Germany’s Best Kept Winter Secret
Ok. I’m officially on board the ‘Germany is underrated’ bandwagon. I’ve heard it said, and I’ve certainly thought it a little bit before, but after a recent trip to the Allgäu region of Bavaria I’m convinced of it. I flew to Memmingen Allgäu Airport and spent a few days in Oberstdorf snowboarding and visiting some of Allgäu’s best sights, and while there were plenty of tourists, most people I spoke to had travelled here from other parts of Germany.
So obviously the Germans know the score and are taking full advantage of everything this beautiful region has to offer, but it struck me that perhaps it really is true, that the country sometimes gets overlooked by international tourists. And I think we’re really missing out. Of course, the Germans might be keeping it a secret on purpose – I mean, if I could keep this perfect little slice of Bavaria all to myself I probably would. But my job is to tell you all about it, and secrets don’t pay the rent, so here goes…
Get there and around
From Allgäu Memmingen Airport it’s easy to get where you want to go in the region. For short ski breaks it’s perfect, with Oberstdorf just an hours’ drive from the airport. Car hire is your best bet if you want to travel around a little bit, and particularly if you have bulky ski/snowboard gear to bring with you. It cuts three-hour journeys down to an hour, and it gives you freedom to move around in the region at times that suit. Yes, it can be intimidating to drive in snowy conditions (especially if you’re used to driving on the left side of the road too), but the roads here are well-signposted, and maintained with that famous German precision and attention to detail. Drive safe and it’s fine! If driving’s not an option, you can get a train (€16) from Memmingen which will have you in Oberstdorf in just over an hour – or you can book a private transfer too (a great option for families and groups) at Allgäu Airport Express.
I stayed in the Explorer Hotel just outside the town (a five minute drive from the centre of town). It’s bright, funky and comfortable, and it’s specifically geared towards people who want active holidays – there’s loads of space for storing skis/boards (and even a workbench for fixing and adjusting your gear). You get a big fat buffet breakfast in the morning (from 7am), and it has a gorgeous spa area that will soothe your grateful, aching muscles after a long day on the slopes. As far as ski lodgings go, you couldn’t ask for better – particularly if you’re on a budget. They do special snow deals too, which include your accommodation, breakfast and a ski pass – and the local ski shuttle will take you from the hotel to the slopes, for free. Nebelhorn is the closest area, but Felhorn, Mittelberg and more are just a few more minutes’ drive away. If you’re a fan of the planet, you’ll like this place even more when you hear that they ae 100% climate neutral – they leave no carbon footprints in the snow.
The hotel in Oberstdorf is a great base from which to see more of Allgäu too, with Neuschwanstein Castle just under an hour away – and you really should see Neuschwanstein Castle. You’ve probably seen photos of it, looking like it stepped right out of Walt Disney’s imagination and perched itself atop a pine-covered mountain in Bavaria. It’s pure fairy tale, and there’s something extra special about seeing it surrounded by snow-covered forest. The interior of the castle is incredible; every last square inch was planned and decorated to within an inch of its life by King Ludwig II, a.k.a. ‘The Swan King’. That was Ludwig’s buzz – he just wanted to be surrounded by beauty, and building ridiculously opulent palaces and castles was how he did it. In this particular one, you’ll find an actual indoor grotto, a unicorn, a dragon, and an inordinate amount of swans and stars among other flamboyant things. Guided tours (available in German and English) are €12, and should be booked in advance. Take a horse and cart ride up to the castle if you don’t fancy the 30 minute walk, and check the Fuessen tourism site for more info.
Fuessen is a few minutes’ drive from the castle. It’s completely charming, a lovely spot to explore and the perfect place to have some lunch before or after you’ve seen the castle. Framed by Alps and looking like a perfect little toy town, it marks the southern end of Germany’s Romantic Route for good reason. There are loads of places to take lunch, but try to go to one of the hybrid store/restaurants in the town – they have a great atmosphere and serve beautiful traditional food. I ate in the ‘Lila Haus’, which in addition to serving great food sells homemade schnapps, beautiful trinkets, ornaments and decorations, wine, meats and cheeses. I ordered a fantastic plate of local venison with spaetzle (little dumplings), which could not have been more perfect after a long morning of walking and touring. Oh, and when you’re in Fuessen, treat yourself to some schneeballen. They’re weird delicious balls of tangled shortcrust pastry, filled with various flavours of cream and ganache – probably a good idea to have someone to share one with too, they’re big.
Skiing and snowboarding in Oberstdorf is great. Nebelhorn – home to Germany’s longest downhill slope at 7.5km – was more than enough mountain for my short stay and intermediate ability, but I have it on very good authority from my instructor, Eli (“like Alien but without the -en“, he tells me), that there’s plenty of downhill in the area to entertain far better riders than I, and for much longer stays. I rented my snowboard and boots from NTC Sport Oberstdorf, and got my lessons at Out of Bounds, a cool snowboarding school where you can get group or private lessons, but you can also hang out a bit in the shop in warm and chilled out surroundings, and have a coffee or hot chocolate before you hit the slopes (or a beer/schnapps afterwards). If you’re a skier, NTC Sport is the place to go for your lessons.
Despite the heavy snow and high winds that put a bit of a dampener on our days riding, its still awesome and the lessons prove to be a very good investment – Eli soon had me out of my comfort zone, trying new manoeuvres and even doing jumps and 360s. They were very, very small jumps and equally questionable 360s, but they were jumps and 360s nonetheless. If Eli is anything to go by, the instructors here know what they’re doing, and if you want to progress and become more confident on your board, I really recommend investing in some lessons.
My only complaint about snowboarding here is that a shortage of time meant I didn’t get to do nearly as much of it as I’d have liked. Still, gives me an excuse to go back…
It’s not just skiing and snowboarding either; there’s all kinds of other outdoors stuff you can get stuck into in the area. If you’re a fan of going down mountains really fast, then you’ll like doing it on toboggans as well as on skis or a board, so give it a go. Of course to really enjoy the ride downhill, it’s best to work for it first – with an uphill struggle. I hiked up Salober Alm with Andre from Allgäu-Aktiv, dragging my toboggan behind me and struggling against some seriously high winds and blizzard conditions. It was… a bit intense, but really beautiful, and of course it helps when your guide keeps you laughing along the way . At the top of the mountain, I was rewarded not only with the knowledge that I’d just hiked over the border and into Austria, but also with the sight of a cosy wooden mountain hut serving well-earned Bavarian beers and the best hazelnut schnapps I’ve ever tasted. It’s worth climbing mountains for. We stopped here for a little drink and some Kaiserschmarrn (warm, thick shredded pancake with apple sauce), before making our toboggan descent. In about three minutes. After an hour’s climb. Totally worth it. If tobogganing’s not for you, try a snow-shoe hike – but whatever you do, get outside and experience Bavaria’s beautiful outdoors.
Food’s another thing that I think is grossly underrated in Germany. Some people look at weisswurst and are turned off by its pallour and float-in-wateriness, or are intimidated by the sheer size and slightly gnarled look of schweinshaxe (not to mention its translation to ‘pork knuckle’) – but I loved every bite of everything I ate. Weisswurst, incredibly tender schweinshaxe, rich, comforting goulash, very moreish cheese soup, fresh local venison, kaesespaetzle (cheesy dumplings, aka the ultimate tummy-hug), warm apple strudel with vanilla sauce… trust me that after a day outside in Bavarian winter, a big plate of Bavarian food is exactly what you want. What you need. And so often while you’re dining, you’ll have lederhosen-clad musicians playing traditional Bavarian music to accompany your meal. It’s just great. Drink some of that famous Bavarian beer, a few mugs of warming gluhwein, and make sure you try some schnapps . And keep an eye out in the coming weeks for a dedicated Bavarian food post!
This part of Bavaria ticked all the boxes for me, really. Mountains, snow, beautiful buildings, big food, awesome friendly people, and of course, accordion-playing men in leather trousers. If you haven’t considered Oberstdorf and Allgäu for a winter break because you’ve been all dazzled by the huge French Alpine resorts or the well known Austrian ones, take a step back and think about coming here. You won’t be disappointed. I’m already planning my return – and the good news is that the season lasts into April here, so there’s plenty of time to organise one more weekend away.