Nights are drawing in and the first serious gales and rain of autumn announce that winter is not too far around the corner. Although there has been a bit of an Indian summer here, in general July and August were pretty unsettled months here in this corner of North West Europe. We made our annual pilgrimage to the Alps and managed to snatch a few good, fine days in between the wet ones. The highlight however for me was surely climbing the peak of the Schöttlkarspitze (2050m), a lofty vantage point high above the Isar Valley and favourite of haunt of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
I set off with Sophie (a family member from Karlsruhe) on a beautiful morning from the alpine village of Krün, crossing the river Isar over the walkers bridge and heading up through the thick spruce forest towards the Schöttlarkarspitze. The Soiernseen, two stunning Emerald lakes located below the peak, were our first objective. This was a popular haunt of King Ludwig II and it was here that he constructed a mountain hut called the Soiernhaus in 1870, on a site overlooking the lakes.
The Soiernhaus is now used as a walkers refuge. I’d once tried to get there a few years ago but retreated after an attack of vertigo on the notorious Lakaiensteig, a treacherous traverse constructed by Ludwig to allow his servants quick access to the hut (to get the dinner on !). This time however we were prepared and I avoid taking the turn off for the “Steig” at Fischbachalm, favouring instead the main path. We made good progress and were soon sitting on the terrace of the Soiernhaus, overlooking the lakes and enjoying a welcome “pint” of Radler to rehydrate.
Ludwig, with his wayward and bohemian lifestyle, has been described as somewhat of the Michael Jackson of his day and his time spent at the Soiernhaus was no exception to this. The eccentric monarch set up a floating stage on the upper lake for theatrical productions and firework displays and he spent many moonlit nights there rowing around the lakes in specially imported dragon boats. In particular Ludwig was a big fan and patron of the composer Wagner and he no doubt viewed the Soiern lakes as the perfect backdrop for operatic performance.
Refreshed after a brief stop at the Hut, we headed off up the steep trail towards our goal of the Schöttlkarspitze summit. The trail becomes increasingly steep with a few short exposed sections. After a tough grind up the slopes we were soon on the narrow summit ridge with tremendous views opening up in all directions, including to the Zugspitz, (Germany’s highest peak at nearly 3000m), the brooding limestone Karwendel Alps, the Starnberg lake, the Walchensee and the distant snowy peaks of Tyrol South of the Inn valley.
After a few short scrambles over loose boulders we soon reached the summit itself and took time to enjoy the fabulous panorama. It was the view here that also attracted King Ludwig and he even had a pavilion constructed here so he could enjoy his tea and quiet evenings amidst the solitude of the mountains. The so-called “Belvedere” was burned down in the 1930s and now only the small platform which it occupies now survives on the precipitous summit.
Shortly after our arrival on the summit, two thrill seekers appeared from apparently out of nowhere, carrying mountain bikes and started to get ready for a daredevil descent of the ridge. Donning knee pads and helmets (and taking the air out of their tyres to increase friction) they were soon ready and set off slowly and painstakingly downhill with an appreciative audience fixated on their every hop, skip and treacherous move; indeed one miscalculation and they would be hurtling over the precipice and into the abyss. I was pretty gob-smacked with this amazing bit of precision biking (though having since seen stunt cyclist Danny McAskill’s film the “Ridge”, I realise this is pretty tame in the world of extreme downhill mountain biking !).
Devoid of MTBs (thankfully !) and with slightly less of a lemming instinct we gingerly picked our way back down the narrow summit ridge before heading down the long winding trail passed the lakes. It wasn’t long before we were descending through colourful alpine meadows and wood pastures toward the Heidi style Fischbachalm where we stopped off for more refreshments (Kaffee und Kuchen) in a cosy mountain café which offers a remarkably diverse and good value menu. Exhausted mountain bikers and trekkers chill out there amongst equally lacklustre cows, their bells tinkling jovially through the meadows.
The final stage down through the woods to Krün was a hard plod but there was much beauty amongst the spruce and pine trees, including an exceptional variety of mosses and lichens on the forest floor and an eclectic array of day-glow fungi clinging to deadwood piles. Unlike forests in many other countries (including some in Scotland), these forests are managed sustainably with virtually continuous cover of trees throughout the woodland. Younger trees are encouraged through the process of natural regeneration and these are then able to fill the gaps left in the canopy when the taller trees are felled for timber extraction. I also loved the numerous neat, little stacks of firewood dotted along the side of the track, which also provided a micro habitat for fauna and flora.
As dusk approached, a fine iridescent mist hung over the Isar Valley lit by shafts of low level sunlight. Views opened out to the distant peaks of the Wetterstein range and the Zugspitz. The sun went down, leaving an eerie and atmospheric alpenglow which illuminated the landscape of forest, hills and distant peaks. As we looked out across the village of Krün, the welcoming lights of inns and holiday chalets twinkled invitingly in the gathering gloom, heralding our return home.
Although the ascent of the Schöttlkarspitze was the literal high point of the summer, we enjoyed another ten days or so in the Karwendel Alps, albeit in fairly mixed weather. Despite this we were able to go swimming in the beautiful Barmsee (a favourite spot) and make many excursions on mountain bikes along the Isar Valley which is great cycling territory.
I’d also read that the descent of the river Isar by canoe from Krün to The Sylvensteinstausee made for a great excursion and with this in mind I’d brought my touring kayak from Aachen. The problem was when we first arrived that the river looked frighteningly high for an attempt due to heavy summer rainfall over the headwaters in the Karwendel mountains. Concerned about the danger of being caught by submerged obstacles and overhanging trees, I delayed the voyage until water levels had subsided to what I deemed to be a safe level. At last the day I arrived and with a tinge of excitement I hauled my boat into the water at Krün and set off downstream; no more ranging torrent, however, I still got more than I bargained for !
Initially, the experience was fun; though the channel was narrow in places and a little bit of a scrape at times. Continuing down below the bridge after Wallgau however, the water level dropped significantly as the stream bed widened out over large expanses of gravel. I had to get out the boat more and more frequently and wade sections of river, hauling the canoe behind me. Finally rounding a corner, the Isar all but disappeared under the gravel, leaving a meagre and unnavigable trickle in its place. This was a problem I had not envisaged; from raging torrent to mere trickle over just a few hours (The problem largely being the result of water abstraction for hydro power upstream from Krün and the diversion of much of the Isar’s flow into the Walchensee).
There was no option but to abandon the voyage, requiring an awkward and exhausting portage to the nearest road. This literally meant hauling the boat through a dense thicket and up a steep wooded bank; no mean feat it turned out. From there I was able to summon Martina and the kids (my back up crew) who found me dishevelled, scratched and licking my wounds by the roadside.
I decided to give up on the Isar after this and headed for the Walchensee later that day, one of Bavaria’s largest and least commercialised lakes which is set amidst a fantastic backdrop of peaks. The Walchensee experience, happily, more than made up for the disappointment of the disappearing river Isar and I enjoyed an invigorating paddle around the lake in the super afternoon sunshine while Sophie with my daughter Zoe bravely went for a swim (it’s not so warm). Later on we took another trip with my 4-year-old son Kai as a passenger who seemed quite unphased and at ease with the whole adventure.
Being a visitor in Bavaria though also means finding time just to chill out and enjoy some of the fine hospitality on offer. There is not much better than sitting outside at a local restaurant and taking time to enjoy the local cuisine amidst the beautiful landscape of forest-clad hills. Our kids also got into the spirit of things and went native in dirndle and lederhosen. They were very proud but I haven’t seen these being worn lately in Aachen.
All too quickly though, it was time to head back North and to pick up the normal routines again. Already I’m looking forward to my next visit which can’t come too soon.