Tuesday, 7 April 2015

We love to go a wandering

The way ahead
After a day’s rest for the feet, further studious study of the weather forecast revealed that Thursday and Friday were set to see precipitation of one sort or another.

That meant one thing: if we were to undertake another proper walk, it would have to be on Wednesday.

Helpfully, The Other Half – who had spent weeks studying online maps for precisely such ends – had just such a walk planned. So off we went, having this time remembered to take bottles of water with us but, unfortunately, no Kendal Mint Cake. I should have taken a slab to Bavaria on principle.

Our destination was another small Alpine lake, the Alatsee, and the start of the walk took us through the park at the back of summer palace of the bishops of Augsburg before we crossed a small, wooden bridge and climbed gently upwards onto a wooded ridge.

Germans, as I’ve mentioned before, care passionately about forests – it’s an essential part of the national psyche. Woods are so central a part of German life that, when it was discovered, in the 1980s, that the woods were dying from pollution, there was a united commitment to doing something.

Woodland delicacy
That the country is now a major producer of renewable energy is, in part, a result of that – and also an indicator that green politics is not seen as overtly as ‘left’ in the way it is elsewhere, not least in the UK.

For British townies in particular, we have, in general, long lost that sense of connection with nature.

But in Germany, no town or city is far removed from a wood or forest in which to spend time.

And these are maintained and looked after with great dedication, as are the footpaths that wend through them.

My mental musical theme for the week – with the exception of a burst of Wagner when at Neuschwanstein – was The Happy Wanderer.

Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann, to give it its original German title, was originally penned by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund (1788-1857), while the tune we’re familiar with was composed after WWII by Friederich-Wilhelm Möller.

Wood – smelling beautiful
A 1953 performance of the piece by the Obernkirchen children’s choir at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, broadcast on BBC radio, saw the song become an instant hit and staying in the singles chart (a top 12 at the time) for 26 non-consecutive weeks.

As we wandered through woodland, for a long while, with the sounds of the traffic of Füssen intermittently drifting upward to us, yet already in a different world, it drifted into my head again and even, quietly, from my lips: a song from childhood memory, suddenly taking on a new life.

Away from it all
We stopped to inspect tiny flowers alongside the path; to listen to the birds around us; to watch as a small deer sprung away through the trees, glancing back over its shoulder to check us out.

It wasn't a busy road
The process of maintaining the woods means that some trees are felled. Clearly there had been recent work done in this department, as we saw logs stacked neatly between pairs of standing trees.

Walking past one such stack – clearly very recently cut – the smell was astonishing. Forget those ghastly ‘air fresheners’ in cars and elsewhere: this is what trees smell of and it’s intoxicating.

Perfect for lunch
As we made our way, the road sounds drifted away entirely: the tranquillity was wonderful and eventually the tinkling of a beck made it’s way up to our ears.

Having discovered (the hard way) the result of the lack of contour lines on Google maps, we made a decision after some time to take a path down the side of the ridge to meet a road that then went on to the lake, rather than take what looked to be a harder path that would take us back up before coming down near the lake.

I say ‘road’, but I don’t recall a single vehicle passing us as we strolled along it, the metal points of our walking sticks now striking the tarmac surface.

Brilliant beer ....
The trees to our left eventually fell away, leaving us with views of Alpine pasture filling the space between the ridge we come along and the rather higher hill side opposite.

We made it to the lake for around 1pm – perfect, since the hotel there also has a restaurant and The Other Half had fully factored this into his plans.

With the temperature ludicrously mild, we sat outside the chalet-style building and ordered drinks while scanning the menu.

The beer was a caramel-coloured dunkel from the Aktienbrauerei – the oldest existing brewery in Kaufbeuren, first mentioned in 1308, a whopping 208 years before the Reinsheitsgebot – and was the best beer of the week, with an absolutely wonderful taste.

As we sipped, we could hear the sound of The Other Half’s schnitzel being beaten out in the nearby kitchen. Oh, this was going to be freshly cooked.

... and fabulous fodder
For myself, I had leapt at the opportunity to try spätzle for the first time. A sort of soft egg noodle from the south of Germany (and areas to the east), I knew it by legend alone.

It came as the bed on my (large) plate, dressed in melted butter and with a vast mound of gloriously crisp and wafer-thin fried onion rings atop a piece of absolutely superb beef that had been cooked to perfection: beautifully seared on the outside and melting to very pink the further in I got.

It was the perfect illustration of how good food doesn’t have to be haute cuisine. This was perfection.

Sated, we sat awhile, quietly taking in the view.

The Alatsee spread put in front of us, with a snow-capped
Austrian berg soaring beyond the wooded ridge that marked the border, and the wooded hills around the lake split in one place by a wedge of pasture.

The Alatsee
It was still largely iced over, although where the thaw had set in, the water was that rich malachite green again, and crystal clear at the edge, creating a perfect mirror to reflect its surroundings.

It’s apparently a meromictic lake – meaning that it has layers of water that do not mix, which in turn means that it can include within it radically different environments for organisms.

Snow ahead
Such bodies of water were only really named in the early 20th century. They may occur where the basin sides are unusually deep and steep compared to the lake’s surface, and where the lower layer of the water is highly saline and denser than the upper layers.

The Alatsee is 868m above sea level, with a surface area of 12 hectares and a maximum depth of 32.1m. There are such toxic organisms living in the lake that they’ve been blamed for a number of divers have died or disappeared in its waters.

And as if this were not enough, it’s one of the (many) spots that’s alleged to be hiding ‘Hitler’s gold’ – although Lake Toplitz in Austria beats it for plausibility, given that forged British banknotes were found by divers in chests, together with a printing press, in 1959.

You see – travel broadens the mind: or at least the knowledge base.

The Obersee
Eventually, we set off again. This time, the intention was to walk back along the valley floor on the opposite side, along the Faulenbach and passing the smaller Obersee and the positively diminutive Mittersee before reaching Füssen.

This route had been less exposed to the sun, meaning that snow several inches deep still lay in patches over the path. Those walking sticks were proving very handy.

There was evidence of winter tree fall from the steep, rocky ridge now to our right, and also where the local forestry management teams had come in and removed the section of a tree that had fallen across the path, leaving the rest where it lay.

Looking back from the Obsersee
Again, the sounds of trickling water and bird song were the dominant ones, leaving city natives to feel almost out of kilter at the absence of urban drone. It’s a long time since I spent so long away from the sounds of traffic.

The Obersee was almost completely iced over, with reeds rearing up to tell you that there was marshy land beneath the frozen white.

And so we continued toward the town; another satisfying walk under our belts – another day gazing at this extraordinary landscape and feeling awed by it. Happy wanderers indeed.

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