Europe’s Five Stars, Part 5: Garmisch, Germany

Can you count the continent’s best resorts on one hand? Maybe not, but you could make a pretty good start. Five countries, five landmark resorts that define the European experience. American skiers, beware: The spells they cast may enthrall you forever.
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Can you count the continent’s best resorts on one hand? Maybe not, but you could make a pretty good start. Five countries, five landmark resorts that define the European experience. American skiers, beware: The spells they cast may enthrall you forever.
Skiing in Garmisch, Germany

Kitschy, corny, cuckoo -- Bavaria dares you not to fall in love with it. And when you do, don't be embarrassed. You never had a chance.

As the train glides southward out of Munich, I try not to enjoy the beautiful scenery—the glistening Starnberger See and the rolling, snow-dusted farmland of the Pfaffenwinkel Region—as if doing so would betray my family’s dark memories of this country.

The first pang of disloyalty struck yesterday, when I learned that Munich’s iconic Hofbrauhaus—where I’d gleefully oompah-pahed with hundreds of stein-clutching tourists—hosted early Nazi rallies. Now I ride a railway that might once have carried my grandparents in boxcars.

And yet at every turn and with every new acquaintance between Munich and the ski village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the humorless and unforgivable Germany I expected eludes me. I encounter only the warm irresistible charm and fairytale beauty of Bavaria.

A sovereign kingdom until 1918, the German Free State of Bavaria retains a separatist sensibility, resisting assimilation by clinging to regional customs. “You’re not in Germany,” insists my host, Angelika. “You’re in Bavaria.”

I first met Angelika, an archetypal dirndl-wearing fräulein, at a Bavarian maypole ceremony. When I see her again in “GaPa,” she’s wearing the same frock as she welcomes visitors to the 2011 Alpine World Championships. Another dirndled Bavarian will remind me of the region’s most loved and quintessential tradition: Oktoberfest.

Bavarians do indeed know how to throw a good party, especially for the world’s biggest ski race.

Separate villages until Hitler conjoined them to host the 1936 Winter Olympics (the first to include alpine skiing), Garmisch and Partenkirchen retain distinct identities. Garmisch, closer to the slopes, is more modern. It attracts the après action with its pedestrian-friendly Michael-Ende-Kurpark, lined with shops, restaurants and pubs. Partenkirchen, to the east, is traditional, quaint and quiet. The stucco facades of its homes are adorned with colorful frescoes celebrating family histories and patron saints. Its narrow cobblestone lanes are all but deserted by 8 p.m., just as the festivities in Garmisch begin to gather steam.

Earlier in the day, throngs of face-painted Swiss, Swedes, Germans, Austrians and French packed the finish arena at the base of the classic Kandahar racecourse. They guzzled glühwein, clanged cowbells (some as big as suitcases) and cheered their national heroes. But at night they mingle, nationless, at communal tables, feasting on salt pork knuckles, Pfälzer sausage and spätzle.

Oh, the spätzle! It’s over a plate of the gooey Emmentaler-and-onion-drenched egg noodles at the Fraundorfer Guesthouse that I finally give in to Bavaria’s charm. As if on cue, two plump boys in lederhosen—like sausage casings around their meaty flanks—shuffle into the crowded dining room and begin a traditional dance. Accompanied by a yodeling accordionist, they stomp their feet and slap their thighs just inches from my table, then shuffle back to the kitchen as quickly as they appeared. They’ll return, on the hour, throughout the night, like a real-life Bavarian cuckoo clock. And I’ll realize that all my defenses have been breached. I like it here, damn it! I really like it.

GaPa’s ski area, like the town at its feet, has two distinct sections. The 40 or so tree-lined trails of Garmisch Classic, including the Kandahar, are easily accessed on foot or by bus from town. The Zugspitze Glacier, atop Germany’s highest peak, is tougher to reach but worth the commute. From the base of Garmisch Classic, you can ride the historic cog railway through the tiny village of Grainau, then catch the Eibsee tram, which climbs up the Zugspitze’s craggy face to its 9,717-foot peak.

Measured by the skiing alone, Garmisch can’t match the other European classics. You can’t tour from village to village, as in Austria, and the lift-served terrain doesn’t sprawl like Chamonix’s. But the impeccably groomed glacier is a carver’s dream, and the Kandahar is one of ski racing’s classic courses. What GaPa lacks in size or scope of ski terrain it more than makes up for in culture, charm and strudel. Did I mention the strudel?

In Partenkirchen, Hotel Mercure is quiet, simple and cozy ($193–$335 per night). Just down the village’s main drag is the stately Atlas Grand. To get closer to the slopes and the après action, check out the Staudacherhof in Garmisch.

Take a day away from the slopes to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle, a two-hour bus ride from GaPa. Built in the late 1800s by King Ludwig II, it was Walt Disney’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

Fly into Munich or Innsbruck and take a train straight from the airport to Garmisch for about $50 round-trip. From Munich, select the Garmisch Ski Ticket, which includes train fare and a lift ticket for the day you arrive. Although Innsbruck is closer, it’s separated from GaPa by the Alps. A train from either city takes about an hour and a half. A Kurkarte, or visitor's card, available at any hotel in GaPa, lets you travel on the local buses for free.