Searching for a seasonal Alpine adventure without the hard edges? Head to fairy-tale Füssen for snow-dusted forest trails, dreamlike mountain castles and unforgettable walks.
Words by Joly Braime
Blinking away the heavy snowflakes melting into my eyelashes, I peered up the steep, zig-zag track ahead, to where our guide, Ursula, was steadily rounding yet another bend, then glanced back at the shuffling line of hazy figures behind. I couldn’t say for sure whether the cloud had descended upon us or whether we’d climbed up into it, but either way the snowfall on the Schwarzenberg ridge was of the most magical kind: fat lumps of white candyfloss floating down thickly without a breath of wind to stir them. Far from the crunchy frosting typical of the Scottish Highlands, this was a pillowy, powdery carpet that deadened your footsteps and brought with it the most hauntingly perfect silence. We might have been high in some remote corner of the Alps, yet in fact we were barely an hour’s stroll from one of Germany’s most alluring honeypots.
A couple of hours south west of Munich on the train, the pretty little spa town of Füssen sits on the edge of Germany’s Allgäu region, with the Ammergau Alps to the east and the Tannheim Mountains rising in the south. On this occasion, Füssen provided the base for a week-long group walking holiday, exploring the winter trails of southern Bavaria. With its cotton wool snow, deep conifer forests, glassy lakes, ornate castles and dramatic mountain backdrop, this corner of Germany is otherworldly and feels larger-than-life, like peering into an oversized snow-globe. The towns and villages have a playful, storybook feel, featuring trompe l’oeil murals adorning the angular old buildings, folksy local industries like lute-making and woodcarving, and exuberant rococo churches with bright pink and green plasterwork reminiscent of wedding cake icing.
Much of the walking is readily accessible, even in winter. Situated on the edge of the Alps, the ground around Füssen is relatively flat despite the mountains hulking on the skyline. A pair of snowshoes and full cold-weather armour would certainly equip you for adventures further afield, but the lower-level tracks are kept admirably clear of snow. Our guide, Ursula, led us on a wide variety of routes (usually around 11-16km/7-10 miles a day) around Füssen without needing any specialist equipment beyond a decent pair of boots and a £12 set of ice cleats. In essence, the area offers the rich rewards of winter walking in a mountain region, but without too much of the hardship that you normally have to go through along the way.
On those mornings where we didn’t set out straight from our hotel, the trails were only a short ride away on a local bus, and more often than not we found ourselves coming across cosy, scenic mountain lodges at just about the right time for a hearty lunchtime bowl of goulash or decadent elevenses of hot coffee and käsekuchen (a sort of fluffy German cheesecake). As a fellow more used to a flask of tepid Cup-a-Soup and a nibble of Kendal Mint Cake, it was the sort of thing I could get used to.
On common ground
The experience of a group holiday, too, was new to me, but my fears about feeling awkward were soon dispelled. A shared love of walking and adventure provided that all-important first piece of common ground to grease the wheels, and by the time we’d spent a week tramping through the snow together, I found I’d made a fine collection of new friends. That said, if you prefer your own space, the area around Füssen is well suited to independent travel. I was particularly intrigued by the possibilities of the Lechweg, a 125km route which follows the rough line of the river Lech, finishing at a famous waterfall (the ‘Lechfall’) on the outskirts of Füssen. The routes we walked were safe and well-marked, and a knowledgeable guide was an enhancement rather than a necessity.
Aside from good company, we were blessed with a few good falls of soft, downy snow, barely an hour’s rain across the whole week, and temperatures that were bracing without being bitter. I wondered if we might have got lucky with the weather, but one of the group mentioned that a friend had reported similar conditions the previous year. In any case, Füssen certainly delivered on its winter wonderland promise. Bavaria is undoubtedly a glamorous lady in her ermine coat.
Of course, in all likelihood, the vast majority of visitors to the area will never realise any of these forests, lakes and trails exist. Most tourists are understandably fixated by the utterly iconic neighbouring castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. These two magnificent edifices spring dramatically from their forested perches above the town, dominating the surrounding territory to such an extent that it’s best to tackle them as early on in your trip as possible, else you will think of nothing else until you have. We walked there on our first morning, cutting through the woods and emerging from the trees to the gorgeous spectacle of the twin castles and their mountain setting reflected across the still waters of the Schwansee.
Hohenschwangau – distinctive for its deep yellow colouring – is the older brother, rebuilt in the 1830s on the site of a much older castle. As for Neuschwanstein, if its Arthurian spires seem to have something of Disney’s Magic Kingdom about them, the truth is that the resemblance goes beyond mere appearances. Not only was Sleeping Beauty’s castle allegedly based on this celebrated Bavarian landmark, but like its New-World doppelganger, Neuschwanstein itself is a work of majestic fakery. Built around the same time as your average Victorian terrace, the initial designs came from a theatrical stage designer rather than an architect, and the half-finished interior feels like a series of 1940s Hollywood film sets. There are frescoes of Wagnerian scenes worked up by set-painters; a cathedral-like bedchamber with a font to brush your teeth in, and a curious, mythological rock grotto sitting incongruously between a conservatory and a dingy reading room. Who would live in such a crackpot palace?
Ursula filled us in. ‘In Germany, we call him “the fairy tale king”, but in England it is always “mad King Ludwig”’, she grumbled. ‘At the end of the week, you can tell me just how mad you think he really was.’
It’s not an easy question. The mournful spectre of Ludwig II (1845-1886) hangs heavy over Bavaria. A shy, sensitive man with an odd penchant for swans, he endured a repressive upbringing, smothered by the weight of his future royal responsibilities, and proceeded to spend most of his adult life retreating into a solitary fantasy land of his own devising. Most famously, Ludwig poured money into the construction of his incredible castles, until his ministers became alarmed at the level of his debts and the ambition of his future projects. Declared mentally unfit to rule, he was deposed, and then promptly ‘drowned’ in one of the least convincing accidents in history. His castles, meanwhile, have become wonders of the modern world, with annual visitors numbering in the millions.
The loveliest way to enjoy the castles is from the peaceful walking trails around them. At one point, from the forest track heading up to the old royal hunting lodge at Bleckenau, we caught a glimpse of Hohenschwangau below us, framed by the snow-furred branches and with its pastel yellow walls showing up warm against the washed-out palette of the winter mountains. It’s moments like this that make winter strolling round Füssen so very special.
Towards the end of the trip, we took a day off walking to visit a few sights slightly out of boot range, including the spectacular dome of Ettal Abbey, the picturesque little toytown of Oberammergau, the gaudy Wieskirche, and a completed Ludwig project – the improbably ornate rococo manor house at Linderhof. It’s a real peacock of a palace. As we drifted through the richly-decorated, Louis XIV-style chambers, one of my fellow walkers observed, ‘It’s like being inside a musical box’. And I couldn’t help feeling that the whole week had been a bit like that. With its soap flake snow and watercolour woodlands; its quaint, timbered towns and dazzling fairy-tale castles, the entire region feels like a giant hoax. But it’s real enough – and with its excellent travel connections and undemanding trails, there’s no reason not to see it for yourself.
TIME/DISTANCE Day routes around Füssen include walks to Neuschwanstein via the Lechfall and the Schwansee; to the Salober Alm lodge via Bad Faulenbach and the Alatsee; around the Hopfensee via the ruined castle; up to the former royal hunting lodge at Bleckenau; and to the Schwarzenberg ridge via the Alpsee. Average distances are 11-16km (7-10 miles) a day.
TRAVEL Flights to Munich are available from many UK airports. From Munich there are regular trains to Füssen taking 2-3 hours.
FURTHER INFO Joly visited Bavaria with Ramblers Walking Holidays on their winter walking package, Füssen – A Winter Fairytale. Prices from £1,205 per person. Find out more at http://www.ramblersholidays.co.uk/fussen-a-winter-fairytale