Mountains of history and happiness: The Alps from Hannibal to Heidi, and adventures in between

If you grew up in (West) Germany in the 80s or 90s, thinking of mountains in general and the Alps especially triggered one thought: Heidi. The famous children’s TV show – based on a popular Swiss novel – shaped the idea of living in the mountains for a generation. Heidi connected Switzerland and Germany, telling the story of a little girl who moves to her grandfather living on a farm high up in the Alps, and then has to move back to Frankfurt, where the big city life absolutely does not agree with her: Life is better close to nature, especially if this nature includes sky high peaks and green meadows full of cows and sheep, some serious yodeling and an alphorn every now and then.

If you have never encountered yodeling, this would be a good start for your alpine experience: a proper Bavarian yodeler demonstrates his skills.

What is an alphorn, you ask? It resembles a didgeridoo in its simplicity, and its sounds best in a valley, where echo adds to the dramatic effect:

We won’t mention the famous Schuhplattler dance here, simply because it is Bavarian, not necessarily alpine. Google at your own risk. For North Germans like me, usually called “Prussians” or also “Saupreissn” by Bavarians, Schuhplattler connects to to another German word: Alptraum. It translates to English as “nightmare”, and it doesn’t really refer to the Alps, despite its spelling. Instead, it refers to the word “Alb”, which is an elflike creature that was thought to bring bad dreams. “Albtraum” is another common spelling of the word.

Not that the alpine region had a lack of dark and spooky stories. Myths and legend wait to be discovered under every one of the million stones and rocks the mountains are made of. Many of them tell of wars long gone, as the Alps have always been a natural border between countries and empires. The Roman Empire fell when it lost control of the passes between the massive peaks, giving way to “barbarians” – although historians might challenge this simplified description, given that the Germanic king who finally toppled the Empire didn’t have to cross the mountains, since he already served in Rome as the commander of an army of mercenaries.

An African general centuries before taught the Romans to not rely on the Alps for protection: Hannibal led a huge army from Carthago via Spain across the mountains, including several elephants. Whoever has crossed the Alps today knows what a phenomenal achievement this must have been.

Less than 80 paved passes exist today, surely not a lot given the total length of the Alps of 1,200 km – 750 miles, at a height of up to 4,800m. The area of 298,128 km is home to more than 13 million people and includes most of Switzerland and huge parts of Austria. Besides these two countries, the mountain range touches France, Italy, Germany and Slovenia as well as the tiny nations of Liechtenstein and Monaco.

Most travelers will do best using one of the four main passes – Mont Cenis, Simplon, Gotthard and Brenner – or even one of the rare tunnels, all of which are master pieces of engineering and took years to cut. The longest of the tunnels, the Gotthard Tunnel, measures 17km length. While this is less than half of the Eurotunnel, drilling through the massive rock of the Alps was a totally different challenge.

Natural beauty

Even if you usually are a coast person, preferring the waves of the ocean from cloud covered mountain peaks, it’s hard to remain unimpressed by the majestic views of the Alps. Snowy heights, green valleys, breathtaking panoramas, deep lakes invite tourists throughout the year: Skiing, Wellness, farm holidays, hiking, adventure trips and of course proper mountaineering, with mountains like Zugspitze (Germany’s highest peak), the infamous Matterhorn that appears as an unclimbable rock tower, the Eiger mountain with its dark, brooding North Face that only the most skillful alpinists can master… and of course the Mont Blanc, the White Mountain, highest point of Western Europe, towering at 4,807.81m.

These mountains have birthed legends like Reinhold Messner, German-Italian mountaineer from Tyrol, who was the first to climb Mount Everest on his own – and did it again, but this time without oxygen tank. He went on to cross Antarctica and the Gobi Desert on foot and climbed all eight of the highest mountains on the planet. His career started with freeclimbing in the Alps, climbing the North Face of the Eiger in just 10 hours in 1974 was the start of his fame.

If risking your life climbing in hostile environments is not your idea of a holiday, there is plenty of hiking in the Alps – with views as impressive and experiences to last a lifetime. A tour in the “Berchtesgadener Alpen” in Bavaria, for example, visiting the world famous Watzmann and the karst plain of the Stone Ocean, the “Steinernes Meer”, with a stop at the Königssee, the King’s Lake, occupying a dark fjord at the foot of the Watzmann mountain.

An ancient saga describes the mountain as an old king, accompanied by his wife and his children, represented by lower mountains next to the main peak. The king and his family were turned into stone after committing various atrocities against his loyal subjects. It was the blood of the royal family that created the Königssee.

Innumerable myths like this surround every mountain in the Alps. The Säuling, for example, close to the city of Füssen, is well known to be a meeting point for witches, a place to dance and cast horrible spells. The devil himself is, so the legend, a common guest at these events. The village of Roßhaupten, below the Säuling, has proof of one of his visits, when he threw a huge rock straight from the peak into the village square, destroying the newly built church. The impressive piece of rock is still visible to this day, and nobody believes the geologists who explained that the devil’s missile could not possibly come from the Säuling, because its material doesn’t match.

Ghosts, gnomes, fairies and wizards also rule in the mountain ridge between Berchtesgaden and Salzburg. They make for good stories all on their own, but even more important is their task as guards of Emperor Charlemagne, who despite being buried in the Dome in Aachen, waits in the Untersberg mountain for his resurrection. Surrounded by mystical creatures he is sleeping there, waking up only once in every century to count the ravens surrounding the mountain. If their number ever reaches 24 when the old Emperor wakes up, he will stand up and summon his entourage to rule Germany again.

Interestingly, a similar tale exists featuring Emperor Barbarossa, who is said to sit in a mountain palace in Thuringia, in the much smaller Kyffhäuser mountain. If you plan an expedition to meet a medieval German ruler on your next holiday, you might want to take into account that there is a good chance to either be in the wrong place, or face the even worse issue that two of them could wake up at the same time and fall out over the question who is the actual boss. If you dare to be in the middle of this epic conflict, don’t forget a camera. It’s going to be a YouTube hit!

The Zuggeist – ghost without a train

It goes without saying that the highest mountain of Germany, the Zugspitze, also has its spooky myths connected to it. The setting surely is perfect for it: The rough, high peak, bordered by the Zugspitzplatt, a high karst plateau hiding numerous caves, surrounded by three ancient glaciers, the largest in Germany, one of them with the resounding name of “Höllentalferner”. Höllental literally translates to “Hell Valley”, could it be any more intimidating?

It took until 1820 for Zugspitze to see its First Ascent by mountaineers, and the reason for this late date clearly is the Zuggeist. The name of this legend is irritating on many levels, as the word “Zug” might be a draught as well as a train in German, and a “train ghost” could be anything from an undead railroad victim to a gloomy conductor haunting a train carriage.


The real Zuggeist, however, is a horrible bird, half eagle, half vulture, protecting the treasures hidden inside the mountain. The Zuggeist is a cruel opponent, utilising everything from his sharp claws to thunder and lightning, and pioneer mountaineer Josef Naus and his team claim they actually met the beast. Without Naus’ pistol, they would have fallen prey to the Zuggeist, and even after they met it to the peak, they had to fight their way back through a brutal thunderstorm on their way back – the revenge of the mountain’s protector for sure.
Travelling through the Alps, you might also encounter a Tatzelwurm, a 2m high half-dragon with the face of a cat, or maybe a Wolpertinger, a Bavarian gnome with filthy attitude.

Less spooky. More active.

Back to reality: The Alps are a paradise for tourists and travellers alike. There’s plenty to do for budget travelers or those seeking relaxation and entertainment. There is even more to explore for nature lovers who want to dive deep into full on experiences for body and mind – from swimming to hiking or climbing. Fans of culture, music, arts and history find themselves at the bleeding edge between central European nations and (former) superpowers. Museums, castles, great cities, endless forests and lakes that invite for swimming or boat trips, all this packaged with mild temperatures in spring, warm wind in summer, fresh air in autumn and cracking cold minus degrees in winter and (for now) guaranteed snow for wintersport enthusiasts.

Despite the small number of passes through the mountain range (as mentioned above), reaching the region isn’t difficult at all. The Alps are very much the centre of central Europe, there are plenty of airports everywhere around them – Salzburg or Innsbruck in Austria, for example, or the Bavarian metropolis Munich. All of these places are worth a trip on their own as well. Traveling from the North into the Alps by train is an amazing trip – naming Innsbruck as target station leads to a breathtaking tour of the mountains of Tyrol. The German motorways A7 and A9 also lead straight to the mountain world of South Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Round trips are encouraged – either on foot or even by car – with plenty of farms, chalets and small hotels inviting for a stop and a sleepover to enjoy Bavarian hospitality and food. Don’t be fooled into believing that the Oktoberfest cuisine so well known in the UK is actually traditional Bavarian food. While usually savoury and filling, proper South German cooking is fresh and remains close to nature, and especially in the alpine region, most of it comes from ecologically correct farming in the mountains.

As always: There’s much more to say about every single topic we have covered in this blog. There is, however, also a case to be made to experience the real life of Germany – be it by learning the language and enjoying its literature and music, or by actually travelling there. Over the last years, we have covered Germany from North to South, East to West. What’s left is to wish you all the best for your own exploration.

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