BERCHTESGADEN, West Germany — The elderly gentleman asked if he could join us. "This is the best air in Germany," he said. "I come up here to clear my lungs."
He peered at the menu and advised: "Try the plum tart. It's special this time of year."
I commented on his fluency in English, and he explained: "I painted portraits all over the States--in New York, San Francisco, Carmel and Beverly Hills, and then came back to Berchtesgaden to retire."
We sat in the restaurant at the top of Kehlstein Mountain, the site of Adolf Hitler's Eagle's Nest.
Down below was the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. To our left was Salzburg, Austria, and around us were visitors from all over the world who had come to gaze at the view Hitler once enjoyed.
Although he often came to Eagle's Nest, Hitler did not live there but at Obersalzburg, farther down the mountain.
Site of 'Mein Kampf'
He went there in 1923 after his imprisonment in Landsberg. During his stay, Hitler lived near the home of his sister in a little block house, where he wrote "Mein Kampf."
When Hitler became chancellor of the Reich in 1933 he bought his sister's house and enlarged it. Soon he was followed by thousands of his followers, and his lieutenants bought property nearby.
In 1935 Hitler's home, which he called the Berghof, was enlarged, and the guest house, Turken, became the control center of the Reich's secret service. Joseph Goebbels built a house nearby; so did Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Underground bunkers were constructed, as well as greenhouses and other supply bases. A new Chancellery of the Reich was built near Berchtesgaden.
The Obersalzburg homes of the German High Command were repeatedly bombed by the Allies, and, to ensure against pilgrimages, remains of the Berghof were destroyed in 1952. After a long political struggle, Bavarians were given permission to open a restaurant and outdoor dining area at the solid granite building known as Eagle's Nest.
It was Bormann's idea to build Eagle's Nest for Hitler's 50th birthday at a cost of more than $10 million. Most visitors go there, 6,016 feet up Kehlstein Mountain.
The trip up the mountain is well run, and visitors can take a bus from Berchtesgaden, or drive to Obersalzburg in the foothills of the Kehlstein, where one may walk around ruins of bunkers and homes.
From there the road is open only to special buses from mid-May to mid-October. More than 4 1/2 miles long, it was carved into the rock face of the mountain, and winds through five tunnels on the way to a parking lot 5,577 feet beneath the Kehlstein.
From that parking lot a 406-foot tunnel bores through the mountain, at the end of which another shaft of more than 400 feet lifts visitors into the interior of Eagle's Nest. It costs about $7 for the round-trip bus trip from Obersalzburg to the tunnel, then another $1.65 for the elevator.
The tunnel is meticulously constructed of marble, and the interior of the 45-person elevator reminds one of a pub, with its padded walls and benches, copper walls and siding and ornate light fixtures.
A young American winked at me and said: "Only a dictator could have built this, right?"
A German shepherd, held on a leash by his master, turned not a hair as the elevator rose silently.
It was only in 1944, after the call to total war, that German workers were replaced by foreign ones for the Eagle's Nest project. Because of daily bombardments, attention was directed to completion of the bunker system.
But Berchtesgaden was a resort long before Hitler. Pilgrims, for centuries, came to the churches of St. Bartholoma and Maria Gern, and it was a center for woodworking and salt production.
In 1810 better roads were built, and when the railway reached Berchtesgaden in 1888 it became a favorite haunt of the Bavarian, Austrian and Prussian nobility. The royal house of Wittelsbachof Bavaria built a castle there, which still remains.
From Eagle's Nest, Lake Konigsee looks like an emerald scarf dropped into a cleft of the mountains. Its surface is only two square miles, but it is one of Middle Europe's deepest lakes. It is embedded like a fiord between rock faces, and the mountain slopes prevent any construction of roads and buildings around its perimeter. It is surrounded by a national park.
Electric boats take sightseers across the lake, and halfway across a bugler plays a tune, pauses, and lets the echo from the cliffs repeat the melody. The tour passes the lovely church of St. Bartholoma, with its three semi-domes in the form of a cloverleaf. The two-hour boat trip costs about $7.
The road from Berchtesgaden to Lake Konigsee passes the suburb of Schonau, with its flower-bedecked Gasthofs and homes, green meadows and placid cows and goats.
Renowned Ski Area