Monday, January 07, 2013

Bask in the beauty of Berchtesgaden at the fabulous five star InterContinental Hotel - but don't let Hitler invade your peace.

Things could hardly be better.  I am stretched out on a sun lounger, snugly wrapped in a fluffy white robe after emerging from my hotel’s spa. I sip a vitamin-packed power juice and gaze at a mesmerising vista of the Bavarian Alps as the last of the winter snow stubbornly gives way to spring. 

Life feels great, but there is one major problem: whenever I close my lazy eyes, the images of sublime beauty are abruptly replaced with a gruesome slideshow of Nazi atrocities. 

Instead of snow-capped mountains, I see the distorted faces of young men hanging from a makeshift gallows, or a line of terrified naked women about to be shot, or the close-up of a guillotine that beheaded more than 5,000 innocent people.

I can only dispel these horrific freeze frames by re-focusing on the landscape, inhaling the crisp April air and allowing the echoing chirp of bullfinches to fill my ears. I then sink into the outdoor swimming pool - bath-hot at 36 degrees - and watch the silhouette of an eagle circling high above.

But why am I experiencing the terror of the Third Reich amidst such serenity? The reason: I am on a luxury mini break at Berchtesgaden - the chill-out hideaway that captured Adolf Hitler's dark heart.

I am staying at the stylishly modern InterContinental Hotel, which is 1,000 metres up on the Obersalzberg Mountain, just across the Austrian border in Southern Germany. It was here that Hitler built a grand holiday home called the Berghof and used it to entertain world leaders during the 1930s. You have probably seen the pre-war, black and white footage of such visits.

Hitler loved the place so much that he had a series of other properties built on the hillside for his key henchman, as well as a barracks for SS troops, and turned it into his principal power base outside Berlin. Berchtesgaden became a kind of corporate think tank retreat for evil. It beggars belief that the strategy for Nazi tyranny was largely designed here. 

Fortunately - if that is the right word - in 1999 the Free State of Bavaria opened The Documentation Centre museum dedicated to Hitler's association with Berchtesgaden. It is a ten-minute stroll from the hotel and the source of my waking nightmares. 

The museum gives a fascinating insight into how Hitler became besotted with the area after a holiday in 1923 and exploited it to cultivate a wholesome political image. It has a model of the original compound and its basement leads into the only surviving section of the network of bunker tunnels. They were built on an awesome scale using prison camp labour.

Despite the museum, the Bavarian government has no desire for Berchtesgaden to become a pilgrimage destination for neo-Nazis. Aside form the tunnels, there is no physical evidence of the Nazis here, except for Eagle's Nest, an out-post 500 metres up on the jagged peak of the mountain. This was given to Hitler to mark his 50th birthday in 1939 and is clearly visible from the InterContinental. You can hike up there in around three hours during the fair weather months, or take the bus for a guided tour. It has a restaurant and stunning views.

But there is far more to Berchtesgaden than its Nazi association. It has so much to offer for nature-lovers, sporty types and for those simply wanting a healthy break. It is ideal for a revitalising weekend away, or as a base to explore the wider region.

The small town of Berchtesgaden itself is a pretty place to while away a few hours. It has quaint shops and decent restaurants serving traditional Bavarian fare. If you need a dose of culture, then Salzburg - Mozart's birthplace - could hardly be better and is only a 30-minute drive away over the border. Other nearby attractions include taking a boat trip on the truly stunning glacial Lake Konigsee, or going deep underground to a salt mine.

But it is the InterContinental that is the big draw for a quiet, pampering break at any time of the year. It is a haven of tranquillity and is just 20-minutes from Salzburg airport, which is a cheap flying destination on Ryanair (£35pp) from Stansted.

The hotel, which is built on the spot where Herman Goering's house once stood, opened in 2005 and is owned by the government, but managed by InterContinental. It is constructed entirely from wood and stone and other products native to the region, which gives it a authentic, relaxed atmosphere, despite its modern architectural lines.  The cavernous foyer and bar area has a 1970s retro feel, and the minimalist luxury bedrooms are spacious with stunning views.

In winter, the hotel has its own beginners' ski run, which is ideal for someone not wanting to learn at a packed resort. For more advance skiers, the hotel is within 20 minutes of several major ski areas. In summer, there's a nine-hole golf course through the valleys and no end of hiking trails and other outdoor sports to enjoy. 

But the best thing about this hotel is the luxurious Mountain Spa in its basement.  It has all the various saunas and steam rooms you would expect, but also has a booklet packed with extravagant treatments to reboot your weary body. For £100 you can be covered in hot chocolate sauce then massaged with fresh cream and truffle oil. I resisted and opted for a less gooey option: the Alpine salt wrap.

There's nothing quite like standing in your Speedos while a health therapist wraps you in soggy, luke-warm bandages, then leaves you looking like a wet mummy for 45 minutes while the special blend of salts drain away your toxins. If nothing else, the laughter this process induced did me no end of good.

Berchtesgaden is a blissfully stunning area, which through no fault of its own had a disturbing decade under the Nazis. Go there and lap up its natural charm, but I offer one piece of advice: don't go the museum. Then, you can close your eyes without Hitler invading your peace.


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Journalist, founder of Access, creator of The Definite Article interview column in Daily Mail's Weekend magazine.