Murnau and Kochelsee

Sunday 16th September 2012, Riegsee, Bavaria
Looking at the map this morning we realised we are fast approaching Munich where we are not expected for a couple more days. Munich has several lovely lakes nearby, which we decided to investigate. Just before we left Exeter our friend Hubert, from Weimar, rang to say that when in Bavaria we really should visit Murnau. He was positive we’d enjoy it. So here we are, camped beside one of the lakes with the clear outline of the Alps seemingly within touching distance. Around the lake are pine forests and fields of cattle and horses. The lake is small by German standards but a popular place for swimming and boating. It being Sunday, people from Munich have been out enjoying the hot sunshine of a September afternoon before winter arrives, all too soon here.

We kept company with the Danube for a little longer, following it down to Mengen before our ways parted for a while. We’ll see it again before long. To begin with the weather was cold and foggy, the morning mist clinging to the tree tops. At Ottobeuren, Ian discovered, there is a Benedictine abbey decorated in the baroque style so typical of Southern Germany. It is rated in our Michelin guide as worthy of three stars! Well, we needed a break, it was lunch time and I was prepared to indulge Ian despite my growing irritation with the baroque. The first couple we see each trip are always awesome. It’s impossible not to have some kind of reaction to the sheer extravagance of the paintings covering walls and ceilings, framed in curled, elaborate stucco surrounds with bare breasted nymphs, and golden cherubs with swords, trumpets, scrolls and flowers dangling from every possible ledge or crevice. This style of church decoration reached its zenith in this part of Germany during the early 18th century and the cloister at Ottobeuren is one of the most elaborate. While I cannot like it, it’s impossible not to admire it and wonder at the amount of money there must have been back then to lavish on what is essentially an extreme work of ostentatious art rather than a place for religious contemplation. The church, completed in 1748, marks the climax of the baroque architect Johann-Michael Fischer. The paintings, stuccoes and statues are the work of German and Italian artists.

Main altar,Ottobeuren
Relics on a side altar, Ottobeuren
Painted and decorated ceiling in a side aisle, Ottobeuren

There are several altars, each with their religious relics. In keeping with the baroque, the mortal remains of the saints are displayed in elaborate reliquaries. Thigh bones, fingers and skulls are all carefully wrapped in fine pink netting and silk to give something of the appearance of real flesh! Where enough bones remain to form a skeleton – give or take a limb or two – the remains had been dressed in elaborate velvets and silks where they sat on their altars in their glass cases grinning out at those who came to pray. Their skulls had benefitted from dental work that did credit to the very best of German Zahnartzte!

Mortal remains of one of the saints, Ottobeuren

The church forms a part of the extensive cloisters, three stories high, the corridors also decorated with paintings and baroque stucco work. Here we found the Hall of the Emperors. It now appears to be used for concerts but was presumably intended originally for civic rather than religious activities. It has statues of several German emperors around the walls, each dressed in armour and all managing somehow to look incredibly camp!

Hall of the Emperors, Ottobeuren
Oh, what lovely knees! Ottobeuren
Oh you do look so splendid! Ottobeuren
Up yours, peasants! Ottobeuren

From the outside the cloister complex looks subdued by comparison to its interior. Much of the effect of grandeur is an illusion, no more than clever brush work on the bare walls to give the impression of ornate windows and door frames. Even the brickwork is no more than paint on plaster! All the extravagance has been lavished on the interior of the church.

Benedictine Abbey, Ottobeuren
Benedictine Abbey, Ottobeuren

The little town of Ottobeuren sits insignificantly below the Abbey. All towns we have seen in the south of Germany are immaculately clean and smart, pretty and sometimes rather twee. There is absolutely nothing to fault with them. They can consequently seem rather boring places, each with an open square with flower-beds and a water feature. Around the square will be a smart bakery frequently also offering coffee and cake, a pharmacy, a butcher’s shop selling charcuterie, sausages and ready prepared meals as well as meat, perhaps a post office, several restaurants and of course a church. Ottobeuren fits the mould, but with a rather more elaborate church! By now the fog had long gone and the brilliant sunshine was reflected from the white paved town square. Every bar and restaurant terrace was filled with Sunday visitors to the abbey enjoying sausages in some form together with fried potatoes and salad with a beer. At 29 degrees we would have found it far too hot on the square. Business was brisk too at the ice-cream cafes where a huge palette of ice cream in any fruity or chocolaty combination you can imagine is displayed in deep troughs at the front of the shop.

Main square, Ottobeuren
Abbey seen from the town square, Ottobeuren

After that the rest of the day has mainly been driving. Traffic has been both fast and heavy along winding roads that pass through similar villages all the way. We’ve had vistas of the Alps beyond the green fields and woodland through which we have been travelling. It has been pleasant but tiring. At one point we pulled into a lay-by for a break and fell asleep on Modestine’s benches for an hour! With temperatures that fluctuate from 4 to 29 degrees between 9am and 3pm I guess we can be excused for feeling sleepy.

Once we arrived here we took a little stroll down to the water’s edge. There were still a few people in swimming. Most of the campers here are German. They are friendly and chatty and as usual, they all love Modestine and want to know how we live in her.

Lakeside at the campsite, Riegsee

Monday 17th September 2012, Bad Tölz, Bavaria
If you wish to camp in this part of Germany you will invariably find yourself beside a lake. They are all superb, teeming with tiny fishes – and some not so tiny. The clear water reflects the pine forests, the mountain peaks and the summer sky that today has been so very blue and cloudless. It was inevitable therefore that tonight you join us on the edge of yet another lake, too small to appear on our atlas, just outside Bad Tölz. Actually, we had no information about camping in this area but, seeing a lake, we surmised correctly that all we needed to do was drive around it until a campsite popped its head up and invited us in. It’s a very nice one too though a little too near the busy road on the far side of the lake. This evening we took our chairs and supper down to the water’s edge and ate there as the sun gradually lost its heat and slipped away behind the trees at the far end of the lake leaving the sky crimson red with streaks of mauve and blue. I regard it as our reward for the dreadful heat we’ve contended with all day when it has been up at 33 degrees. That’s just too hot to enjoy exploring.

First thing this morning, when the air still felt fresh, we drove into Murnau leaving poor Modestine to bake on a hot area of tarmac on the edge of the town. Hubert had praised the town greatly. While it is certainly a very pleasant place it did not strike us as exceptional. The main street has at least one of everything it could need and the rest is filled with coffee shops, steh cafes, bars and restaurants. There is a castle above the town –how predicable – where there is an exhibition of the works of the artist Gabrielle Munter who lived and painted in the town. She died here in 1963 and is buried in the churchyard. She was the companion of the artist Kandinski who also worked here with her but predeceased her. Her home is a museum but of course all art galleries, museums and places of cultural interest are closed on Mondays! Almost certainly, knowing the cultural inclinations of Hubert, it was the Kandinski/Munter connection that set the town on a pedestal for him.

Obermarkt by Kandinsky. 1908
Untermarkt by Gabrielle Munter, 1908; Murnau
Obermarkt by Kandinsky, 1908; Murnau
Yellow House, Gabrielle Munter, 1908, Murnau

It was pleasant though with a baroque church which we would once have considered highly elaborate but after yesterday’s baroque banquet it seemed almost restrained.

Murnau church
Murnau church
Baroque confessional, Murnau

Ian enjoyed seeking out paintings of the town by Munter and Kandinski copied strategically around the streets and executed around 1900, then photographing the town from the same spot today.

At lunch time we tried out the local butcher’s shop. It’s quite normal in Germany to serve meals at the butchers which are generally excellent value both in quality and quantity. Normally people stand at high tables in the shop to eat so it’s not very relaxing but ideal for businessmen in a hurry. Today’s stehcafe however actually had tables and it was very comfortable. Almost everyone today seemed to opt for stuffed red peppers served with rice but other choices could have been half a chicken, Bratwurst, Currywurst, Leberkäse or breaded pork cutlet. All of these could be served with mixed vegetables, potato salad, rice, gnocchi, potato purée, tomato salad, cucumber salad and more.

After restocking Modestine’s fridge with essentials we bought a large piece of Pflaumentorte (plum tart) at the bakers for Ian and left Murnau in search of somewhere cooler. Thus we spent our afternoon on the shady banks of the Kochelsee with our feet plunged into the tepid waters of the lake. A little ferry boat made its way around four or five villages along the shores of the lake and the reed beds were filled with coots and moorhens squarking and hooting continuously. Other than that it was silent. With the first range of the Alps rising beyond the far bank of the lake there can be few more pleasant places to while away a couple of hours during the heat of the day.


We’d heard of a hydro-electric generating plant on the Kochelsee and sought it out. Freely open to the public and managed by E-On it was somewhere that appealed to both of us and a change from church architecture and embellishment.

There are two mountain lakes, the Walchensee lying 200 metres higher in the hills than the Kochelsee. Back in the 1880s Oskar von Miller conceived the idea of using the water power of the upper lake to turn turbines to generate electricity as they flowed under pressure through long tubes down the hillside forcing the water into the turbines before flowing on to enter the Kochelsee. Coal resources were few in Bavaria and Miller hoped to supply all the electricity needs of the area using hydroelectric power. The project was eventually funded by the German government and work began immediately after the end of WW1 in 1918. It was completed in 1924. At the time, with a capacity of 124,000 kilowatts, it was one of the world’s largest hydro-electric power stations and it is still one of the largest water-powered generators in Germany. The power station is of course carbon neutral making it a particularly valuable resource at a time when environmental protection is of such vital importance.

Walchensee Hydroelectric Works. Seen in the Deutches Museum, Munich
Water generated turbines, Walchensee Hydroelectric Works.
Turbines, Walchensee Hydroelectric Works.
Surge tank and power pipes, Walchensee Hydroelectric Works.
Power pipes feed to the engine room, Walchensee Hydroelectric Works.
Switching station, Walchensee Hydroelectric Works.

We decided not to drive higher into the mountains to investigate the Walchensee. We’d need to drive back down again and we’d already got a pretty clear idea of how it worked from below. Besides, we needed to find somewhere to camp for tonight. So we turned Modestine towards Munich, where we hope to arrive tomorrow, and kept our fingers crossed we’d find a campsite somewhere along the way – which of course we have.