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July 2003

Take a Bow

300 years of violin-making is not the only reason to visit Mittenwald

There is an international vocabulary of place names that allows people with no common language to communicate. Mention Venice, New York, Paris or even Rothenburg to a stranger in a railway carriage and you will, as often as not, be rewarded with smiles and sign language indicating fond memories. Even the small town of Mittenwald, hidden away in the Werdenfelser Land, in the foothills of the Karwendel Mountains, is likely to elicit a positive response. The town is popular among tourists from around the world and rightly so, for it has a rich cultural history, breathtaking scenery and an easy, natural pace. It is also a perfect starting point for hiking, mountainbiking and other outdoor activities.

If a town can be said to have been created under a lucky star, then Mittenwald is such a town. First mentioned in local records in 1096 under its Latin name, Media Silva, Mittenwald, translated, means “in the middle of the forest,” which explains why this was a good location for a settlement: close to the river Isar, but hidden in the densely wooded Alpine foothills it was difficult for robbers and marauders to find. Consequently, Mittenwald was a safe haven, not only for its inhabitants, but for traders heading north, bringing wine, oil and expensive cloth over the Alps from the Orient and Italy, and for those heading south with cargoes of wood and armor. By the Middle Ages this favorable setting had made the town extremely prosperous. Goods arriving in Mittenwald from the powerful city-state of Venice via the Brenner Pass would be loaded onto rafts and sent down the Isar to Munich, other Bavarian towns and beyond. The era of economic wealth was brought to an end by a number of factors, including the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648 and redrew the map of Europe, moving not only territorial borders, but many travel and trading routes. Mittenwald, no longer on the main artery connecting north and south, sank into a quiet rural sleep.

This, however, was not the last time Mittenwald was to appear on the pages of European history books. In 1684, Matthias Klotz (1653–1743), son of a local tailor, returned home to the small town as a master violin-maker, after 20 years spent learning the trade in Padua, Italy. A stubborn rumor persists that he spent some time in Cremona and was apprenticed to Nicolo Amati, the man responsible for giving the violin its present form, but this has never been substantiated. Before long Klotz had passed on his knowledge to his sons, and a number of other young men in the town. Thus Mittenwald became famous as a world-class production center for stringed instruments of all shapes and sizes and was given the nickname the “Village of a Thousand Violins.” Klotz’s grandson is even said to have made one of Mozart’s concert violins. This year marks the fiddle-makers 350th birthday and events, including concerts and special exhibits to commemorate Klotz, will be held in the town throughout July (for more information visit

Mittenwald is nestled in a curve of the lush Oberes Isar Tal (Upper Isar Valley), and is easy to reach from Munich, either by train—about a two-hour journey—or by car via the A95 motorway. Once you arrive in town, head for the Kurverwaltung (tourist office) at Dammkarstrasse 3, where the friendly staff will be pleased to give you maps and information on Mittenwald and its surroundings. From here many visitors go to the Obermarkt at the center of town. A small canal, which ran through this part of town in the Middle Ages, has been carefully recreated and is one of the many elements that give Mittenwald its quaint, old-fashioned atmosphere. Another regional feature that catches every visitor’s eye is the brightly colored mural painting on houses, shops and public buildings. Known as “Lüftlmalerei”—there is no translation for the word—it is a local tradition going back at least 200 years (see this month’s feature on the subject). The best-known Lüftlmalereien in Mittenwald are those adorning the exterior of the Schlipfer-, the Hornsteiner- and the Neunerhaus.

Mittenwald’s history as a center for the production of violins is an additional draw for many tourists and there can be no better place to begin exploring the town’s association with stringed instruments than at the Geigenbau Museum (Violin Museum) in Ballenhausgasse 3. Violins from every era are on display here, including the aforementioned concert violin used by Mozart and probably built by a descendant of Mittenwald’s first violin-maker. In July, as part of the 350th birthday celebrations for Matthias Klotz, all of the instrument builders in town will be opening their workshops to the public, a great chance to get a closer look at the intricacies of this highly specialized, unique craft.

Next door to the museum is the Church of SS. Peter and Paul, its tower decorated with colorful Lüftlmalerei designs, is one of the town landmarks. This Baroque church, completed in 1749, stands on the site of a wooden Gothic edifice, which was damaged by fire so often that after yet another blaze in 1659, it was decided to rebuild the church completely. The present structure was designed by architect Josef Schmutzer and though the church is by no means the purely Baroque building of Schmutzer’s plan, this is part of its charm. The Rococo interior, with its delightful frescoes, executed by Matthiäs Günther and his pupils, is, in fact, one of the finest in southern Germany. Visitors who wish to get a feeling of the original Gothic building should visit the side chapel, the so-called Bei Herr Gott Unterm Turm. It is all that remains of the original structure.

This much culture will leave many tourists gasping for some fresh air and the desire to follow less lofty pursuits. Indeed exploring the surrounding countryside is a great reason for coming to Mittenwald. The Karwendel Mountains provide the backdrop against which the town is set and their looming presence gives the place an atmosphere of drama and adventure. From the town center you are no more than a 15-minute walk from a half-dozen trailheads leading to hikes of varying difficulties and lengths. The tourist information office has a hiking map available for € 2.50 if you want to know exact distances and details of the trail system. Mountain biking is also a popular pastime in this area and there are plenty of trails and Hütten for the visitor to choose from. An excellent Website for mountain bikers is, which has detailed maps and trails of the entire area and lists differences in altitude. Another attraction in the vicinity for those who enjoy swimming or simply being near water are the many small lakes. Lautersee, Ferchensee and Grubsee are the three most popular. All have water of the very highest quality and although the temperature of the Lauter- and Ferchensee are seldom as warm as that of, say, Ammersee, the panorama of pinewoods and rock face around these lakes makes a visit worthwhile. These two lakes are also off-limits for cars, but there is a regular bus service from the railway station in Mittenwald. Alternatively, you can walk or bike up to the lakes. Water-sport fans can also book rafting, kayaking and canyoning tours at travel agencies in town.

One very special local destination that is also easily accessible from town is the Leutaschklamm (Leutasch Gorge), just a 20-minute walk from the Obermarkt. Follow the Obermarkt road out of town and just before the bridge follow the sign down the dirt road to the right. You soon come to a massive rock face where the Leutasch creek comes tumbling out of a narrow canyon. An elevated walkway, which has been erected to allow visitors access to the phenomenal sight, leads you not only up into the gorge itself, but also across the border into Austria, where the Leutasch begins its pounding descent to meet the Isar below Mittenwald. The canyon is almost 200 m deep and on clear summer mornings the sun makes rainbows in the mist created by the falls.

The destination chosen by most visitors to Mittenwald who wish to get an impression of the surrounding countryside is the Karwendelgebirge. The sheer rock face rising 2,385 meters behind the town may look completely impenetrable, but there are hiking trails for cyclists and walkers, as well as a gondola. The Karwendelbahn (gondola) leaves from the far side of the Isar—a 15-minute walk from the town center—and goes straight up to the top of the Karwendel peak. It may not be cheap—€ 12 for a single adult trip—but on a clear day you won’t be sorry you made the trip. The gondola leaves every 30 minutes, though the schedule can change during inclement weather (for up-to-date information call [08823] 53 96). For a slightly less spectacular but nonetheless impressive view of Mittenwald and the surrounding valley there is also the Kranzberglift, which is a 15-minute ski lift ride to a point on the mountain above town.

Perhaps the scenic, multi-colored panorama created by the combination of beautiful architecture and countryside, are the reason why the German writer and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) described the town as a “lively picture book.”

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