Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

An American in Germany / Part # 15 / Eagle's Nest

GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
Berchtesgaden / Eagle's Nest

Bus Climb up Mountainside
The next stop on our tour of the Berchtesgaden area was a trip up high into the scenic Bavarian Alps to a location, which had some negative overtones attached.  We were about to visit a destination known as Kehlsteinhaus, or Eagle's Nest, the mountaintop retreat chateau of Adolph Hitler.  The Alps Mountains had been a longtime summer retreat for Hitler even before Eagle's Nest was built.  He had been coming to the area known as Obersalzberg on the southeastern German and Austrian border for years to spend time at his private residence known as Berghof, which also served as one of his main military headquarters during World War II.  Hitler had purchased the small chateau in 1933 using profits from the sale of his controversial book Mein Kampf (My Plan) and then greatly expanded the property adding several support buildings, a tea house, and increased security measures.  The Berghof was even featured in an edition of Britain's version of Better Homes and Gardens, which included an interview with Adolph Hitler as home owner and interior decorator.  Hitler entertained prestigious guests at Berghof including Nevil Chamberlain of Great Britain in 1938 and Benito Mussolini of Italy three years later.  Eva Braun, Hitler's longtime companion frequently accompanied the Füehrer during visits to his mountaintop retreat.  A new structure higher up on the Hoher Göll Mountain Range near Berghof began construction in 1937.  The new chateau was intended to be a gift from the people of Germany to commemorate Adolph Hitler's 50th birthday and was presented to him in April of 1939.  The project cost an estimated 300 million Deutschmarks when it was first built, equating to over 125 million American dollars today.  A pretty expensive man cave!

Tunnel Entrance to Eagle's Nest
Our bus driver Fitztum drove us to the Eagle's Nest Visitor's Center and bus breezeway where we would purchase our tickets to board buses that would take us the final leg up the mountain.  The four mile long road built up to Eagle's Nest was an engineering feat in itself, climbing 2,600 feet, passing through five tunnels carved through solid rock, and rounding one extreme switchback curve.  The 13 foot wide road is not open to the public, requiring transport on one of the site's red buses, unless you choose to walk up the steep pathway, which I was told takes a minimum of two hours.  No thanks!  Several of us quickly hit the souvenir shop nearby while we waited for our bus ride to arrive.  Many of us got the mandatory ice cream requirement crossed off our list and I was able to get my site souvenir pin for my collection.  We boarded our bus and began the steep ascent to the top, which was quite a climb, mere inches from the cliff's edge.  The panoramic view from the large windows of the bus was incredible.  Through the bottom glass panels of the bus door, you could see straight down over the road's edge into the abyss below.  It was easy to see why the road was not open to the public.  Along the way, a loudspeaker gave a short intro presentation of the site in several languages.  When we heard the English version, I was surprised that Adolph Hitler's association with the site was limited to a single sentence.  As I would learn throughout my travels, the legacy of Adolph Hitler was an avoided namesake, a persona associated with great shame and national despair for today's German population.  It was an ugly legacy they were all forced to bear, carry, and confront.  Yet Hitler was mostly an invisible ghost, disassociated with today's reinvented version of the Eagles Nest.

Crowded Elevator Ride to Summit
We arrived to a large paved area where the buses dropped off their passengers and almost had room to turn around... it was a tight fit!  The mountaintop breezeway offered an incredible view of the expansive surrounding landscape including deep valleys and snow capped mountain peaks.  However, we still had a little bit of a climb left to actually get to the chateau, located on the ridge just above our present location.  We entered into a 400 foot long tunnel carved straight into the solid rock of the mountain.  The tunnel was cool (nature's air conditioning) and damp with water drops falling caused by seepage of moisture contained within the mountain rock overhead.  We then hit a human traffic jam and patiently waited our turn to enter the large elevator that would lift us the final 400 feet directly into the interior of the chateau of Eagle's Nest.  The elevator shaft was one of the most difficult engineering tasks of the entire building project, with a dozen workers killed during the challenging construction process.  We were jammed inside the elevator like sardines but I still managed to contort my arm to take a picture of our group inside.  As soon as the flash went off, I was scolded in German by the elevator attendant who said something to the effect that flash photography was "verboten" inside the elevator.  I usually get scolded at least once when I go on a historical adventure, so I could now cross that off my list of accomplishments achieved in Bavaria!  The elevator car came to a slow stop and we exited into the interior of Kehlsteinhaus, which had been converted into a mountaintop restaurant and biergarten, touting incredible views from every table.         

 View from Eagle's Nest Beirgarten
We immediately made for the first exit of the chateau, more hungry to ingest the famous view outside than anything available on the menu.  It was breathtaking and impossible to describe in words or even pictures, it was something you could only truly appreciate in person, seeing it with your own eyes.  The chateau house itself was indeed now nothing more than a restaurant with no visible evidence or reference to its infamous past resident.  When the United States Army's 3rd Infantry Division eventually captured Berchtesgaden and consequently occupied Obersalzberg in May of 1945, they completely destroyed all structures associated with his main summer retreat and headquarters of Berghof.  The chateau complex and accompanying tea house were considered symbols of Hitler and his regime of the Third Reich and were subsequently demolished.  All that remained was the concrete outline of several foundations of the former buildings, which the West German Government had completely removed in 1952, hoping to disassociate the area from its infamous past resident.  Today the Berghof site is completely cloaked by new tree growth and has mostly been erased from the current landscape with the help of Mother Nature.  The decision to save the Eagle's Nest site from destruction was made based on the fact that Hitler actually spent very little time there.  It is estimated he only visited the site a total of ten times during his lifetime, never spending more than 30 minutes during any visit.  It was rumored Hitler avoided visiting Kehlsteinhaus due to his alleged fears of extreme heights, being killed by lightning, and getting stuck in the elevator.  So much for the superior race!  Since his visits were sparse and brief, the site was spared.  

 Kehlsteinhaus Teehaus Restaurant
Wendy had previously visited Eagle's Nest twice before, both times on rainy days, causing much of the spectacular view to remain hidden from view, cloaked by mist, clouds, and fog.  But today we were in luck, with relatively clear skies and low humidity, everyone was granted a fantastic view in all directions.  In a way, it was also Wendy's first real experience of actually getting to see and appreciate the legendary view from the heights of Kehlsteinhaus.  We skipped the cafe and headed straight for the rock pathway that led to ever higher observation points located along the top of the ridge.  At a height of over 6,000 feet, I noticed it was more difficult to breathe, resulting in a slow careful assent toward the top.  Maybe I was being paranoid or possibly it was just psychological but I wasn't sure how my body would react to being this high in the earth's atmosphere for the very first time.  I didn't want to pass out, fall off the edge of the earth, and become a statistical fatality for all eternity.  How do you say Epic Fail in German again?  The kids however, didn't seem to be having any trouble adjusting to the atmosphere change and were flying up over the steep rock formations like hyperactive monkeys on a jungle gym.  I just kept my own pace, feeling no pressure to be the first to plant the flag atop Mount Everest!  It wasn't a race worth running... or even walking at a brisk pace for that matter!  I'd get there... eventually!

Sam I Am with Feathered Friend
Reinhard, who was once again leading us through our visit, gave us an hour and a half to spend atop Eagles Nest.  At first I thought this sounded like a really long time to spend at such a small confined location, especially since we weren't planning on eating at the restaurant.  However, after I discovered all the incredible observation points located on all sides along the top of the ridge, I was going to be hard pressed to give them all adequate attention before the scheduled time of our descent.  Each spot faced a different angle of view, offering a unique perspective of the panoramic landscape.  You could just sit on a bench, relax, and absorb the spectacle, while your brain attempted to digest and comprehend the beauty before you.  Wendy had previously told me that longtime GAPP chaperone David Hoffman, who was Wendy's fellow German teaching colleague at the high school, never took many pictures during his later visits to Bavaria.  He said any picture captured by a camera could never match the level of grandeur compared with being there in person and seeing it with your own eyes.  I could now see what he meant first hand and could truly appreciate the concept.  Yet, being an amateur photographer, I couldn't resist the opportunity before me and had to at least try to capture the amazing scenery in digital form.  Actually, it wasn't that hard to persuade me since I took approximately 3,600 photos over my three week stay.  I was getting the chance to photograph things I had never seen before and may never get an opportunity to see again.  I think I made the most of it!

View of Lake Königssee from Above
As far as my hobby of photography was concerned, I was kind of like a kid in a candy store consuming German and Swiss-made chocolate by the gross!  Every evening I tried to download the images to my laptop and then post the pictures that met my level of quality to my online photo album site and then deleted the rest.  It allowed me to show my family back home what I was seeing and provided me a visual journal that would help me write my blogs later when time permitted.  The parents of our Warwick students also seemed to appreciate the ability to keep pace with some of our adventures by following the arrival of the newly uploaded picture sets each day.  From high above you could really see the extended patchwork quilt of the world below, containing patches of forest trees, farm fields, and quaint villages, which appeared to evenly cover the landscape to the distant line of the horizon.  The highlight in the valley below from one vantage point was Lake Königssee, which collected the melting winter ice and snow from the surrounding Alps.  Looking above, there were even higher peaks and steep rock formations visible, many still covered in snow.  You couldn't help but feel small and insignificant, a speck of color on the face of the world.  In the valley below we caught a glimpse of a few people para-sailing on the thermal updrafts.  They appeared so far away, almost impossible to see.  Yet, within minutes, they were soaring overhead, being lifted by the air currents thousands of feet into the air.  It was amazing to watch!

Eagle's Nest (Zoomed Image)
After absorbing as much of the incredible view as was photographically and mentally possible, it was time to make our trip back down the elevator and out the accompanying tunnel to catch the bus back down to the visitor's center.  Wendy, Reinhard, and I did our best to corral the troops, some of whom were eating inside the restaurant, while others were spread out along the top of the Hoher Göll Ridge.  Wendy and I swept the ridge from the crown of the mountain toward the knoll of the chateau, clearing the site of our Warwick students.  We took the elevator down and I was able to successfully suppress my urges for flash photography.  I was comically reminded by the kids...  It is Verboten!  The ride down on the bus was fast and furious as we once again flirted with death, skirting the edge of the curving road at speed.  After somehow arriving at the bottom safely, we had some time left before we were scheduled to return to Altötting.  Reinhard suggested we make a quick pit stop down by Lake Königssee, the body of water we had looked down upon from the summit a few minutes earlier.  Along the shore of the lake, we would be able to split up for some brief free time, get something to eat, and possibly do some tourist trap shopping.  Sounds like a plan!  We got a quick bratwurst-to-go from a sidewalk vendor and then found some shaded seats at a lakeside beirgarten where we indulged in some incredible rich desserts.  I was determined to try real apple strudel while in Bavaria and ordered a piece with vanilla "ice" accompanied by a hot cup of coffee.  It was delicious and really hit the spot!

Lakeside Apple Strudel and Ice
Lake Königssee seemed like a really neat place to visit and I wish we would have had more time to explore the area.  Most of the large twisting lake was concealed from view by the towering cliffs of the surrounding mountains.  Old fashioned wooden cruise boats were carrying passengers out across the water, curved around a bend, and then disappeared from site.  The best way to see the lake was to sail across it.  I hoped I would get the opportunity to visit Lake Königssee again before my stay in Germany came to an end.  Thankfully, I would later get that chance!  Stay Tuned!  As we headed out to retrace our route back home, an interesting rock formation came into view.  On our way toward Berchtesgaden, Reinhard was trying to point out a shape in the Alps that was known as the Sleeping Witch.  Most of us had trouble recognizing the ambiguous shape, which supposedly resembled a witch, lying down on her back sound asleep.  Luckily, on the way home we had the opposite view from the other side of the mountain and the rolling feature located along the top of the ridge was plain as day and easy to recognize.  It really did look like a scary old witch, complete with the iconic crooked nose and pointed chin, peacefully resting on her back.  I was just hoping we would lose her in our rear view mirror before she woke up! 

 Sleeping Witch Mountain (Zoomed Image)
Please stayed tuned for the next installment of our adventure!




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