How can so beautiful a place have so awful a past?
That’s the question I’ve been pondering since last weekend, which was equal measures exhilarating and trying. Thursday morning (In college, Thursday is part of the weekend), we had a test in History of Electronic Media. Dr. Manfred Wolfram, the founder of our program, teaches with no lecture slides and very little visual references of any kind. His class is interesting and useful, but it’s difficult to pay attention to anyone for three and a half hours. Everyone missed some crucial information at some point because we distracted ourselves on our computers.
We also had no study guide, so I didn’t know what to focus on. Much of what I studied wasn’t on the test, of course. I left it feeling very lukewarm.
The next day, everyone gave a presentation in the same class. Mine was about the video game market crash of 1983, when Atari bottomed out, and Nintendo slid in with the NES and saved the industry. It was easy and fun to talk about, but I only got four hours of sleep between preparing slides and notes Thursday night and my early-morning run on Friday.
We got no break after our presentations. As soon as class ended, we boarded a train that took us 20 Km outside of Munich, to a small town called Dachau. It was a collective of liberal artists in 1933, when the Nazis built their first concentration camp there. The artists’ dissent extended only as far as their ballots; the town voted unequivocally against National Socialism in the 1932 elections. But the Nazis won the vote, and when the prisoners started arriving, the people of Dachau, like most of their countrymen, did nothing.
Today, the town is vibrant and colorful, one of the most expensive and desirable places to live in Bavaria, and home to the state’s best beer festival.
How can so beautiful a place have so awful a past?
I didn’t take any pictures inside the camp; I don’t need them to remember that place, and photographs can’t impart how horrific it is. Nor can any words I write describe what it’s like to be there. Contemplate how we died here, reads one plaque, and you can’t do that through my blog. You need to visit a concentration camp at least once in your life and experience the inhumanity firsthand.
My buddy Eden is one of my best friends, and he’s Jewish, of Ukrainian descent. When I told him that I went to Dachau, he responded, Holy shit. My great uncle died there. These places will never leave us, nor should they.
I have to shout out to our tour guide, Keith, a fast-walking, faster-talking Irishman from Roscommon. He was chipper, yet sober, and presented the awful facts without embellishment. After the tour, he steered us to Steinheil 16, where we ate the best schnitzel in Munich, and he gave me a list of bars to check out when I visit Dublin.
“I hate that fuckin’ place,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone in Ireland who’s not from Dublin hates that fuckin’ shitehole, but you’ll have a good time there.”
Our Friday tour was the 21st consecutive day that Keith led a group through Dachau. How he remains so upbeat through that, I don’t know. Keith is a rockstar.
Saturday brought a welcome respite. Most of our group woke early and took a train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a village at the base of Germany’s tallest mountains. We didn’t really have a plan; we just picked a trail and went with it. The hike was tiring at first, all uphill, mostly steep. I didn’t have trouble with it, but it’s easy to forget that not everyone has mountains in their backyard. So we took it slow and rested often.
The trail got mellower as we got higher. It turned into a series of gentle ascents and descents, undulating like a low-frequency wave. Every 10 feet was another postcard.
I can’t describe the wonders of the Alps any better than I can the horrors of Dachau. But I want to try. You feel as if you’re in The Sound of Music, and you want to sing like Maria, and we did. You think that if heaven were a corporeal place, it would be here, in a meadow surrounded by snow-capped peaks, 1,500 meters above the village of Garmisch-Partenkirschen, in the state of Bavaria, Germany.
Three kilometers after that panorama, the trail descended quickly, and we heard the thunder of rushing water. We raced down the trail, and there it was — a roaring river, cold as ice and twice as clear. I don’t know how long we were there. No one wanted to leave. We refilled our water bottles from it, waded in as far as we dared, ate snacks and took in the majesty. I still can’t believe it’s a real place.
We followed the river, not knowing where it led, until we came upon a cave called Partnachklamm. Nathan had Googled this place, and mentioned at the base of the mountain that we should find it. Now we stumbled into it by accident. Partnachklamm is narrow at the mouth and it doesn’t get any wider. The ceiling is never much taller than six and a half feet. As you descend, the river picks up speed and size, and it’s so loud that you can’t hear yourself think. That’s okay, though; thoughts and words get in the way of taking this place in.
On the other side of the cave you emerge into a valley, with some sort of bizarre toll station that charges you four Euros after you visit the attraction. It was more weird than annoying, because I’d pay five times what I did to see what I saw.
Past the tollbooth, we came full circle, back into Garmisch. We found a biergarten in the ski jumping stadium from the 1936 Winter Olympics. It’s still used today, and the food is fantastic. It’s strange eating in the bowl of that place, all marble and gold, barely worn in the nearly 80 years since its first use, knowing that it was designed, like every structure from the 1936 games, to showcase the glory of Nazi Germany.
How can so beautiful a place have so awful a past?
I tried not to think about that past while I buried my face in pork roast, and nothing could spoil our post-hike dinner around such wonderful scenery and such wonderful people. As we walked through Garmisch to the train station, I knew that I’d found a place I could live. Not today, not tomorrow, but at some point, I’m going to buy a three-story house there, with a balcony on each floor, so I can stand there in the summer sun and know that I made it back to paradise.
The next day we woke just as early and took just as long a trip to just as an ideal a spot. This time, a bus bore us through Bavaria to Neuschwanstein Castle, the brilliant Romanesque Revival palace that stands as the most enduring legacy of Ludwig II, the enigmatic, reclusive king of Bavaria.
You see Neuschwanstein out of nowhere; the road is lined on both sides by trees, then you come around a bend and the trees disappear. The castle is there, alone on a hill, dominating the valley before it and the mountains behind it. The walk to Neuschwanstein from Hohenschwangau, the village at its feet, takes about 20 minutes. From the castle’s gatehouse, it seems the entirety of Bavaria is sprawled before you. It reminds me of the view of Boulder from the top of Flagstaff Mountain, only greener.
Neuschwanstein itself is grand but intimate. It is the deepest reflection of Ludwig’s personality, and he built it exclusively for himself. The king was 18 years old when he ascended to the throne, completely unready to rule, and he held his station for only two years before Bavaria was subjugated by Prussia. Ludwig was little more than a puppet after that.
It’s just as well, for he had no interest or skill in governance. Ludwig was intensely shy and he preferred to patronize Richard Wagner and read old German fairy tales. Neuschwantein was his personal retreat into his fantasy world. Every inch of the castle’s walls and ceilings is covered in elaborate paintings that depict these tales; the Hall of the Singers shows the doomed romance of Tristan and Isolde, Ludwig’s bedroom the story of Lohengrin, knight of the Holy Grail.
Ludwig spent his time in Neuschwanstein in almost complete isolation. He would stand at a window for hours and gaze upon his kingdom, or watch one of Wagner’s operas alone. The king barely spent any time in his prized castle, though; only 15 rooms were finished when Ludwig died in 1886, and ground had not yet broken on what would have been a massive keep.
Neuschwanstein put Ludwig 14 million marks into debt, and his ministers decided to depose him to reign in his spending. They had him declared insane and unfit to rule; he wasn’t, but his atypical personality was enough of an excuse. A detachment came to the castle and led him away to an isolated house on the Starnbergersee. The next night, Ludwig went for a walk and never came back, and they found his body in the lake, waist-deep in water.
How can so beautiful a place have so awful a history?
No one will ever know what truly happened to him, but in all likelihood he was murdered by those who deposed him. Construction of Neuschwanstein stopped and it was immediately opened to the public. The castle that Ludwig built for himself sees 1.3 million people every year. Being inside of it is like walking through the king’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why you can’t take pictures of the interior.
I felt sorry for Ludwig more than anything; I identify with his introversion and his feelings of loneliness. The king couldn’t face the world, and so he created his own. Instead, I’m invigorated by this world and the people in it, and I can’t imagine spurning them for isolation in a castle built from my dreams.
I still haven’t answered the question that I thought about this weekend. I still don’t know why charming, quaint Dachau, where next month I’ll get trashed at their Bierfest, is a site of one of the greatest horrors humankind has ever perpetrated. I don’t know why there’s a monument to Nazi Olympic glory tucked away in the heavenly mountains around Garmisch. I don’t know why Ludwig had to die for Neuschwanstein.
Maybe that’s the point; maybe there is no answer. These places are beautiful, and bad things happened in them, but bad things happen everywhere. Maybe, here, you need to acknowledge the history without letting it dominate your mind, because — did I mention? — this place is paradise.