The gorgeous, green Walchensee as viewed from above.
After quickie trips to Bologna and Amsterdam, I’m back in one of the best places to visit this time of year: Munich. While Berliners are busy cycling between open air raves and outdoor concerts, locals in this part of the country flock to the banks of the Isar River, sipping a Maß in one of the 180-plus Biergarten, or, best of all, heading out to the countryside. For as lovely as the city itself is (I’ve written about it here and here), one of the best things about the Bavarian capital is its proximity to dozens of glacial lakes. Yes, Wannsee and some of the lakes surrounding the Hauptstadt are also lovely, but it’s hard to compete the clear waters framed by distant, pastel-hued mountains in the background. (For more information and travel details about some of my other personal favorite lakes in the region, check out my article for The Guardian here).
As much as I’ve loved water skiing (well, attempting to do so) on Ammersee, strolling along Starnberger See, and foraging by Schliersee, the twin lakes of Kochelsee and Walchensee, roughly an hour’s drive from downtown Munich, might be some of my favorites. Why? The pair have a rustic, easy-going charm in comparison to, say, Tegernsee, as well as far fewer tourists. Natural minerals lend a gorgeous, glassy, green hue to Walchensee, while Kochelsee sports more understated coloring. This spot was so striking that it was said to have inspired the Der Blaue Reiter, an Expressionist movement launched by artists living in the area. Finally, it’s possible to hike up Herzogstand, a mountain in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, and snag a heart-stopping panorama of the two from the top.
Last weekend, I rose early and joined two fellow urbanites to do just that. Though I grew up camping and hiking in national parks across the United States, it’s not something my current location allows me to do as often as I might like—and a sunny Saturday in July was just too good of an opportunity to miss.
Stopping in an alpine meadow for a quick snapshot of Kochelsee.
The easy way and the hard way
The long and winding road.
Full confession: the last time this particular trio scaled this peak, we weaseled out of the hard work. Honestly, with a fast, easy funicular going all the way up, could you really blame us? The Herzogstandbahn offers the view, sans all the huffing and puffing. As much as we enjoyed lolling around at the top last time, it did feel a bit like cheating somehow.
So this time we resolved to skip the shortcuts. By the time we rolled up to one of the trailheads at Kochelsee, street parking was already in short supply—especially on weekends, it pays to get here as early as possible—but there were still a few slots left for €5. An aging gentleman with a thick Bavarian accent warned us that it was a touch steep at points, but that with any luck we should be at the top in two and a half hours.
While the trails may be well-groomed and paved, he wasn’t kidding about the altitude climb. The first half of the trails ascends at an alarming angle, occasionally passing through a clearing to allow for a glimpse of one of the lakes. Wildflowers in a dreamy range of pinks, violets and yellows carpet the clearings. We chattered along at first, then slowly fell into silence. Though hardly a strenuous trek for experienced hikers, after an hour or so of soldiering uphill, I was a sweating, panting mess and acutely aware of all those muscles quietly atrophying as I sit at my laptop most days.
As if to mock our feeble exertions, mountain bikers would rush past us peddling uphill like lunatics, their faces flushed and dripping. Several actually mustered up the strength to grin or mutter a friendly “Grüß Gott!”
A contemplative cow nibbling on the wildflowers that will later flavor Bergkäse (mountain cheese).
Where to refuel
No offense, NYC, but I'll take this sugar-dusted slice over the Big Apple version any day.
After burning that many calories, my first thought is usually how quickly I can get them back. There’s a rather touristy restaurant at the top, which is absolutely worth it for the backdrop, if not for the food. Last weekend, a couple was getting married and the place was packed with locals decked out in their finest dirndls and lederhosen. I’ve mentioned before that dirndls are one of the most flattering female garments I know, and it’s really true. A number of the guests were rocking full tattoo sleeves, crew cuts, multiple piercings, and stylish, contemporary Trachten.
Portions of Schweinebraten, Käsespätzle and Kaiserschmarrn here are large enough to feed a family of four—and shock even an American. If you’re starving after the hike, it’ll do, but you’re better off saving the big meal for one of the better restaurants back in Kochel am See. In particular, I always go out of my way to swing by the Grauer Bär for a giant slab of Käsekuchen. Not to be confused with New York’s dense, ultra-rich confection, German cheesecake is made with quark, a creamy dairy product somewhat similar to yogurt, and sports a lighter, almost fluffy texture. This one is particular decadent and, when served on a lakeside terrace, makes for a sweet finish to the day.
The view from Grauer Bär's lakeside terrace.