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November 2001

Worth its Salt

The wonders of Bad Tölz—from iodine to hot mulled wine

While most mid-sized towns are content to boast merely one claim to fame, Bad Tölz has more than six. The town straddles the River Isar and is enveloped by the Alps; it is the quintessential Upper Bavarian Altstadt (old town). Though perhaps best known in German-speaking countries as the backdrop to a popular TV crime series (Der Bulle von Tölz), Bad Tölz offers much more: Traditional local costumes and handcrafts, the world-renowned “Tölzer Knabenchor” (Boy’s Choir of Bad Tölz), a Christmas market, the annual Leonhardi procession and mineral-rich, healing spa waters. These are but a few of the many reasons to make a trip south from Munich into the “Tölzer Land.”

Bad Tölz is strategically poised at the crossroads of the Roman Salzstrasse (salt road), a trade route between Salzburg and Augsburg. The town, founded in 1180, began as a fishing and rafting settlement. It prospered from the salt and timber trade for centuries. In 1453, a great blaze destroyed most of the town’s timber-framed houses, which were later rebuilt in safer stone. Modern-day Bad Tölz, with its uniform architecture, is the hallmark of prominent Munich architect Gabriel von Seidl (1848-1913), who gave the town an extensive facelift.

Bad Tölz’s development into a center for spa therapy dates to 1846. Local legend has it that Kaspar Riesch, a local farmer’s son, was intrigued by the number of wild animals that often gathered by the waters on a nearby hill. The avid hunter took a bottle of this water to his family doctor, but the physician was unable to detect anything more remarkable than sulfur contents. Only later did a Munich professor of botany chance upon iodine fossilization of sea alga in the region and, alerted to the water by Riesch, established that it contained the vital mineral, iodine. Soon, doctors began to tap the local sources, combining the source water with peat from the Tölzer moor as a means of curing not only arthritis, rheumatism and syphilis, but also ailments of the heart, joints and spinal chord. This therapy, virtually unaltered since early Roman times, is simple: Freshly dug peat is dried, cleaned and pulverized. It is then mixed with hot source mineral water and heated to 39-40°C. Thanks to the special heat-giving properties, moor baths have played a key role in spa treatment in Bavaria since 1845. Therapies today include iodine water-drinking cures, iodine brine inhalation and water gymnastics. (All packages can be booked through the town’s Tourist Information Center.)

The first spa facilities were rudimentary—early iodine bath facilities offered overnight guests straw sacks on which to sleep. Nowadays, visitors can lodge in a range of guesthouses, apartments and clinics, or—the ultimate in spa luxury—the four-star Jodquellenhof, the only hotel in Europe with its own water park. Nearby, the Alpamare water park offers a variety of thrills, including a white water slide, outdoor salt water pool, wave and underwater music pools, as well as the first and only indoor surfing complex in Europe. Visitors who prefer to sample the healing water without undergoing the full spa treatment can sip the local Jodwasser (iodized water) at the circular Wandelhalle (open Monday–Friday 8 to 12 am) opposite the Jodquellenhof. A year-round cultural program of classical and jazz concerts (be on the lookout for the Sunday jazz brunch), theater and lectures guarantees constant diversion in the Kurviertel (cure quarter). Finally, no trip to the spa district of town would be complete without a visit to the glass pavilion of the “Café Garten” to sample exquisite strudel specialties (fillings include poppy seed and nut).

Bad Tölz’s enchanting main street, the 17th-century Marktstrasse, is perhaps the best starting point for a visit to the older part of town. This lively pedestrian zone stretches from a bridge over the Isar up to the Mühlfeld quarter. At the head of the street stands a war memorial celebrating imperial commander Kaspar Winzerer, victor in the Battle of Pavia of 1525. Traditional 18th-century Lüftlmalerei (dry painting), made famous in Oberammergau, graces the facades of almost every patrician Bürgerhaus (town house), making Marktstrasse one of the most picturesque streets in all of Bavaria. The facades feature biblical scenes and local events. Many frescoes in Bad Tölz depict the local farmers’ uprising of 1705 against the Austrian occupation. Some of the most attractive houses on this street are the Schretzenhaus (No. 21), the Sporerhaus (No. 45.) and the Pflegerhaus (No. 59) with its impressive fresco from 1542 (renewed in 1902). The Rathaus (town hall), also ornately decorated, houses the Heimatmuseum (local history museum). Thousands of exhibits on five floors tell the town’s history from salt settlement to spa center. A highlight is the colorful collection of farmhouse treasures, including lovingly decorated chestnut boxes, four-poster beds, cradles and Bauernschränke (country cupboards).

Those visitors who leave the bustling main street and head toward the spire of the Pfarrkirche, will soon be wending their ways through the alleys of Grieß—an area of town with an Italian flair. The late-gothic Maria Himmelfahrt church, built around 1460, redesigned in 1612 and refurbished in the 19th century, is adorned with a fine fan vault, a verre églomisé painting from 1500 and a Madonna statuette suspended in the choir vaults. Among the grave markers laid inside the church is the tomb of the revered Kaspar Winzerer. The Wallfahrtskirche (pilgrimage church) Maria Hilf is perched at the top end of town. This church’s pride and joy is a magnificent fresco that depicts a celebratory parade of 1634, when Bad Tölz was spared from the ravages of plague.

To enjoy some of the best panoramic sights of the nearby Alps without leaving Bad Tölz, take the footpath from the Säggasse (parallel to the Marktstrasse) up to the Leonhardikappelle on the Kalvarienberg. Lining the hill are five chapels built at the end of the 19th century. At the top, you will find a pilgrimage chapel, erected in 1718 by the carpenters of Tölz on the occasion of their safe return from the Bauernschlacht (farmer’s battle) at Sendling in 1705. The chapel’s rococo architecture celebrates Leonhardi, patron saint of horses, cattle and prisoners, and is ringed with iron chains. Only a stone’s throw away stands the ultimate reward for the climb above Bad Tölz: the impressive Kalvarienbergkirche. From the top of this church’s twin spires, visitors can see beyond the hills that swell above the Isar valley, and, on a clear day, on to the majestic Karwendel mountains.

A popular address for visitors of all ages is the marionette theater, founded in 1908. In its early years, the theater staged performances in a small living room. Today, it has become a town institution and is now housed in a 120-seat building. The marionetteers’ repertoire ranges from fairytales to traditional plays and Mozart operas.

The undisputed highlight of Bad Tölz’s cultural calendar is the Leonhardiritt. Every November 6, a procession of more than 70 brightly decorated, horse-drawn “chest” and “table” carts makes its stately way through the town. These carts, decorated with religious themes in the style of painted Bauernschränke, are found only in Bavaria. They are used exclusively to honor Saint Leonhard, popularly known as “the Bavarian Lord.” These processions, which date as far back as 1469 and have been held in Bad Tölz every year since 1855, originally served to stave off animal epidemics and cattle accidents. Farmers led their ill and lame horses in the parade, in the hope that the priest’s blessing would heal them.

Each year, on this day, when the town clock strikes nine, amidst the chiming of church bells and the clamor of gathered onlookers, horse-pulled carts set off through town. Sixteen girls and women, all dressed in traditional local costume, ride in the carts as they wind their way through town. They then make the gradual ascent to the Leonhardiskappelle on the Kalvarienberg. After a festive church service on the hilltop, the horses and pilgrims circle the chapel, receive a blessing, then retrace their steps back to town. En route, the drivers crack their whips in coordinated rhythm (Leonhardidreschen); this reaches its climax as the procession enters the Marktrasse. While the custom probably began as a bid to drive away demons and witches, it is seen today as a witness to the Heimattreue (loyalty to one’s home region) and the faith of the Tölzer in their local customs. While Bavaria is home to a hundred such Leonhardi processions, in villages like Fischhausen, Fürstenfeldbrück and Inchenhofen (where the custom originated) Bad Tölz’s is undeniably the largest and most impressive, as the event was given new purpose by a horse epidemic that swept the town in the 1970s. In the late afternoon, visitors can mingle with the locals as they adjourn to the town’s Gasthäuser, to round out the festivities with a potent Tölzer schnapps.

In all seasons, Bad Tölz (elevation 670 meters) makes an ideal base for excursions into the nearby Alps and to resorts such as Lengries, just 10 km to the south. At a height of 1,556 meters and commanding splendid views of up to 200 km, the Brauneck mountain awaits, with 30 km of ski slopes and an extensive network of hiking trails. Surrounding Tölz is a 75-km network of cross-country ski trails. Blomberg (elevation 1,248 meters) sports a 5-km natural toboggan run, which can be reached by foot or chair lift. For a good winter walk, follow the path from the car park (at the foot of the chair lift), up around the Blomberg and on to the Zwieselberg (elevation 1,348 meters). Hikers can refresh themselves at a mountain-top inn before taking a different route back down—allow about three hours round trip. Other winter activities in and around Tölz include horse-drawn sleigh rides, snow shoe tours, ice skating and ice climbing.

Between November 24 and December 24, the Bad Tölz winter is enlivened by the colorful Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market), organized by the Trachtenverein (local costume society). This market is particularly appealing in the evening, when Marktstrasse is transformed into one long, romantically lit street, the winter air laced with the smell of sweet-roasted almonds, sizzling Bratwurst (sausages), and Glühwein (hot spiced wine). Also popular at Christmastime are concerts by the Bad Tölz boys’ choir, famous for performances of baroque oratories. This year, performances are scheduled for December 7 and 26.

Visitors looking for typical souvenirs of the region can find them, not only among the handcrafts of the Christmas market, but also in the town’s many sophisticated boutiques (look for the Tracht sign). Shops offer a wide range of traditional clothing, especially the Bavarian Lederhosen and Dirndl costumes. Locally distilled schnapps (including a “Leonhardi schnapps”) and liquors, sold in delightfully decorated bottles, also make good gifts.

Bad Tölz is Bavaria—visit for a day and get a feel for centuries of rich southern German customs amid resplendent natural settings.

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