Thursday 14 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Seventeen - Berchtesgaden, Germany

 When we first arrived in Maria Alm Brian had seen a map and realized how close we were to Berchtesgaden, Germany which was the area that Hitler had his southern headquarters. Brian was interested in seeing the Eagles Nest (The Eagles Nest was built as a tea house for Hitler as a 50th birthday present and sits up 6017ft in the mountains) so we decided to add it to the itinerary. When I did some googling I found a popular 4-hour tour historical offered in Berchtesgaden that included Eagles Nest, the bunkers and a tour of the area.

I love the coffee art!
We had inquired about availability for Friday which was the day we planned to go. Since we changed it at the last minute I booked tickets online that morning and hoped for the best. We had a quick breakfast at a cafe a short walk away from the hotel and made a stop at the post office for stamps. Then we were on the road! When we were about 20 minutes away I got an email from the owner letting me know that today - Thursday - was fully booked. Rather then head back we chose to go there anyway and hope for the best. 

We stopped a few times to take some photos of the picturesque mountain scenery and made it to the tour office about two hours before the tour was to depart. The owner let know we had a few options - either we could come back the next day, do the Eagles Nest/Bunker ourselves and forfeit the historical tour and information or go on the waiting list. Apparently there were some big groups coming and between the rainy weather and road construction she had had people miss the tour lately.

We chose to try for the waiting list and make a decision after that if needed. We walked across the street and had a quick and light lunch with beer - after all we were in Germany! I made the mistake of ordering a Radler which was beer and sprite and it was awful. The shandy - beer and lemonade - is much better. 

We got back to the tour office 15 minutes before it began and saw the crowds of people waiting. At this point I lost faith and figured we had no chance. However Brian and Dads optimism prevailed and there were exactly 3 spots available. One person got sick and two others went to the wrong train station. 

I will be honest - I never wanted to do this tour. I am not as interested in WWII history as Brian and Dad and incorrectly assumed it would be incredibly boring. I much rather would have preferred to stay at the hotel and rest, read and swim. But knowing how much Brian wanted to do this and how interested Dad was as well, I went along. I am so glad I did.

The tour was fantastic. It was incredibly informative but in an engaging way. The company is run by a husband and wife team - David and Christine Harper. Our guide was Christine and she was fantastic. My biggest concern with the tour was that it was going to feel like a university lecture on WWII and Hitler - but it was far from that. I learned a lot and enjoyed the experience, and without a doubt it was one of the best tours of our trip. 

The tour started off with a short account of Hitler’s life as the bus drove up the mountain roads around Berchtesgaden. We ended up in the small community of Obersalzberg which the Nazi Party took over and made it into the Southern Headquarters. 

The guide pointed out where Hitler’s home was (The Berghof) along with the homes of senior party members. Many buildings were destroyed but some remain including SS officers housing, a labour camp, Nazi Party Headquarters, and a few of the homes of party officials. When the Nazis took power they forced Germans living in the area to sell their homes to them, or just took them over with force. Sadly only a few of these people were able to get their homes back after the war. We got to see photos of the area and of the buildings which no longer remain. 

Former SS Officer Housing 

Christine told us about the complex bunker system that was created below the Mountain. These bunkers lead from many of the leaders homes and it was built as a shelter, headquarters and last refuge for the senior officials. The bunkers spanned 6km underground and had varying levels to them. They were built mainly by Polish Workers and only took 13 months to complete! The bunkers were set up with a telephone, shower/toilets, kitchens, offices and bedrooms. There was even a sick bay area and another layer that an elevator was being built to take people through another exit and over to where cars could be waiting for them. It was amazing how extensive and detailed this was, and the fact that it took so little time to complete. 

The bunkers run under many buildings but there are only two areas open to the public. One area was dug out and another sits inaccessible under an InterContinental hotel. Of the two public ones, one is owned by a woman who was able to get her family home/hotel back after the war. Bunkers had been built under it and she now technically owned them so she began public tours. The government was annoyed by this but couldn't do anything but insist she seal in her area from the others. A few years later the government opened the Dokumentation Obersalzberg center nearby and opened the bunkers under that up to the public. In Germany all students and military personal have to visit a Documentation center in order to learn the history and past mistakes of Germany. And these centers don't sugar coat anything - it's very clear what happened and the mistakes that were made. 

Before the bunker tour we spent some time at the center. Currently it is all in German but plans are being made to expand it and include translations. English audio guides are available but our guide led us through it. She showed us the various propaganda materials that were used and explained in detail about Germany's economy at the end of the First World War.  

She showed us the various "prizes" that were used to entice citizens to join the Nazis and explained how Hitler was initially well liked and respected due to his creation of jobs and money through projects like the highways. She talked about the youth camps that encouraged children to adopt the party thinking and how this was the only organization that children could join that offered fun and games. Christine painted a clear picture of how everything began and lead up to the war.

I had studied WWII in both high school and some of University but I learned more on this tour. She explained why the concentration camps were initially built and how they soon became what they did. It was a really interesting context to the history, which helped in understanding the tour and what we were seeing. 

We spent almost an hour in the bunkers seeing be various areas under this section. Again, we only saw a small portion but even that was extensive and impressive. I can only imagine what the rest look like. Very few of the original elements like tiles and wooden doors etc exist as after the war during the American occupation, local residents came and were able to take these elements and the furniture from the bunkers as many of their homes and possessions were destroyed. Now all that remains is the bare walls and floor of the bunkers. This area had one of the original emergency exits dug out which now acts as the entrance. 

Hitler only began work on the bunker system after he began taking losses on the Russian front but never intended to have to use it. He never ended up using it (he did use the Berlin Bunkers which is where he committed suicide) however many if the senior party members did use this one during the final air raid. By the time the Americans arrived many of them had escaped leaving only a few Germans who wanted to surrender. 

After finishing in the bunkers we boarded a special mountain bus that drove us up the 4 mile road along the edge of a cliff. There was a 27% incline and this led us to the parking lot of the Eagles Nest. I was ready to kill Brian at this point as I am terrified of heights. Things only got worse as we then walked along a tunnel and to a brass elevator which went straight though the Kehlstein mountain and into the Eagles Nest. Let's recap - I am terrified of heights, sometimes get claustrophobic (the elevator squeezed 36 people into it) and dislike tunnels. Eagles Nest was interesting but not a place I plan to return to! 

The Elevator now holds 36 people

The tunnel to get to the elevator 
Not my picture - but what the Eagles Nest looks like on a clear day
The Eagles Nest was built for Hitler but he only went there 14 times to entertain various diplomats. It was mostly used by other officials and Hitler’s girlfriend. It consisted of three rooms and was used for dinners/luncheons. After the American Occupation ended it was slated to be blown up (in fact it was supposed to be during the war but the air rid missed it) but locals intervened. It was allowed to remain on the condition it never became something that could memorize Hitler and the Nazis, thus a restaurant/tourist destination was created. 

It sits so high up that on a clear day amazing views of the area are provided. We sadly had a rainy, cloudy day and couldn't see much. There is a restaurant that serves drinks and food which is packed daily. Due to the steep roads Eagles Nest is only open from May-October and the only way up and down is on the special buses which has been designed specifically for this type of trip. 

Our view from Eagles Nest

We had a 45 minutes to ourselves up there and Brian decided to walk down which took about 20 minutes. Dad and I went directly down to avoid any crowds or delays. The weather was terrible - cold and rainy and definitely not what I expected in August. Luckily we had our umbrellas with us. 

Once the group was gathered we took the scary mountain bus back down the steep cliffs and boarded the tour bus again. On the way back to the tour office the guide talked about the downfall of the top Nazi leaders who had homes in this area. We heard how they were captured and what they were sentenced to. Since we hit traffic she also talked about the art collections and aspects relating to the book/movie "The Monuments Men" and how there were actually men from all countries going around trying to rescue these art pieces from men like Hitler and Nazi Leaders who were trying to gather amazing art collections during the war. 

I can not recommend this tour company enough if you are ever in the area. While it wasn't planned, I am thrilled we did it. 

After the tour we drove back to Maria Alm and I programmed in another popular restaurant I had found on TripAdvisor. It was high up in the mountains along these narrow roads without any sort of guardrails and I was panicking. It had been a long day of heights and scary roads and I was done! When we arrived at where the restaurant was supposed to be it wasn't there and I didn't want to keep climbing. So we drove back down and attempted to go to the one we loved from the night before. It was packed so we made reservations for the following night and went into the town. We picked the first restaurant we found and were sat at a large round communal table. A few minutes later a family was sat with us. It was a bit strange but the restaurant (and all those around it) were packed so we had no other option. The food was good - not as great as the one from the previous night, but still enjoyable. The waitresses understood a lot more English then others in the area so that was helpful. 

After dinner we made plans to meet much later the next morning allowing everyone to sleep in or do their own thing. I was on board with that because it had been two and a half weeks of early mornings and long days!!

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