Chiemsee in the south of Germany provided Veronica Stivala with a suitable mix of countryside and architectural attractions, from a palace built in the style of Versailles to an island that is home to a Benedictine nunnery and another island named after, well, cabbages.
There is something particularly captivating about a lake landscape bordered by the shadowy blue peaks of tall and craggy mountains. Perhaps this is because I am accustomed to a water landscape that stretches uninterrupted to the horizon, but either way, it is so uplifting to find oneself surprised by the joy of appreciating a new landscape with almost childlike glee.
This is the effect Chiemsee had on me when I visited it recently. See is the German word for lake so, even though many refer to it as Lake Chiemsee, this is wrong as they are essentially calling it Lake Chiem-lake. Chiemsee is so large – it is one of Bavaria’s largest lakes – it is sometimes referred to as the Bavarian Sea. The natural lake sees the rivers Tiroler Achen, Prien and Alz flow into it and is quite special in that it is home to three distinctive islands.
Although I visited Chiemsee in the bleak mid-winter – think temperatures that dropped to the the tiny numbers that hover around zero degrees – the biting cold certainly did not deter the many visitors who had flocked to explore the various attractions the lake and its environs have to offer.
With a satisfactory balance of the refuge of an opulent castle built by an insane king, the enigmatic aura of an island dedicated to women and home to a Benedictine nunnery, an uninhabited island named after a vegetable and a cozy tavern with impressive views of the surrounding mountains trees and lake, it was easy to understand the venue’s allure, despite the cold.
The island area features a convenient ferry that transports passengers to the various islands on the lake. Our first stop took us to Herreninsel (that is, Men’s Island), the largest of the three islands. This island was most impressive because it is home to a magnificent palace built by Kind Ludwig II in 1878.
While signs prepare visitors for a 20-minute walk from the ferry landing to the castle, my party made it in 10 minutes. Nevertheless, the walk past the towering twiggy trees and pebbly ground served as an apt overture to one of the most lavish buildings I have ever set foot in.
Those familiar with King Ludwig II and his string of extravagant constructions will not be surprised to learn of this castle’s features that are so grand they verge on the ridiculous. Ludwig was also the brains, or lack thereof, behind Neuschwanstein (aka the Disney Castle) and Schloss Nymphenberg, both examples structures built and adorned to eyebrow raising levels of opulence.
It comes as no surprise that after having splurged the country’s money on his fanciful desires, Ludwig’s life came to an abrupt and mysterious end when he purportedly drowned in the lakes in the environs of one of his castles. He could swim.
Still, one likes to be impressed and the castle on Herreninsel – Herrenchiemsee – certainly did not fail in this regard. Visitors probably enjoy the castle more than the thing ever did as he only managed to stay at this castle for a meagre nine days. So what makes this castle so grand?
It is built in the style of Versailles. Ludwig had somewhat of an obsession with the Sun King Louis XIV and the palace is replete with features that pay homage to this king, although Ludwig wanted to surpass Versailles with his palace. Other than serving as a monument to absolute monarchy, it had no practical function. I enjoyed our guided tour (this is the only way you can see the inside of the palace) where we were shown a few of the 20 staterooms that included the world’s largest Meissen porcelain (a kind of hard-paste porcelain) chandelier as well as an elevator table that was intended to descend and ascend accordingly with various dishes for the king. The list of flabbergasting features extends to the 98-metre long Hall of Mirrors, an almost perfect copy of the original galerie des glaces in Versailles, which is populated with 44 freestanding lights and 33 glittering pendant chandeliers.
Thankfully, the castle today earns its keep by being a tourist attraction well worth visiting: the main rooms are some of the best examples of 19th-century interior design in existence and are much more splendidly furnished than those in Versailles. No other porcelain collection is so comprehensive or of such high quality and the magnificent textiles are unique.
Fraueninsel (Women Island) provided a much needed contrast and I enjoyed strolling among the small village here that dates as far back as 782. While only visiting guests could enter the monastery, I found the neighbouring chapel with its thick wood interiors and plain, yet powerful, décor coupled with a faint scent of incense and the sound of an organist rehearsing in the background humbling and awe-inspiring.
The last island at Chiemsee is the uninhabited Krautinsel. We did not visit this island for, really, there is not much to it. Save, that is, for its rather interesting (or uninteresting, depending on your point of view) name, which it gets from the Middle Ages, when it was cultivated with, you guessed it, cabbages.
We made our way back on the quaint ferry, braving the biting cold to snap some photos with the glorious mountainous landscape in the background. Many of our fellow passengers had gone to the inside of the boat, but the scenery was too beautiful and we forgot the cold for a while, as had so many of the visitors to Chiemsee that day and as they would for many days to come.