On one of my weekends off, Christina told me to pack some things because we were going on a road trip. I had no idea where we were going, but she had apparently planned things out ahead of time. We headed south toward Munich, or Munchen as it is spelled in Germany, across some awesome country. It reminded me so much of Kentucky; the grass lands, hills, and farms along the way just had that back home feel. Munchen was a huge city once we got into it; much larger than Nurnberg or Frankfurt. This was home to the annual Oktoberfest, an event I vowed I would eventually attend. Below Munchen, the terrain became rolling and mountainous. Far off I could see the towering Bavarian Alps, which dwarfed any mountain range I'd seen, or have seen since. I still wasn't sure where we were going, but the ride to that point was just awesome. The day was kind of overcast with a little mist of rain, but overall, it wasn't a bad trip.
Later in the evening, we were getting tired and decided to stay somewhere for the night. There weren't any major hotel chains in Germany, so no Holiday Inn or Motel 6 to stay in. We found a bed and breakfast in a small town near a place called Oberammergau and decided that we'd stay. The place was merely a home with extra rooms upstairs and downstairs and a friendly older lady who greeted us with a smile. The cost wasn't bad either; only about forty US Dollars for the night. The house had a grandmother feel to it, with little trinkets scattered along the shelves here and there. Most of the trinkets were from passing tourists who had stayed over time; mementos I'm sure the lady treasured. There were other people staying at the house, but we didn't mingle much. The road trip was fun, but had worn us out. Christina and I turned in early that night so we could get a fresh start the next morning.
The smell of breakfast cooking made its way to our room as we roused out of bed. It was nearing 0730 in the morning, so we got packed and headed down to eat. The cost of the room included a home cooked breakfast, nothing like the continental breakfast consisting of a bagel and dry cereal at hotel chains these days. A couple from France joined us at the table, but they could speak some broken English. The older lady who ran the boarding house spoke only in German, so I could understand parts of what she said. The funny thing is I could understand German for the most part, but could only speak it well when I was grossly intoxicated. As we finished eating, the lady handed us a guest book and we signed our names and addresses. Even though we lived in Ansbach, I put my home of record address so it would reflect just how far away a guest could technically be from.
Christina and I started our morning drive into the mountains as a cool fog rose around us. For the first time, I was told where we were going. Christina was taking me to a place called Linderhof, which was King Ludwig II's palace. I had never heard of the place, but her parents had taken her there years ago. The palace was an awe inspiring place nestled in between the mountains and forest. On the grounds were magnificent statues in a garden along with a golden cherub fountain. A large fountain was the centerpiece of the palace's grounds and atop the hill facing the fountain was a large columned structure made of white marble. Inside the structure was a large stone bust of King Ludwig II; behind that was his tomb cut into the side of the hill.
|Me at Linderhof Palace, 1994|
|The tomb of King Ludwig II|
|King Ludwig II's man-made cavern|
One of the most awesome sights at Linderhof was the cavern and underground lake that was entirely man-made. The tour guide said that King Ludwig loved the works of the composer Wagner, and recreated one of his symphonies in a live setting. He used to hold elaborate balls and plays in the cavern to dignitaries who traveled through Bavaria. We toured the inside of the palace, which was beyond words. Large mural paintings that were original adorned the walls; everything was trimmed in gold. Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed inside the palace and only a third of it was open due to remodeling. It was a truly awe-inspiring place to see.
After our trip to Linderhof, we went across the mountain pass toward Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a popular ski resort. There was light snow on the mountains as we passed by; a bit of a contrast from the milder weather below. It seemed we drove for about an hour before Christina told me we were going to Neuschwanstein Castle. I had seen pictures of this magnificent castle, but never thought I'd actually get to see it up close. We drove deeper into the mountains that towered over the lush countryside, into a town called Fussen. Above the town was a yellow castle that sat perched on a rocky cliff. Across from it, the Alps rose high above the land, far beyond what I could see out of the car window.
We stopped to eat at a restaurant that had an outdoor patio. The weather wasn't too bad that day, so we opted to sit outside and enjoy the air. As I looked at the mountains, I noticed tiny, brightly colored dots that appeared to be falling from the summit of one mountain. The dots grew larger and moved at a fast pace, when suddenly, the dots expanded into parachutes. People were jumping off the mountains and parachuting down! No matter how awe inspiring this may have been, I was pretty sure I wouldn't partake in that activity.
After we ate, we drove a short distance down a winding country road toward the Alps. Off in the distance, Neuschwanstein Castle sat high on a cliff and was just magnificent. We stopped at the base of the mountain and went into the gift shop/bus stop. The shuttle had just left with a load of tourists and was the last for the afternoon. The walk to the castle was only a half mile, I was used to road marches, so why not?
|Neuschwanstein Castle from a distance|
|An awe-inspiring sight to see|
In December, 1994, I put in a request or a weekend away at Berchesgaten, near the Austrian border; a place where Adolf Hitler once had his southern home and headquarters. The list to go was basically a first come, first serve type, but surprisingly, I was selected to go because I had some seniority over the other soldiers on the list from Headquarters Battery. The trip would be on a tour bus with other folks, something I had became accustomed to by then. Christina and I were eager to go on the trip, if nothing else, to get away from Ansbach and Shipton Kaserne again.
The bus ride was long, and I tried to sleep a little, but would catch myself looking out the window at the German villages along the way. The weather was much cooler than it was when we went to Neuschwanstein, and as we approached the Alps, we could see the higher peaks covered in snow. We arrived in the town of Berchesgaten and the bus driver started telling us some of the history of the area. The houses and shops were traditional Bavarian styled structures, but were not all original due to Allied bombing during World War II.
As we wound our way up the mountain, the driver pointed out some indistinct smaller structures along the roadway that he said were once guard stations, which housed SS troops. These were Adolf Hitler's personal guards who fought and died to protect their Furher. There were several of these guard stations, and as we neared the area where Hitler's home, the Berghof, once stood, we could see what looked like the remains of fortified bunkers in the trees. If anyone decided to pay Hitler a surprise visit back in the day, they would have had a rude welcoming party waiting for them.
We passed houses that belonged to some of the top brass in the Nazi regime; Goering's house, Speer's cottage, the inn where key meetings took place between Hitler and his top people. It seemed surreal that I was seeing all this, and all the same, it was eerie.
The bus stopped at the General Walker Hotel and we unloaded. The hotel had once been the diplomatic quarters called the Platterhof and was used for visiting Nazi party officials and their allies. It was nearly demolished during the bombing campaigns in 1945, but rebuilt soon afterward to accommodate tourists and mainly US soldiers on retreat from their day to day military lives. The interior of the General Walker was very fancily decorated, something far from the hotels I stayed in at Fort Sam Houston on my weekend passes. There was a large dining hall with windows that overlooked the Alpine ranges. I had seen pictures of the mountains before, but with Hitler standing in front of them. My God! I am standing where one of history's most hated men once stood!
|The Alps, looking toward Austria|
We ate and retreated to our hotel room, which was just as fancy as the rest of the building. For the most part, the General Walker was a plain, white bricked structure with very little flair outside. Out our window, I could see a building that looked as though it had been burned and was just a concrete shell with a partial tin roof. It wasn't too late in the day for some exploration. Christina and I walked down the path toward the building, and we could see large holes in the sides as we neared it. The openings were blocked by a fence, but I could look inside and saw there had been an awesome amount of firepower that hit this building. It surprised me that the building was left in the state it was in, but it definitely told a bigger story as it stood. Along the way, we passed an entrance to the underground bunker system that was closed off by a huge steel door. No one would notice, right?
|A bombed out barracks behind the General Walker Hotel|
We got up relatively early the next day and had breakfast. It was then that I found out where we were was not considered Berchesgaten, but known as Obersalzburg. I had heard the name before, but never put it into context as being where we were until then. The bunker tour would start in about an hour,so we got our tickets and waited in the lobby by the dining hall. Looking up at the intricate woodwork above, I remember remarking how skilled the carpenters were. An NCO sitting by me replied by stating the American Army engineer battalion that rebuilt the hotel had used the original plans to make it as close to pre-war as possible. Soon, we were called up to start our tour.
The tour began at a metal door down a staircase. The guide told us that the bunkers we were about to enter had been used as an underground military base and tunneled for several miles under the mountain. Air vents were placed in strategic locations and fresh air was pumped into the bunkers from above. The underground facility was safe from any bombardment and was largely hidden from the terrain above. As the door was opened, the guide asked if anyone was claustrophobic or had medical problems that prevented stair climbing. The door swung open, revealing a narrow passage that went far, far down a flight of steps. Even with lights on, the bottom was not visible until about half way down. At the foot of the stairs, there was a wall with square slots recessed at irregular intervals. The guide explained that these slots housed machine guns that aimed up the staircase. If anyone made it and was not an invited guest, the guns would open up on the unsuspecting visitor. There were bullet holes and pock marks on the concrete wall where the 101st Airborne soldiers fired on these machine gun nests when they occupied Obersalzburg in 1945.
Beside the machine gun nest was a guard station where SS troops would check credentials of those who had made it past the staircase. The area was mainly a concrete and steel corridor that branched off into other areas. These rooms were barracks for the soldiers stationed at the entrance and were empty now. The tour continued down a long passage and stopped in a large room which was used as a planning area for commanders. One person asked if Hitler had ever been a part of the planning in this room. Our guide said, "No. Hitler seldom came into these bunkers. Most of his war planning was done in Berlin".
One particular interesting item we saw in a room up ahead was a large safe that had been toppled over. On the side facing up was a hole about three inches in diameter. The guide said that when the 101st Airborne troops found the safe, they tried to open it without success, thinking it held vital information or large amounts of cash. Frustrated, a soldier decided to take a bazooka and fire a rocket at the safe in hopes it would open. Instead, the rocket penetrated and set everything inside the safe on fire. The hole was a lasting mark of frustration and one pissed off company of soldiers.
We continued to another door, which led outside onto a concrete pad.
"We are at the entrance to the Berghof, Adolf Hitler's private residence," our guide said in a short of solemn voice. It was then that I felt an eerie presence come over me that only increased as we continued farther. The path was in a forested area with remnants of a stone wall peeking out of the vegetation. It was level ground, and in some places parts of a concrete slab were present. We stopped at a spot and looked out into the Alps.
"The spot we are standing is where Hitler's living room would have been," our guide commented.
"You are looking at a view that he would have seen as he stood at the large picture window". I had seen a picture of Hitler and Eva Braun looking out that window and the view before me in books. Holy Hell! I am in Hitler's sanctuary!
The path continued down a grade to a brick structure. It was little more than eight feet tall with window holes and trees growing out of it. This was Hitler's personal parking garage, where his limo and other vehicles once were. The guide informed us that the site had recently become a type of shrine for Neo-Nazi groups during Hitler's birthday. It was a bit unnerving to say the least, and that eerie feeling was more present than ever at this spot.
|The only standing remains of Hitler's Berghof, December, 1994|
We made our way back up the path and saw the bunkers I had seen on the way up the previous day. These were indeed gun emplacements that had entrances into the underground bunkers. The guide pointed out other places of interest, but my mind was still processing what we had already seen and I just kind of heard him in passing. We made it back to the General Walker; it was a great tour and an experience I've never had since.
That night, Christina wasn't feeling well after dinner and opted to lie down. I wasn't ready for bed, so I ventured out with a couple of other guys to the slot machines which were downstairs in the hotel. I am not much of a gambler, I soon realized after losing five dollars in an instant. Not wanting to donate any more of my cash to the Obersalzburg slot machine fund, I wandered around to a gift shop that was still open. In the shop were books about the history of Obersalzburg and the Nazi influence in the area. This surprised me due to the fact that so much of the Nazi regime had been banned it seemed. I purchased two books and retreated back to the room to look through them. Christina was asleep, so I didn't wake her. Eventually, I settled in for the night, with a different view of history from the other side of things.
Christina awoke and felt better the next day, so we plotted our next adventure. A tour of nearby Salzburg, Austria was available, so we signed up for it. Prior to leaving Shipton, I had the commander sign a border pass, which allowed entry into any NATO country without a passport. Salzburg was the city where The Sound of Music was filmed an had one of the best Christmas markets in the area we were told. A small bus pulled up and a few of us got onto it at the hotel. We stopped again in Bertchesgaden to pick up more people and then started toward Austria. In movies, I had seen a road with a single guard shack and a gate pole across it, signifying the border of another country, and sure enough, that is exactly what we saw at the Austrian border. Two men in uniforms approached the bus and one came aboard, checking papers on each person. It was like back and the barracks when the German people had to present their ID cards to get onto base, and then the man came to me. I presented my border pass and he rolled his eyes and snickered. He handed the paper back to me after muttering something I didn't understand, and exited the bus. We were waved through the checkpoint and continued our journey. I asked Christina what the man had said, and she told me he made a derogatory remark about me being a soldier with a "piece of paper". Wow.
After about an hour we arrived in Salzburg, and the city was much like Berchesgaten. Our bus stopped at a building and we were told that it would be back promptly at 2000 hours and we shouldn't be a minute late or risk being left behind.
There were shops lining the streets and the smells of fresh baked bread and food filled the air. It was a busy city with people all over the place, but nothing like a big city in the United States where it is a maddened rush. Nearby was a museum of natural history and we decided to go there first. Inside was a vast array of exhibits, including a full sized Iguanodon dinosaur display, an Alpine hunter mannequin that looked like an eskimo, and a reptile room. It was interesting that they had copperhead snakes and other native reptiles I was used to seeing back home in Kentucky, and there was even a map showing where these animals came from. I stared at the map of Kentucky and smiled, knowing that in a few short months, I would be back home. The most unsettling moment is when I looked up and saw an Amazonian Anaconda that was preserved and displayed with its side cut open, revealing a full sized goat. Mental note: no trips to the Amazon. Ever.
It was beginning to be dusk as we exited the museum. Christina and I walked outside and she pointed out the castle overlooking the city. The castle was an integral part of The Sound of Music and looked massive; but not as impressive as Neuschwanstein. The sky darkened and the lights of the city came on, revealing a new view. The Christmas market was in full swing and was just as awesome as people said. We didn't bring a lot of extra money with us, so we weren't able to purchase anything. I snapped pictures of the entire visit to Salzburg, in hopes of preserving what we saw that day. To my dismay, when I sent the roll of film to be developed once we returned to Ansbach, not a single picture came out; the whole roll of film was completely dark and ruined for some strange reason.
Fearing we would be stuck in Salzburg, Christina and I returned to the bus stop a good twenty minutes early. The day had been another awesome experience, but tiring. We returned to Obersalzburg for a final night. The next day, we would return to Ansbach and I would return to being a soldier. Indeed, the people and places I had seen on these, and other smaller trips was awesome. Looking back now, even though things in life took a drastic different turn, I am grateful, regardless of what happened later, that Christina took the time to show and join me in places I will never forget.