I step off the train in Starnberg, ready to walk the 5 km to Berg, the starting point of the King Ludwig Trail, defying the blistering sun and 30 degrees midday heat. Every year for my birthday, I am hiding from well-wishers, presents and telegrams, preferably far away and into nature. In July 2020, a virus is raging, making long journeys if not impossible, then at least impractical.
Thus I decided to explore a piece of Bavaria, my homeland. On the tracks of King Ludwig II, I am going to hike about 110 km from Lake Starnberg, south of Munich, to Füssen, the last town before the Alps. As always, with no or insufficient planning at best, but open for any surprise along the way.
If you have some free time, do come along!
In Starnberg, just as I step out of the station, there is already the first change of plan in the form of a ship in the harbor. In a few minutes, it will be sailing to Berg, so I have to decide right away. Well, even Patrick Leigh Fermor took the ship for the first leg of his European tour.
Anyway, this is not one of those hiking blogs where kilometers and calories are counted, where average speeds are calculated and where records are set. Here, it’s more about the sights to the left and right of the path. And whether you get there on foot, by bike, on the train, on the boat, by hitchhiking or in a hot-air balloon is irrelevant.
In the south I can already see the distant mountains that are my destination. It’s a tempting idea to simply stay on the ship all the way.
“Does this blast sound at every stop?” a woman asks, startled as the ship’s horn blows loudly as it sets off. Like most passengers, she has booked a ticket for the full round trip. I already have to leave the ship in Berg because the esteemed readers want to learn all about the Bavarian kings, especially about Ludwig II. In Berg, there is one of the castles that played a role in the life of Ludwig II – and an even more important role in his mythical death
Unfortunately, I cannot visit the castle, because it still belongs to the royal Wittelsbach family, who live there. No one opens the gate for me.
In Bavaria, the revolution of 1918 was rather half-hearted, which is why people who believe that they are something special still occupy castles that should have been nationalized long ago. Something similar happened at the level of the Reich: Because there was no proper expropriation back then, we are still facing legal disputes with the greedy Hohenzollern family.
From their use of Berg Castle, one can guess what kind of people the Wittelsbach dynasty, who had been ruling Bavaria undemocratically since 1180, are. They had the Bavarians slave away in mines to purchase a fleet of 35 ships, powered by rowing slaves, and gondolas for up to 2000 guests, with whom they celebrated decadent feasts on Lake Starnberg.
And when the drinking and lakefaring binges with fireworks and firewater had become too boring for them, they went hunting. Not regular hunting, but driving the deer and stags into the water and shooting them there. Not very likeable people, as you can tell.
Into the same water, on the same spot, they also drove Ludwig II, who spent his last sad days at Berg Castle. (And shot him, too?)
A cross in the lake marks the spot where the body of the king was found on 13 June 13 1886. Inadequately dressed girls on a small boat are commemorating his majesty and are destroying the gravity of the place and of my photo.
13 June MDCCCLXXXVI, the date of death is written on a column in front of the supposedly Byzantine-Romanesque votive chapel, and some sightseers are trying to decipher it.
“1776,” someone says.
“But the king lived eighteen hundred something,” interjects a woman, “after all, he already had a telephone in his castle.” Someone then pulls this modern device out of his pocket, calculates a bit around and proudly announces 1886, the correct year. Delighted, they get back on their bikes.
I, on the other hand, already experience the first shock of the hike: A snake is gliding down from the steps of the votive chapel. Not some normal snake, but one that is dark black and enormous. The kind of snake that can strangle a man.
And with that, one thing is clear: I will not sleep on the ground, but always look for a bench or a hunter’s tree stand.
In consistency with geography, I should now tell you about the end of Ludwig II, but since we haven’t even met him, I consider that a bit premature. Even spoiled kings should stay alive for a bit.
Also in consistency with geography, I have to move north, so I can’t afford the detour to the south, where we would see the Bismarck Tower. That an enormous tower honoring the Prussian Chancellor was erected in Bavaria is surprising enough. But placing this monument only a few kilometers from the place where King Ludwig II was so shamefully executed, that is bold. Because, what many don’t know, but will learn to their great shock in the course of this article, Bismarck was not innocent in the death of the Bavarian king. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the death of the fairy-tale king rests on Bismarck’s conscience almost as much as if he had drowned him himself.
The beaches in Starnberg are packed. These are probably the millions of Munich residents who cannot fly on vacation now. There is traffic like in downtown Munich. And on the hiking trails, you have to be careful of cyclists. Especially if you stop to chat with other walkers, the power-cyclists who are interrupted in their endurance training sometimes make their discontent clearly audible and visible.
One could escape to the Museum of Lake Starnberg, which I had planned to do anyway, because a fellow student from my history degree works here. But, and this will be the common thread on this hike, I have been walking too slowly, arriving in Starnberg after 5 pm. Unfortunately, I have to leave early the next morning and will therefore miss the museum, but this does not prevent me from recommending it to you as a non-swimming option for your visit to the lake.
Starnberg is a town of millionaires. Drug smugglers, real estate speculators and the King of Thailand, who feels comfortable in the tradition of the Bavarian monarchs, are living here. He was probably the one who brought the king cobra that so frightened me earlier.
Speaking of rulers who don’t live in their own country because they know that they are not that popular: Did you know that Ludwig II, who shaped the image of Bavaria like no other monarch, actually wanted to emigrate and only stayed in Bavaria because he couldn’t get a visa? But more about that in a later part of this saga. Stay tuned!
In front of the houses, there are Porsches and sailing yachts. The boys are talking about whether they would rather have the Maserati Quattroporte or a mansion on Formentera as a birthday present. (I gave myself this one-week hike for my birthday.) The girls are discussing whether a dentist or a plastic surgeon is the better groom.
Life expectancy in Starnberg is 4 to 5 years higher than in the rest of the country. Poverty is one of the major risks of ill health, even in our rich country. If you take a closer look over the next few days, you will be able to guess a few reasons why this is the case.
But today, I am lucky. A couple whom I know nothing about have invited me to spend the night at their house in Starnberg. I have a dark premonition that they are some millionaire snots, where the servant serves dinner and the koi are fed with caviar.
As I am sitting by the lake, an elderly couple asks me for directions to the harbor. I may be new to town, but I already know my way around.
“Oh, that’s easy: You follow the promenade along the shore, and after maybe 300 meters you will see wooden jetties on the left where the ships dock. If you’re lucky, there’s one right now.”
“The first stop of the ship is in Berg, that’s the place where King Ludwig II died. But you have to walk a little bit south from the port, first through the village and then through a nice park, actually more of a forest, until you come either to a chapel or to the cross in the lake. This marks the place where Ludwig II died on 13 June 13 1886”.
“Oh”, says the woman.
“Did he drown?” asks the man.
“That is the question,” I admit. “It is a bit suspicious. Because the king was not alone at the time of his death. His psychiatric consultant Dr. Gudden was with him. And both were found dead.”
“Oh”, says the woman.
“Who is going swimming with his psychiatrist?” asks the skeptical man.
“Not swimming. They went for a walk. I know this all sounds dubious, but it gets even more confusing when I tell you that Ludwig II was not at Lake Starnberg voluntarily. He was abducted from Neuschwanstein on the order of the Bavarian government, which had previously incapacitated him. Section 11 of the Bavarian Constitution of 1818 did indeed give the Council of Ministers the right to take this step, similar to the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution, just that the Bavarian government had more balls than anyone in the Trump Administration. But there remain many unanswered questions, because most of the files have been destroyed or are hidden away in a secret archive”.
“Oh”, says the woman.
The man looks at his watch nervously.
The ship’s horn sounds.
“Oh”, I say.
Not only because the couple missed the last ship for today due to my excessive explanations, but because I accidentally anticipated parts of the story that I actually wanted to tell you later. But whether it was murder or suicide will only be resolved over the next few days.
Maisinger Canyon is a somewhat pompous name for a valley crossed by a small stream. But it is beautiful.
Apparently there is something military on both sides of the gorge, but seemingly nothing really important military, if such a thing exists at all. The signs do not say “no trespassing”, but merely suggest that the hiker should be careful when wandering into the line of fire.
In contrast, the rules that the authoritarian children from the Anti-Montessori School have put up are much stricter: No peeing, no pooping, no littering.
“Are you a pilgrim?”
“An Atheist Pilgrim.”
Just outside of Söcking, the retreating glaciers have left behind a hill with a single tree. A wonderful vantage point with a view of the Alps. A young couple is sitting on the only bench. The girl is reading a book to her boyfriend.
I don’t want to disturb them and sit down in the meadow far away (the snakes won’t climb that high, I hope), so that unfortunately, I can’t find out which work connects the youthful happiness. It’s a pity, because this recognition would probably mean more to the author than dull sales figures or a fabricated spot on the bestseller list.
Before me are the Alps, behind me the equally high cumulonimbus clouds. The place is beautiful, but probably too exposed to sleep.
That is why I move on to my nightly quarters with Yasmin and Basti, who are an absolutely positive surprise. There is homemade pizza, beer from the bottle and a lot of stories. Funnily enough, Yasmin was also worried all day about who would arrive in the evening: “Every time an unwashed hippie in a cloud of marijuana fog walked by the office, I thought: Oh dear, hopefully that’s not Andreas!”
The two of them immediately make me feel at home. They are the kind of people who stop for every hitchhiker, who are happy about these spontaneous encounters, who want to do Couchsurfing in Iran soon and who can get by for weeks with a small backpack. I am feeling a bit uncool with my large backpack, full of books.
Outside, the thunderstorm flashes, and I’m glad to have found a place to stay for the night. The exposed spot under the single tree would provide a meteorological and electrostatic spectacle, but it would also soak me completely wet, maybe even ignite me.
For tomorrow night, near Lake Ammer, I have already found another host through Couchsurfing, but the nights thereafter are still without accommodation. That might become uncomfortable. In view of the thundering storm, I should probably worry about that, but I am so exhausted that I fall asleep immediately after going to bed.
- Here you can find all articles about the King Ludwig Trail. The report about the next stage will be published next week. Just check in regularly or get an e-mail subscription to make sure that you won’t miss anything.
- There are more reports about hikes from all over the world.
- The timetable for the ships on Lake Starnberg.
- Lake Starnberg Museum.
- The first day of the hike cost 25 € for the train ticket to Starnberg and 3.70 € for the ship to Berg. This was made possible by donations from readers, who were rewarded with a postcard. I would be happy to count you among the supporters of this blog for the next hike.