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Ah, yes, the countryside: churches, castles, cows . . . and one for the road

October 28, 1985|JACK SMITH

For half a day our tour bus trundled over narrow mountainous roads through the Black Forest, which is so called, according to our tour guide, because its thickness makes it always dark.

One can hardly imagine Little Red Riding Hood finding her way through such a forest to her grandmother's cottage.

We descended into meadows and foothills of indescribable beauty--the fields so green, the farmhouses so pretty with their steep slate roofs and red geraniums tumbling in profusion from every window; barns painted and picturesque; yards tidy; woodpiles neat as matches in a box; pretty brown cows with fetching eyelashes.

It was a world that one expects to see only on calendars and in travel magazines. It was impossible to imagine that the people who had lived in those houses in the 1930s could have accepted and sustained one of history's ugliest wars and persecutions.

Every little town was marked by its church, many with onion domes from the Turkish occupation; and by its brewery. Thus man's spiritual and physical needs were provided for in every hamlet.

As we rolled through this picture-book countryside the bus was playing Bavarian music, including some fancy yodeling by a young woman named Franzi; we were promised we would see her in the flesh in Munich. Our tour guide, Ursula, had beer on ice, and I found that an occasional beer went well on the road, to go with the yodeling.

That evening we came to Lindau, a picturesque resort town on Lake Constance, and stayed in a gem of a small hotel on the lake; it reminded me of the Ischian hotel in which Jack Lemmon and that plump but pretty English actress had their romantic rendezvous in "Avanti." It was one of several charming small hotels that the tour company put us up in.

Back on the road the next morning we came finally to Neuschwanstein castle, the ultimate in fairy-tale castles, which rises from its alpine setting, turret upon turret, spire above spire, like a madman's hallucination, which indeed it was.

It was a picture of this castle on a company brochure that had led us to take this tour, but the climb from the tourist center below the castle to its gate was so long and steep that I decided to wait below while my wife walked up.

She began trudging up the path through the woods with the other hardy members of our group while I walked down to the lake and sat on a bench beside it, contemplating the swans and the hubris of European monarchs who had erected such extravagant monuments to their divine persons, all expenses ultimately borne, of course, by the peasants, who were allowed in the castles only to fetch wood for the great fireplaces and to labor in the kitchens.

In the tourist center I had bought a booklet on King Ludwig II, who had built this particular piece of cake and two or three others, and found out that he was not necessarily mad, since he hated war, and tried to keep Bavaria out of a ruinous war with Prussia, but was overruled by his council.

He seemed to have an aversion to marriage; perhaps he was incapable of a romantic interest in women. He became engaged to his cousin Princess Sophie, only to jilt her; but he adulated and sponsored the composer Richard Wagner, in whose music he found the realization of his own romantic dreams; and he was mad, evidently, about castles.

In the end, brought down by his extravagances and his internal enemies, he was certified as insane, dethroned, and kept prisoner in another of his castles until he set out on a walk one evening with his doctor-keeper and the two of them disappeared. Their bodies were found in the nearby lake. How they died remains one of Bavaria's dark mysteries to this day.

I finished the book and was having a beer at the inn when my wife came back, exhausted but exhilarated. She had loved the castle for its romantic aspirations, but she did think it a bit ostentatious of the king.

That afternoon we stopped to look into the famous Church in the Meadow, a concoction so fantastic in its gilded and sculptured exuberance that I thought it demonstrated for me, finally, the difference between rococo and baroque. As one woman on the bus put it, "Rococo is just baroque but more so." But the little guidebook insisted it was baroque.

The Church in the Meadow was built in the 18th Century as a place of pilgrimage, to contain a statue of a bloodied Christ that a farmer's wife had observed shedding tears. Thousands came from all over Europe to see the object of this miracle, and it may still be seen today in a niche above the altar. I still say the church is rococo, and hardly less mad than Ludwig's Neuschwanstein.

That night we stayed in a lovely small hotel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which is famous as a ski resort; but no one told us that at twilight they would lead the pretty brown cows in from the meadow and down the street in front of it.

The next day we rolled on to Ettal, an enormous Benedictine monastery, stopped for lunch in Oberammergau, home of the Passion Play, and saw Linderhof, another of Ludwig's castles, which inspired our guide to call our tour the "ABC Tour," for "Another Bloody Castle."

But I was eager to get on to Munich in time for the Oktoberfest.

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