Berchtesgaden: A leap of faith

‘HOW MUCH do you weigh?’ asks my instructor. An innocuous question normally but, considering I am just about to launch myself off an alp on a parachute that he has already attached to me, surely one I should have been asked earlier?

My reply of ‘Seventy-five kilos’ (thank goodness I know my metric weight) seems to be the correct one for we immediately start running downhill in tandem. Within moments, we’re airborne and my nervousness drops away with the glorious landscape below.

I’m in Berchtesgaden, in the Austrian Alps, for a weekend of adventure and gourmet food and drink. In winter, the area is perfect for skiing, snowboarding or sledging. In summer, it’s an idyllic place to hike, climb or just skip around singing ‘The hills are alive…’. In fact, the mountain I’m jumping off is overlooked by the Untersberg, which plays a prominent part in the Sound Of Music.

To visit the area is to be reminded that, for all its frivolity, that greatest of all sing-along movies has a dark heart. It involves a family fleeing the Nazis but Berchtesgaden itself cannot escape its past so easily. The area was a notable holiday spot long before Hitler made it his private retreat, an era that culminated with the building of his infamous Eagle’s Nest on Mount Kehlstein. Separating out its former fame from its more recent notoriety is a tough job for the local tourist board but they are having a healthy go at it, helped by the passing of the decades.

Not that the town is turning its back on those dark days. A museum on the former site of a Nazi guest house documents the entire history of the war, looking unflinchingly at the rise and fall of National Socialism. Steel steps inside lead down into the massive, atmospheric underground bunker system that was built here to protect Hitler and his government from Allied bombings as the horrors they had unleashed rebounded on them.

Back in the sunlight of the present day, I jump into the future with a ride on a Segway. These two-wheeled American scooters are designed for city pavements but a different gearing and chunky tyres converts them for off-road adventure. Minutes after jumping onboard, I’m negotiating steep paths, even steps, as we tour the grounds of the lavish new Intercontinental Hotel. My guide casually points out the remnants of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Martin Bormann’s oft-bombed homes as we pass by.

Retreating from a rain shower, we cocoon ourselves in the hotel, built in a manly, rough stone and rich wood style that takes advantage of the endless alpine vistas. My two-storey room has a perfect view of Untersberg but the pull of the bars and Michelin-starred cooking of chef Ulrich Heimann is too strong for me to spend much time admiring it. Happily, the spa provides an easy antidote to the guilt of over-indulgence. This part of Europe takes it spas seriously and my sports massage is wonderful, if painful, smoothing out the pains left by a rather undignified paragliding landing.

Anyway, I digress, perhaps to avoid talking about the Sound Of Music tours in Salzburg, 30kms away from Berchtesgaden. If you can’t bear the thought of not spending four hours of your life in the company of a coach-load of squealing Japanese girls, who each have an unhealthy knowledge of every scene from the film, then this tour is a must. Squeal as you see the Mirabell Gardens. Squeal as you take pictures of yourself in front of the ‘16 Going On 17’ gazebo. Squeal as you see Leopoldskron Lake that the von Trapp children fell into (Warning! Plot spoiler: they survive).

There are two companies who have both been running twice-daily tours since 1967. (www.panoramatours.com). It’s debatable if the guides are still sane (‘Do you want to see a witch’s house? There’s one on the left. I know she’s a witch because she used to be my girlfriend and is the driver’s wife.’). But who would be?

The locals apparently dislike the Hollywood movie (there are two German versions). Partly because they are fans of local-boy Mozart, rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Partly because of its anti-German/Austrian subplot. And partly because it’s not true (for example, the von Trapps just took the train to Switzerland, rather than hiking over the Untersbergs, which would merely have taken them to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest).

Back at the pretty glacial lake of Königssee, I have my own train to catch: the 120kph bobsleigh (www.rennbob-taxi.de) that roars down the 1.2km Europe’s first artificial ice track. Do the maths and that works out at a mercifully few seconds of total fear. Sadly, ahem, it is closed for a corporate function, a local office competing against each other on sledges on a shorter track.

I’m told that about 70 tourists a year tackle the heart-stopping big run; the greatest danger is slipped discs from the forces of up to 10g on the 16 bends. Like the von Trapps, I have the feeling I might have had a lucky escape.

I stayed at the InterContinental Berchtesgaden: www.berchtesgaden.intercontinental.com

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