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Welcome to my first official crapload of pictures!  Plus a couple of videos.  This weekend was my best yet, by far: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a twin hamlet nestled in a valley just north of the Bavarian Alps, a beautiful place and my homebase for a weekend of sightseeing – a full but leisurely, totally lovely weekend.

Saturday: I drove down to Garmisch after work on Friday so I would wake up in the Alps on Saturday morning.  After a lovely breakfast on the veranda of the Hotel Aschenbrenner (my-home-away-from-home-away-from-home) I set out for the western portion of my weekend: the castles Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, at the southern end of the Romantic Road.

Hohenschwangau was the weekend hunting lodge for the royal family of Bavaria, and the childhood home of infamous “Mad” King Ludwig II.  A gorgeous residence, it is no wonder that poor Ludwig had a hard time accepting the real world.  Hohenschwangau is a fairy-tale castle in a fairy-tale valley, leaned up against a fairy-tale mountain range.  It could not be a more picturesque place.  Every view is a sweeping vista, and the castle itself is Italianate, Baroque, Romantic in the architectural sense of the word.  (The golden castle you see is it.)

Ludwig became kind of obsessed with castle-building, and for 17 years oversaw construction of his still unfinished piece de resistance, Neuschwanstein, a 40-minute hike across the valley from Hohenschwangau.  You know this castle; Walt Disney based his Disneyland centerpiece, Cinderella’s Castle, on Neuschwanstein.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more elaborate or stunningly beautiful building.  Every detail is sublime, and I wish I could show you but pictures are forbidden inside the two castles.

“Mad” King Ludwig…I’ve tried to support a case for him not earning his nickname, but I just can’t seem to do it.  The poor boy struck me as a photo negative of Prince Siddhartha, choosing to use his royalty to surround himself with fairy tale and legend, and support his delusions with extravagant expenditures of Bavaria’s money, rather than look reality square in the face and live in the real world.  The guy did have pretty exquisite taste, though, and an awesome vision for Neuschwanstein, which I kind of wish he’d been allowed to complete.  Instead he was charged insane, and died under “mysterious circumstances” on the shore of a lake near Munich.

The castles took me all day, and I returned to Garmisch exhausted, ready to eat and sleep.

Sunday: Another breakfast on the veranda, then I headed out to Eibsee to catch the cable car up to the summit of the tallest mountain in Germany, the Zugspitze.  Zugspitze straddles Germany and Austria and can be reached from both countries, and I’ll just let the photos and video speak for themselves.  It was exhilirating.  Please note the picture of my sandaled feet standing in snow!  Yep, there were little pockets of snow here and there, alongside the glacier – a startlingly small, thin glacier, and a stark reminder of the climactic changes happening around the world.  I took the round-trip, up the cogwheel train through the mountain to the Zugspitzplatt (where a Bavarian oompah band serenaded sunbathers while the highest chapel in all of Germany rang its bell for Sunday service), then a short cable car up to the summit, then a longer cable car ride straight down the north face of the mountain.  There’s that word again: exhilirating.  At 47 Euro (about $60) it wasn’t a cheap ride, but so worth it.

The afternoon was spent exploring the town of Oberammergau, the site of the famous Passion Play that was first performed by the town’s inhabitants in 1634 as homage to God for saving them from the bubonic plague, and has been performed every ten years since then.  It’s happening right now, but unfortunately tickets are dear and I haven’t really tried to get one.  It was enough to see the town, just as well-known for its intricate wood carvings.  I picked up a good number of wooden souvenirs there, thanks to the odd fact that Oberammergau seems to be exempt from the German “no shopping on Sunday because it’s the sabbath” law.  Every shop was wide open, which I found ironic in the most well-known Christian town in the country, where every shopkeeper greeted me with “grüß Gott” (sort of a “Godly hello to you!”).  Why isn’t this town, of all towns, closed on Sunday?  I don’t know, but I enjoyed the shopping nonetheless.

The weekend inspired me to search out more of Bavaria’s charm and beauty, and I’m looking at a trip to the Black Forest, even though it’s a four-hour drive from my home base.  Is it worth it?  I don’t know; I can’t really tell what’s amazing about the Black Forest yet.  There’s also the Bavarian Forest to the east, hugging the border to the Czech Republic.  Hm…so much to explore.  Of course, outside of Germany, Prague is a scant three hours away; Austria the same; Switzerland maybe five or six.  What to do with my remaining weekends…