Bavaria's grand old dames

Jack Montgomery, 04 August, 2017
Jack Montgomery recalls his encounters with two of Germany’s oldest and most characterful cable cars while route-finding for us in southern Bavaria.

The first time we set eyes upon Germany's oldest operating cable car, affectionately known as the Grand Dame of the Alps, the mountaintop was shrouded in mist. From the lower cable car station in Bad Reichenhall, a lone wooden gondola with the number 2 on it drooped, as if tired from decades of effort, before summoning the energy to climb out of the forest and scale the sheer rock face. Occasionally the clouds parted to reveal an imposing ghostly building atop Predigstuhl; a veritable Bond villain's lair of a place.

We weren't due to take the nine-minute trip for another couple of days, but the sight sent an anticipatory shiver down the spine.
Two days later and things were a bit less like the setting for a horror movie. The sky was blue and, although the mountain was still hazy in the early morning sun, it looked far more welcoming. Being a Saturday morning there was a lengthy mixed queue of hikers and Bavarians waiting to catch one of the brace of gondolas which have transported people to the upper reaches of Predigstuhl Mountain since July 1928.

As we were finally about to squeeze into a cable car the guard blocked our way with a thick, coiled cord. Bad luck, another nine minutes to wait. However, that meant we got first choice of position when the next cabin wiggled to a halt, guaranteeing a ringside view. Not such bad luck after all. The wooden gondola slid smoothly out of its bunker and the show began.

We've travelled on countless cable cars in various countries. Each offered something different: wildly diverse scenery, but also something similar. No matter how varied views are, you're more or less certain they'll be stunners.

Predigstuhl's cable car was like a Hans Zimmer movie score, starting jauntily with views over Bad Reichenhall, the surrounding pine forest and the gurgling river which curves past the cable car station, before rising to a rousing crescendo as the car climbed higher and higher, dwarfing lesser mountains and bringing what looked like the whole of Berchtesgaden's countryside into panoramic view. It might literally be Slow Travel but by the time we stepped from the cable car 1,150m further up the mountain we were exhilarated.

And that was only the start of our walking route back to our hotel in Bischofswiesen.
While Predigstuhlbahn was always part of the plan, jumping on Germany's second-oldest cable car, Obersalzbergbahn, wasn't.

The idea was to walk from our hotel in Schwöb all the way to the Eagle's Nest. However, around 10km in, and with a long way ahead, we realised it was a route which wouldn't actually give people much time at the Kehlsteinhaus itself. So we improvised and shortened the route by dropping through the forest to the Windbeutelbaron hütte where, incidentally, they serve the most sinful cake mountains named after surrounding peaks. Our amended route took us past Obersalzbergbahn, a delight of a little cable car which has been operating since 1950 and which is hidden in a narrow trench in the forest. It's so hidden that despite it being a weekend little red cars arrived and departed with hardly any passengers. We instantly made a decision that after visiting the Eagle's Nest we'd return to the town of Berchtesgaden via these scarlet carriages.

Roughly three hours later we were back at Obersalzburgbahn. Whilst we waited, an amiable woman operating the upper cable car station told us how she'd met her partner in Sweden. They'd got to know each other by speaking English as neither could speak Swedish, not initially realising that not only were they both from the same country, they hailed from the same area of Bavaria.

When the cable car arrived it was even more charming than we expected: a tiny, open – but intimate – gondola just big enough for two people. It slid gracefully down the hill, sheltered by the forest, with alluring views of Berchtesgaden's old town way below us.

Halfway down we stopped at a mid-station, sitting in the cabin slightly unsure as to what to do on a deserted platform until, after a few moments, a voice over a tannoy directed us to cross the platform to another cabin which would take us on the final stretch of our journey. We descended slowly to the town with huge beaming smiles on our faces and as giddy as children. It was an enchanting way to end the route.

Starting one day's walking by catching a grand dame of a cable car was something special. Ending another day travelling on her lesser-known little sister was even better, especially as she deposited us in a town where there was a choice of jovial beer gardens in which to toast a memorable experience with a ceramic jug of frothy jubilee ale.


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