Z is for ZCE (Berchtesgaden)

A long way down

The bus drove up the side of the mountain, the narrow road only wide enough for the bus itself. From the road, the mountain dropped straight and sheer to the valleys thousands of metres below. From my seat beside the window of the bus, I could look straight down to the valley. There was no room for mistakes. Only wings on the bus might have made me feel more secure.

The road wound round and round the mountain. Buses, by their very nature, take corners very differently to a small car. As we approached a hairpin corner, the bus would approach at speed, driving straight ahead to ensure there was room to turn. Unfortunately for those at the back of the bus, it felt as if the bus was accelerating off the edge of the mountain. The entire six kilometre trip was terrifying.

At the end of the road, after a climb of 800 metres, the bus stopped in a small car park. The mists swirled below us, and we saw an entrance to the face of the mountain. It was a beautiful June day, although the air was cooler at the high altitude. But as we entered the tunnel into the mountain, we shivered. The air was considerably cooler, but this wasn’t the only reason for our shudders. We were all suddenly, acutely, aware that we were walking in the footsteps of one of the most notorious characters of the 20th century. For we were about to visit the Eagle’s Nest or Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s retreat and holiday home, his 50th birthday present (although apparently he only visited it about ten times).

At the end of the tunnel, we stepped into the elevator, lined with polished brass, Venetian mirrors and green leather, it spoke of privilege, of ages past, of evil. But like the road that got us there, the elevator also spoke of engineering achievement, rising 120 metres (400 ft) through sheer rock, a feat that cost the lives of twelve workers in 1938.

The lodge itself is not at all memorable to me, as I write this 19 years later, other than the awareness of the history of the lodge, the presence of the characters from the mid-century horror story that is WWII.

It was a relief to walk out of the lodge, and to appreciate the natural views, there before and after the dictator. The clouds swirled below us, as we could see the snow scattered on mountaintops around, above and below us, despite the warm temperatures of summer. This is what I want to remember of Berchtesgaden – the natural beauty, the steep cliffs, the human ingenuity, the sheer audacity of building a road and elevator to get to the top of the mountain. But with that sense of wonder comes memories of the horrifying audacity of its former owner. I cannot and will not forget that, either.

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