The absurd part wasn’t sprinting, nearly naked, through a frozen warren of tunnels carved into the dense snow on top of a glacier. It was that I was desperately trying to make it outside, where the nighttime temperature was minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit and trillions of moonlit snowflakes were swirling in the wind. By the second step into this maelstrom on Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, all feeling in my bare feet had vanished, but salvation lay 20 feet ahead in the billowing steam of an outdoor hot tub.
Just 80 minutes by train from Munich, the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (population 26,000) is a wonderful spot to spend a few days exploring the wintry beauty of the Bavarian Alps. And with countless activities, and plenty of cute B&Bs and traditional German gasthaeuser, you need not spend the night, as I did, more than 6,000 feet above the town in an igloo.
Independent towns for centuries — and still separated by a train station and the Partnach River — Garmisch and Partenkirchen were forcibly grafted together in 1935, under Hitler’s orders, to host the following year’s Winter Olympics. (Calling the town GaPa, or GaP, is fine, but unless you’re prepared for a swift rejoinder, don’t shorten it to Garmisch in front of an older resident of Partenkirchen.)
The two sides of town have distinct personalities, best sampled on foot. Partenkirchen is the older of the two, dating to A.D. 15, when it was a Roman town called Partanum. Today, the village is centered on the quiet, cobblestoned Ludwigstrasse, said to trace a branch of the ancient Via Claudia Augusta between Venice and Augsburg. The narrow street is lined with historic buildings in the Bavarian gasthaus style: three or four floors, swept-open wooden shutters and street-facing facades painted in pastel-hued imagery of religious, pastoral and regional scenes.
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In the morning, you’ll see older residents in earth-tone country wear walking their dogs and younger tourists, head-to-toe in fluorescent ski clothes, looking for the bus stop to the mountain. If you wander off Ludwigstrasse — down streets like Sonnenbergstrasse and Faukenstrasse — you’ll find splendid examples of regional country homes, with overhanging roofs and heavy, wooden-beam construction. In your imagination — and probably in a few of the homes — there may be an alphorn or two, and a yodeler.
The Garmisch district is livelier and more apres-ski oriented. At its center is a pedestrian lane, Am Kurpark, running between the squares of Richard Strauss Platz and Marienplatz. Here, international brands bump up against quirky bars, restaurants serving everything from pizza to roast pork, and historic buildings like the 16th-century Zum Polz’n Kaspar House, a former private residence now maintained by the city. When Partenkirchen is headed to bed, the party in Garmisch is just getting started at Pub 33, Peaches or one of the temporary stands serving mugs of gluehwein, or mulled wine, and shots of pear schnapps affectionately known as willis.
The big draw to GaPa is everything you can do outside. The chairlifts are a short walk, or a five-minute bus or train ride, from any part of town. For downhill skiers, the Garmisch-Classic area has trails best suited for beginners and intermediates. But when the infamous Kandahar run isn’t closed for a major race, experts can pause for incredible views before charging the black trail nearly 3,000 vertical feet to the valley.
The nearby Zugspitze area offers the otherworldly experience of skiing on a glacial plateau, situated in the upper cirque of Germany’s tallest massif, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. The view from the piste is hills of snow devoid of trees, encircled by a razor’s-edge crown of near-vertical, rocky peaks — all of it, on many days, poking above the clouds. If you have the equipment and experience to venture safely off-piste, there are lift-served open bowls and powder to play in.
For everyone else, GaPa has endless territory to explore on foot, snowshoe or cross-country skis, through forests or across the snow-blanketed meadows leading to the villages of Grainau and Eibsee.
The brave should look into a local sledding run, or rodelbahn. A typical route can be 3 miles long and descend 1,500 feet on a twisting, tree-lined trail.
One thing nobody should skip is a hike through the Partnachklamm, or Partnach Gorge. The trail winds along the floor of a narrow, river-carved valley — only yards wide in places. Huge icicles and ice flows line the walls in winter, some cascading over a hundred feet from the top of the limestone walls to the river below. If it reminds you of a scene from “The Neverending Story,” that’s because the story’s author, Michael Ende, grew up here.
Towering above everything is the jagged peak of Zugspitze, topping out at 9,718 feet. There are two ways up from GaPa: a cogwheel train, which passes through a 3-mile tunnel up the mountain, or an aerial tramway from Eibsee, which ascends nearly 6,400 feet in 10 minutes, making it the world’s tallest single-section lift of its kind. The 39-euro fee (about $50) for the ride up includes access to the Zugspitze ski lifts, so you might as well hit the glacier’s slopes while you’re there.
And for the truly adventurous, consider, as I did, a night in Iglu-Dorf’s snow hotel. There are no amenities — like plumbing, central heat or beds not constructed from snow — to speak of. But nothing beats sledding on a glacier at night, or the story you’ll have for your friends.
After you use the hot tub, though, make sure to arrange your bathing suit in a convenient shape. By morning, it’ll be frozen.