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June 2000

The Allgäu

The Allgäu-roads less traveled

If you’ve ever received generic picture postcards from Germany, you’ve seen the Allgäu. It’s glacier-formed green valleys, dotted with lakes punctuated by snowcapped mountains and peopled by peasant farmers trussed up in colorful Trachten — the cliché and oft-reproduced images are the stuff of 19th-century Romantic painting and 21st-century vacations. Yet it pays to get beyond these stereotypes.

If you ask the locals where the geographical and cultural boundaries of the Allgäu run, you’ll most likely receive different answers, for opinions vary as to what and whom the region encompasses. Culling through this ambiguity is tricky, but this much is true: the name of the area derives from the antiquated High-German word Albegowe, which, loosely translated, means “landscape in front of the Alps.” Divided into four parts — Ober-, Unter-, West- and Ost-Allgäu — the region is roughly coextensive with the area between its outlying towns, Memmingen, Oberstdorf, Füssen and Constance. At its southernmost tip, the Allgäu borders on Austria and, in fact, includes the Austrian enclaves of Kleines Walsertal and Jungholz, insiders’ favorite spots for Bergwandern (hiking), accessible only via Germany.

Originally a major source of wheat and flax, whose blue blossoms tinted the landscape, the Allgäu turned “green” following the industrial revolution. With imported grains and mass-produced fabrics diminishing the demand for native products, farmers turned to milk and cheese production — thus the need for green meadows for cow grazing — to earn a living.

But, like the American West, the Allgäu has had to cash in on its beauty in order to adapt to changing times. Since the mid-19th century, the Allgäu’s green has been made through increasing tourism. In fact, in the early 20th century, many villages began to organize special evenings of folk dancing, called Heimatabende, and to install hiking paths, cable cars and Kodak-moment benches as incentives to would-be tourists. Today, the result of the campaign is ironic. City folk, who come to the country for the weekend to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet have been so put off by the workaday noise of the simple life, that, as recently as 1999, an Ofterschwang farmer was ordered to remove the bells from his cows. It seems the proprietor of a local guest house complained that they were causing him to lose business.

Nevertheless, the Allgäu continues to draw visitors, from Germany and beyond, who come to tackle mountains, such as the Nebelhorn near Oberstdorf, bathe in clear lakes, such as the Hopfensee, or ogle castles, such as Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein in Füssen — which served as the model for its scaled-down Doppelgänger at Disneyland. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. A new age of marketing has arrived in the form of The Musical Theater Neuschwanstein, where the Bavarian King Ludwig “and his legend come to life again,” nightly, before throngs of spectators. Situated on Lake Forggen, this convention-sized complex, with its Classic Café, “traditional beer garden,” backstage tours, Museum of Dreamers and Paradise Gardens, is replete with all the unrelated packaging associated with comparable American venues, such as Graceland. For this reason, it is advisable to take a weekend journey down the Allgäu’s back roads — the ones devoid of spectacle and souvenir stands — which will provide truer-to-life insight into the how and why of this remarkable region.

Some 130 km southwest of Munich lies Kempten, one of the oldest cities in Germany and a satellite of the Roman Empire, called Cambodunum, from A.D. 400 to 800. In 740 B.C., its ruins were discovered by two missionary monks from St. Gall, who provided the impetus to found a monastery there in 752. A preserved and partly reconstructed section of the Roman city, complete with temples, forum and objects found in situ, may be purused on foot at the Archäologischer Park Cambodunum. Clinging to the side of a picturesque hill — Romans had an instinct for location — the park offers a grand view of the valley and the Alps. Five minutes’ walk from the park is a well-preserved Roman bath, now protected by a contemporary glass hanger. Here, visitors can examine the bath’s strata from floor to basement — through clear Plexiglas panels located at various points along the elevated walkway — and marvel at early examples of ingenious indoor plumbing and central heating.

Back in Kempten, visitors will encounter the Protestant Church of St. Mang (next to the Rathaus in the Altstadt) and the Catholic abbey Church of St. Lorenz (adjacent to Residenzplatz), impressive remains of the city’s bifurcated past. Although the Allgäu is traditionally Roman Catholic, from 1525 to 1802 Kempten was divided into two parts: a Protestant Reichsstadt (free imperial city) and a Catholic Fürststift (Benedictine abbey). The former quarter, whose center was occupied by the Church of St. Mang, was independent of the larger Fürststift, which, in 1348, had been raised to the status of a principality. Accountable only to the emperor and thus hampered by tense relations with the abbey, the Reichsstadt nevertheless made a tidy living out of trade with Italy.

Kempten’s history is presented in greater detail at the recently opened Allgäu Museum, housed in the Baroque Kornhaus. Once an important locus of trade, the building now boasts an eclectic collection of artifacts, spread over four stories, which provides a compelling narrative of the city’s social and economic history. Of particular note are two sets of bibles, instruments of torture, and weapons — vestiges of a bygone era. Cleverly installed opposite one another, two swords appear to still be in the heat of battle. Another nearby vitrine offers a taste of secular medieval life — immaculately preserved shoes, hair ornaments, jewelry and foodstuffs that are surprisingly similar to their counterparts in the paintings of Holbein or Bruegel.

The Kornhaus will pique visitors’ curiosity about everyday life in the Allgäu, enough to prompt a 30-km drive north of Kempten. Charming, curving roads weave through this relatively flat section of the Allgäu to the municipality of Kronburg and the village of Illerbeuren, with its open-air Schwäbisches Bauernhofmuseum. Recalling Henry Ford’s Dearborn Park in Detroit, Michigan, the 26 buildings here are original, albeit relocated. Visitors are free to wander the grounds and enter farmhouses, barns, granaries, a firehouse and an apiary, among other buildings, that, combined, present a fascinating cross section of life in the Allgäu from the 17th to 20th century. Many of the buildings are fine examples of the half-timbered method of construction typical of southern Germany. The Woring House — so quaint it could be from Grimm’s fairy tales — and Uttenhof are excellent examples of Austragshäuser (parent’s homes.) Beneath the roofs of these traditional dwellings it was not uncommon for humans, livestock and food to coexist.

Of particular interest is the Natterhof, built in 1780. Its traditional exterior conceals an interior that was radically altered in the 1950s and 1960s owing to postwar prosperity. In contrast to the rustic simplicity of other homes on the grounds, the Natterhof’s large, modern television set, linoleum floors and pastel formica kitchen abruptly transport visitors into the 20th century — as does the so-called refugee room, which housed an entire family of foreigners during Germany’s postwar housing shortage.

To discourage the impression that the Allgäu has only its past to offer, travelers craving the present should push another 30 km farther, to Kaufbeuren, where the village’s new Kunsthaus, opened in 1996, stands as a simple yet elegant example of how innovative architecture can be integrated intelligently into an Old World infrastructure. Resembling a medieval castle in silhouette, the steel-and-glass gallery is home to rotating exhibitions of contemporary art. On view through June 25 is “Schönmachen” (make beautiful), a group show examining the appearance and function of contemporary jewelry. Visitors from Munich will recognize the edgy work of Gerd Rottmann, whose highly personal pieces are imprinted with data — such as fingerprints or casts of bodyparts — taken from the wearer.

Münchner wishing to head down south should take a concerted look at the lesser-known Allgäu. The trio of villages discussed here is only one cluster among hundreds of others worth visiting. Admittedly, there are fewer bilingual signs off the beaten path, but in their place is the opportunity to see what Allgäuers proudly refer to as their Heimat (homeland), from the perspective of the natives. <<<

How to get there >>> By car: From Munich, A96 toward Lindau, then the B12 at Buchloe to Kempten. From here it is a 30-minute drive to Illerbeuren along the A7, exiting at Grönenbach and heading west. To reach Kaufbeuren from Kempten, simply return to the B12 and head back to Munich. >>> By Train: Kempten can be reached by train, but it is necessary to take a taxi from the station to the town center. See for the latest schedules. Kempten tourist office: phone (0831) 252 52 37 or Internet

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