an important cultural landscape based on meadow management. Apparently the Nazis had big plans to grub up the buckelwiesen and to create a planned super-settlement; fortunately (like many of their other heinous plans) this one never got off the ground.
You can walk or cycle along the ridge crest through the buckelwiesen from Krün for several km enjoying great mountain views of the Karwendal. In addition it’s possible to visit various “farm tourism” outlets including the Gaos-Alm, a fascinating goat ranch featuring yet another cool and unique al-fresco eatery. Once again Zoe and Kai made a beeline for the play park and discovered a trampoline with a view…
The historic village of Mittenwald is the main centre in the area and is located in a deep valley flanked on either side by the steep slopes of the Karwendel and Wetterstein ranges. The town is famous for its long tradition of violin making and impressive, painted building facades. Goethe described the pretty town as being a “living picture book” and this certainly remains true to this day. The town is a pleasant and relaxed place with laid-back cafes and bars down the main street in which to unwind.
Mittenwald was also historically an important location on the Transalpine Route and became a significant centre for the trade and exchange of goods. The town has hosted the historic Balanzo Market since the middle ages whereby craft products from Italy were brought to new markets to the North of the Alps. The Balanzo market is still held in the town every 4 years but is somewhat more touristy these days than it used to be.
From Mittenwald you can take the Karwendalbahn cable car up to near the summit of the Westliche Kawendalspitze (2384m). The views from the top are fantastic and it’s an easy walk from there up to the start of the Mittenwalder Klettersteig. The Klettersteig itself is an airy (though well protected) traverse over several mountain summits which are all over 2300m in height. It’s a classic route and the views in every direction are sensational. You definitely need a head for heights for this one though !
Just South of Mittenwald is the dramatic Leutsacher Geisterklamm where in recent years an exciting 800 metal walkway (including a series of suspended “panorama” bridges) has been created along the side of the steep gorge. The route is well protected and is therefore fine for taking kids along (vertigo aside), as well as offering great views down over the gorge to the river far beneath. The trail is themed around a mountain spirit which was reputed to dwell in the gorge. Despite this, it’s not too kitsch at all and (even better) doesn’t cost anything to visit.
The Kranzberg, located West of Mittenwald, is another good place to explore and is accessed by an old, rustic chairlift. It is a great location to go walking or to simply idle about enjoying mountain cafes amongst the woods and meadows. At the top of the chairlift is the well-known “barefoot walk” which allows you to take off your shoes and to get muddy by negotiating a route of a kilometre or so over various obstacles, textured surfaces and constructions. Once you’ve got your boots back on, you can also walk from the Kranzberg down through the forests to the Lautersee; a great spot for swimming (but also very popular and a little bit too crowded for our tastes).
Within a Stones throw
You don’t have to go far from Krün in any direction though to find great things to do. We found the Barmsee, just a couple of kilometres away from the village made an ideal place for swimming. There is no road access there, which fortunately helps to keep the place a bit quieter and there are excellent trails for walking and cycling around the lake.
On the other side of Krün, a bridge over the river Isar (opposite the village) takes you straight onto an extensive network of alpine trails which provide access into the high mountain country east of the village; including the Soiernspitze Range which encircles two beautiful high lakes.
There are numerous other trails which take you up through the alpine meadows and onto the rocky peaks. I’s a long, hard graft to get up to the treeline but well worth it in the end. For those seeking easier access to high places its possible to catch the “Alm Bus”, a minibus service providing access to Krüner and Wallgau Alm to the West of Krün.
And a City Break thrown in
Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol is located on the Southern boundary of the Karwendel range and for a change of scenery and pace makes for another good day trip. Located at the confluence of the Inn and Sill rivers, the City has a long tradition stretching back to Roman times. Innsbruck is known as a major tourism and winter sports destination and its possible to catch a cable car from the suburbs and be up in the mountains within 45 minutes or so.
You can get a train there direct from Mittenwald, the historic line wending its way through Seefeld and other smaller mountain villages before descending steeply down to the Inn Valley. In no time at all your into a “big city” environment with museums, galleries and cafes (not to mention lots of tourists !).
Something for Everyone
Whilst the Karwendel Alps might not be one of the “ultimate” alpine adventure destinations (like Zermatt, Grindelwald or Chamonix), for my mind its all the better for that. We found there is more than enough there to do there and sufficient challenge to keep all the family occupied for a couple of weeks or more amidst a backdrop of spectacular alpine scenery.
The Karwendel benefits from being relatively laid-back, uncrowded and has managed to preserve much of it’s strong sense of regional identity whilst also offering all the facilities you could need. Compared with many parts of the alps, the area has also not suffered too from a construction boom of intrusive concrete developments such as shopping malls, theme parks and transport infrastructure, the emphasis instead being on local design and quality construction. In short this is Bavaria at its best and we’ll certainly be heading back this way again.
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