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Scaling the Alps

| Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004

On the autobahn south of Munich, Germany, my wife was dozing, the girls were reading and I was trying to calculate whether I had yet gotten the rental minivan over 100 mph when the massive gray teeth of the Alps suddenly reared into view.

The mountains around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a resort on Germany's southern border, burst abruptly out of the surrounding pastureland like railroad spikes through a piece of tin sheeting, and they just keep going up until they are too high for anything but rock and snow.

Looking out from the observation station on Germany's tallest peak, the 9,700-foot Zugspitze, visitors behold an ocean of gray-and-white swells stretching through Austria to Italy and Switzerland.

While not nearly the tallest of the Alps, the Zugspitze, because of its location at the very edge of the range, is one of the most dramatic.

A chilly mountain stream running down from the melting snow between the two villages, Garmisch and Partenkirchen, which merged for the 1936 Winter Olympics. The old ski jump stadium still packs in crowds each New Year's Day.

While Garmisch-Partenkirchen is Germany's winter sports capital, the region is popular year round. In the summer, there are mountains to climb, trails to hike and shimmering lakes for boating.

Each evening, herders in lederhosen and other traditional garb bring their cows through the streets for a low-key, tinkly parade. The town has a cozy shopping district and a few quaint old churches, and a range of restaurants, including an Irish pub and a good pizza and pasta place -- Italy is just 40 miles south of here.

Most homes are pristine white stucco with dark wood balconies and tiled roofs. Instead of the exposed timbers characteristic of many German buildings, these are decorated with bright frescoes, often of saints or other religious imagery.

We passed several bed-and-breakfasts in the short walk from the train station to the place we found on the Internet. Competition being acute, a good deal is not hard to find, especially with advance planning.

Once we put down our suitcases, it was a short hike past the ski jump stadium to the Sommerrodelbahn.

This mini-bobsled on wheels cranks riders a little way up the foot of one mountain, past fields of bleating sheep, and then releases them for a speedy but safe coast down a 600-meter metal bobsled track. The sled accommodates a parent and child, and my 6-year-old made a terrific video of our ride, including the moment her father hit the brakes at the top of the hill by accident, jumped a wheel off the track and caused a traffic jam.

At the outdoor snack bar, we munched rich German chocolate produced by the local cows, and I had a Radler, a popular mixture of wheat beer and lemonade that is much tastier than it sounds. (In northern Germany, around Hamburg, they drink beer with Sprite, which is much viler than it sounds.)

On the other side of the stadium, a hike along a meandering country road leads to the Partnachklamm, a steep gorge through which the town's river squeezes.

During the nearly hour-long hike up through pastures trimmed with wildflowers, we amused ourselves pretending to touch the thumb-size brown slugs all along the road, until the sound of rushing water announced our arrival at the rapids.

The pathway along the shady, narrow gorge is hewn out of the rock, often with just a steel railing separating sightseers from the frigid torrent a few feet below. A glistening spray showers down from the mossy cliffs high overhead, and occasionally the path cuts through pitch-dark tunnels dripping with icy water.

The next morning, we took on the mountain. Predictably, most visitors choose the Zugspitze. But the ascent by cogwheel train spends most of the trip inside the mountain in a tunnel, and is expensive -- more than $50 per adult for a round-trip pass.

Since we were going for the view, we chose the less crowded and much cheaper Wank. (A caution: Say it the German way -- "Vonk" -- or prepare to have any British tourists within earshot snicker at your brazen use of what to them is a very rude word.)

The Wank sits alone on the opposite edge of town from the Zugspitze massif. Its four-person cable cars offer superb views, especially at the outset as they dramatically rise over the town. For 20 minutes, passengers glide peacefully at treetop level, surrounded by tall pines whose branches have been twisted and bent by the wind.

The summit still is low enough for grass, flowers and shrubs to grow. Germans treasure the Wank for its sunbathing and easy nature walks. Benches and lounge chairs all around allow hikers to rest and marvel at the unforgettable view, with the Zugspitze and its neighbors towering above the little town of white stucco and tile.

A mountain top restaurant with a patio offers beer with or without lemonade, and pretzels with obazda, a Bavarian cream cheese and paprika spread that comes with sliced onions and greens.

Tourists who want a Heidi moment can hike the trail circling the Wank down to the midpoint cable car station and ride the rest of the way. The walk takes an hour and a half. Pick up a walking stick for free at the top station and return it below.

Even if you find one, it's illegal to pick edelweiss, the tiny Alpine flower made famous in "The Sound of Music." But souvenir shops in town sell dried blossoms for a euro.

Better yet, my wife found ribbons and trim embroidered with edelweiss in a little fabric store in town. This winter the girls will have a memory of their trip sewn right onto their coats, which beats any refrigerator magnet.

If you go: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Getting there

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is an easy drive about an hour south from Munich's second major air hub after Frankfurt, offering several direct flights to the United States. Regular trains from Munich also serve the town.

Lodging

The town is packed with rooms for rent and is a great place to get away from hotels. We paid 80 euros per night for two adults and two children at the lovely Gasthaus Rosengarten, with a mountain-view balcony, private bathroom, breakfast of cold cuts, bread, cheese and preserves, and a lovely fenced back yard with flowers, a tree swing for the kids and a nest with baby birds.

Lift tickets

The Wank cable cars are 16.50 euros for adults, 9.50 for children. If you're staying in town, you pay a 2 euro per person tax per day and receive a ticket good for discounts on lifts, buses and other things. Zugspitze tickets cost 43 euros for adults and 25 euros for children, with discounts for families.

Skiing

From November through late spring, the mountains around Garmisch-Partenkirchen offer 73 miles of ski and snowboard trails for all skill levels, with lots of deep powder.

Other attractions

Nearby are Mittenwald, a village where they have been making Stradivarius violins by hand for centuries; Oberammergau, a fairy-tale town that is the site of a famous Passion Play every 10 years; and the incredibly beautiful -- if not authentic -- Neuschwanstein castle.

Music

German composer Richard Strauss lived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen most of his life, and the town hosts a music festival featuring his works every June.

Details

www.garmisch-partenkirchen.de

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