Germany is not blessed with much of the Alps, and most of the country’s small Alpine towns live well from tourism. They are not, it has to be said, our favorite spots. Bad Reichenau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen are more resorts than real mountain communities. Oberstdorf has sold its soul to skiing, and Füssen is overcrowded with overseas visitors following the Disneyesque trail to mad King Ludwig’s castles. Nazi associations taint Markt Berchtesgaden and the Obersalzberg.
Which leaves Mittenwald, a small town in the Isar Valley which (in Baedeker-speak) is more than worth a detour. Situated just two kilometers from the Austrian border, it is one of the finest community in the Bavarian Alps — and certainly one that deserves a journey in its own right.
Mittenwald’s appeal is twofold. First there’s a very strong sense of topography, suggesting a town as comfortably settled on this earth as God is in Heaven. To the west of Mittenwald is the Wetterstein Range and to the east the strong line of the Karwendel Alps. The Isar, on its journey north towards the Danube, cuts between the two, and Mittenwald thus occupies a gloriously sunny spot on one the major south-to-north trade routes through Europe.
The town’s second trump card is its hallmark industry: violin-making. The craft so often associated only with Cremona in northern Italy is actually found elsewhere in Europe. There have been historic centers of string instrument production in the Ergebirge, the Vosges and the Alps. And Mittenwald is a bright star in this industry. Music and Mittenwald naturally go together.
Men like Anton Maller perpetuate a Mittenwald tradition that extends back over more than three centuries. He, like the other master violin-makers in Mittenwald, focuses on top-of-the-range hand-crafted instruments. They rely on local resources, working with the swing and feel of the wood.
Museum of violin making
Mittenwald has an excellent Geigenbaumuseum (Museum of Violin Making), which nicely explains how a variety of local woods and local skills have shaped Mittenwald’s economic direction. The museum is open daily except Mondays — bar for a few weeks each fall when it closes completely.
More than violins
Above all, Mittenwald is just a fine place to be. No ifs, no buts. If you have a day or two to spare on a crowded itinerary around Europe, take time out to lay up in Mittenwald. There is a feast of Lüftlmalerei on the town’s buildings (Bavaria’s homespun version of antique graffiti), and a number of good cafés and restaurants. The Fasl-Beck is good for hearty Bavarian fodder, but for something more modern in style head for the Restaurant Osteria or the chic Michelin-listed Marktrestaurant.
Frequent Regional Express trains from Munich Hauptbahnhof to Mittenwald take two hours for the run. One variant of the bargain Werdenfels-Ticket extends to Munich, allowing one person to make a day trip from Munich to Mittenwald for €18 return. For groups, the Bayern-Ticket is the best deal. For €38 a group of five adults can roam across Bavaria for a day using a Regional Express and all local trains.
Mittenwald is just one hour north of Innsbruck, and is thus easily reached by travelers from the Austrian Tyrol. Just south-west of Mittenwald is the Leutasch Valley, one of the most beautiful parts of the Austrian Tyrol. Austrian Postbus Route 4186 takes just a few minutes from Mittenwald to reach the Leutasch villages. This is rural Europe at its best. Walk by day and return to Mittenwald to relax in the evening.