„Hello pilgrims! For the pilgrims' stamp, you will have to go to the church office,“ shouts a middle-aged man when we enter the small village of Wessobrunn in Bavaria. But no, we are not pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela: We are hiking Bavaria‘s oldest long-distance trail, the König-Ludwig-Weg, named after the famous Bavarian King Ludwig II who in the 19th century built (among others) the Neuschwanstein Castle.
We have both hiked this trail before: Isa remembers it from childhood holidays in the 1970s when it seemed to be always raining and snowing and outdoor gear (think corduroy knickerbockers and knitted socks) was sturdy and traditional and anything but waterproof. Natascha, who grew up in Munich, knew some of the trail's stages as day hikes and walked the whole distance in one go about 15 years ago. For quite a while we have toyed with the idea of hiking it once more – this time together.
Day 1: Starnberg to Herrsching (29 km)
A wooden cross rises near the shore in the shallow waters of Lake Starnberg. It is fenced off with a warning not to bath here, but someone has laid a red flower on the lakeshore. Up on the steep, glacier-shaped cliff, a Neo-Romanic memorial chapel has been built for the King: It was here that the young and romantic, and possibly psychically disturbed, King Ludwig II died mysteriously in 1886. How? That is a long story, and there are different theories and factions, and strong beliefs. Maybe he just drowned, but maybe he was murdered by his own physician who went on a walk with him.
The cross and the chapel mark the end of Ludwig’s life, and are ironically the starting point for the Ludwig Trail. From here, we walk for five days along the Bavarian lakes and hills, through meadows, forests, swamps and canyons, towards the Bavarian Alps – and towards the castles of Füssen, most famously Ludwig’s dream castle, Neuschwanstein: the model for all Disneyland castles.
In recent years, the Santiago trail icon has been signposted along the same route as the King Ludwig Trail, quite sensibly, as we pass a number of well-known, lavish baroque churches and monasteries. They have long been pilgrimage sites for reliquaries of local saints and for the miracles that happened here.
On the first day, past the wealthy town of Starnberg and the quiet Maising Ravine as well as some rolling hills and grasslands, we arrive on a small mountain at the Andechs Monastery with its impressive church and a huge beer garden. The monks’ brewery is well-known, but the famous Andechs beer hard to come by elsewhere: Regular visitors keep their own beer steins in long shelves. And the mass (1 litre) goes for a cheap 7 Euros!
Day 2: Herrsching to Wessobrunn (17 km)
We get a slight overdose of light-pink and golden floral ornaments at the numerous churches, and finally struggle to find a shop to secure our dinner – it turns out that the only pub in Wessobrunn is closed just that day.
Day 3: Wessobrunn to Rottenbuch (31 km)
Day 3 is a long hike, with a lot of up and down and natural highlights – up to Mount Hohenpeißenberg and down into the canyon of the Ammer.
On Mount Hohenpeißenberg, we have a good view of the Alps, and good Apfelstrudel. Apart from a very baroque church, there's a historically important meteorological station and a small memorial cross for Jenny Wood, a young British tourist murdered on the King Ludwig Trail in the 1980s.
After an arduous day, skipping Baroque churches for today, we hurry into Rottenbuch's only shop and on toward our pilgrims' guesthouse (which welcomes irreligious hikers just as well). And by the way, the Iglhaut guesthouse was by far the best we stayed at on this hike.
Day 4: Rottenbuch to Halblech (33 km)
We take the full force of Rococo angels in the splendid Rottenbuch monastery church the next morning (but we did miss the mass). And two hours into today's hike the staggeringly stuccoed oval Rococo church Wieskirche comes into view – a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983 for its religious and artistic relevance. Although it is not a "pilgrims' day" a couple of tour busses are ferrying in international visitors who combine Baroque with Weißwurst in one of the restaurants. We opt for the delicious apple pie and then decide to take a slight detour to Steingaden and visit the Abbey Church to cool down: its interior is also Baroque, but the church has retained much older and more solemn elements from Romanic and Gothic periods.
And after so much religious decoration it feels good to walk through the peat bogs of Prem (although the day drags on considerably since there are so few accommodation options in that area and we have to walk well over 30 km again that day).
Day 5 Halblech to Füssen (23 km)
Finally, the last day of the hike is dominated by Neuschwanstein Castle, visible in the distance from morning on and drawing large numbers of (electrically assisted) cyclists to the low hills below the Alps. While we walk between cow paddocks, a troop of ecological cows (those with horns) has broken loose and is storming down the rural road. Cyclists dismount nervously, and some seek shelter behind wooden fences. "We should call the police, shouldn't we" remarks an elderly woman in yellow spandex, somewhat alarmed, and relates that 3 people were already harmed by cows this year. "So, what was the emergency number again?". It turned out the police had no idea what to do – and the elderly cyclist decided to inform the next farmer along the road.
When we finally reach Hohenschwangau, the village below the famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, wild cows seem like a minor nuisance. The village road swarms with people jostling for tables in the restaurants, pushing the queue at the ticket office, battling for places on the shuttle bus to the castles. We give up the idea of a coffee break and continue walking towards Füssen, the cute mediaeval town where our hike ends and where we can take an overcrowded train back to Munich.
*** See also our post: A Baroque stuccoed dream coming true: The Pilgrimage church of Wies ***
Would you be interested in hiking the King Ludwig Path?