The magic kingdom
Sunlight stirred me around 6.30am and I awoke to watch the sun rise above serrated mountain edges far in the distance, all flamed by the leaves. No sooner had I abseiled down to solid ground than I was back on the road, driving through the heart of Pfronten, a district made up of 13 small townships. Thanks to a tip-off from Markus, I started with breakfast at a mountain hut where another determined woman called Silvia Beyer had just made history (Bertha would be proud) by opening the first vegetarian Alpine hut in the country. At first, locals were sceptical – Bavarian food is legendary for its high meat content – but curiosity had got the better of them and the crowds were starting to come. “I had no business plan,” laughed Silvia, “But I knew it would work if I just cooked it my way. Many people don’t even realise that it’s all vegetarian.”
Fuelled up, I met my walking guide Erih Goessler, who arrived wearing a felt Tyrolean cap complete withFalkenstein Castle
feather (a wanderhut). We started at the ruin of Falkenstein Castle, also planned by the ostentatious King Ludwig II but never finished. Despite the crumbling walls, there was something unmistakably magical about its location and things were about to get even more enchanting. “We’re about to go along my favourite passageway,” promised Erih. “The Alps are on one side and the rolling hills and flatlands on the other – you’re going to love it.”
The next few hours were spent teetering on the edge of dramatic escarpments, dancing between the Austrian-German border that snaked along the trail and plunging deep into woodland where the floor was littered with pinecones that exploded like popcorn under our feet. By the time we finished at Alatsee Lake and jumped in the car to get a glimpse of Neuschwanstein Castle, I felt I’d finally crossed the line from reality into fantasy and didn’t want it to end.
But every road trip – like every good fairytale – must have an ending. Bertha’s story, you’ll be pleased to learn, finished well. The car was a huge success, kick-starting a business that would become Mercedes-Benz and she lived to be 95 years old. Then, in 2008, a local group established an official Bertha Benz Memorial Route.
But there was one question still to be answered on my road trip. “So does she?” the little girl continued to press the guide at Neuschwanstein. “Does Cinderella live here?” The guide bent down patiently to look her in the eye. “No, that’s make-believe,” she replied. The girl looked sad. “I can tell you about another amazing woman who did live near here though,” I offered. The girl looked up at me, and so I began: “Once upon a time there lived a woman called Bertha…”