Only ten percent of the US citizens have a passport. When thinking of traveling Germany, most Americans most likely think of Bavaria. Especially of clichés like the Munich Hofbräuhaus (pronounce ‘hauv-broy-house, meaning royal court brewery), Octoberfest, Disney castle aka Neuschwanstein (pronounce noy-‘shvuhn-shtine), and maybe Garmisch-Partenkirchen (pronounce ‘guhrr-mish-par-ten-‘keer-hen). Interestingly enough, these popular places are all manmade. But there are some special natural wonders that deserve looking into. They are special gorges, called Klamm (pronounce clum).
In the summer of 1978, I visited three Bavarian Klamms, all with a very distinctive vibe. And, of course they would be impressive. Imagine a steep, deep gorge that has been cut through massive rock by melting water over thousands of years. At its bottom the gorge or Klamm is usually wider than at the top; in spring, they can get dangerous flooding and become death traps. Visitors must pass bridges and bars across the torrents, and sometimes the only way onward leads through dripping tunnels cut into the rock.
The Partnachklamm (pronounce ‘part-nah-clum), named for the river Partnach, is close to the Olympic Stadium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. There is usually a crowd of tourists around in the summer, as this place is amongst the most popular outing destinations. The Klamm is 0.4 miles (700 m) long and up to 262 feet (80 m) deep. I remember it was easy to walk; the most impressive part were probably the tunnels that were cut in the rock where the gorge became too narrow to have a bar lead along the steep face. Back in the day, the Partnach was used to transport wood from the mountain into the valley. The logs were thrust into the gorge, and the water would rip them along. Unfortunately, logs also got clamped in the narrow Klamm, and quite a few loggers found their death in the attempt to loosen them. Since 1912, the gorge has been used for tourism only, and an entrance fee is due. I only recently learned that in 1991 there was a massive rock avalanche that created a blockage and thereby a lake inside the Klamm (somehow that must have passed my busy mind back then), and a tunnel had to be dug around the obstacle. Last year in June, after some heavy downpour, the Partnachklamm was closed for almost two months. You see, these Bavarian gorges are really not as tame as they look at first sight.
A Klamm that impressed me by far more was the Leutaschklamm (pronounce ‘loy-tush-clum) near Mittenwald (pronounce ‘mitten-vult), also named for the river running through. Maybe because it felt way more intimate as we were the only visitors that specific late afternoon. Maybe because, partway in, you cross the border to Austria (without the need for a passport). Maybe because smugglers used this dangerous gorge for their purposes way back when borders were still marked by royal emblems and tollbars. In 1880, the smuggling business might have been curbed because the gorge became the first of its kind in the German Alps opened for tourism. When we were there, the Leutaschklamm was narrow, lonesome, and very wet, and it ended with a ladder whose iron rungs were fastened into the rock. Today, the tourist industry has seen to a family-friendly network of paths, bridges, and bars to be used without any climbing equipment, and the formerly short and abruptly ending gorge has become the longest accessible one in the Eastern Limestone Alps. It’s an astonishing full mile long!
My fondest memory, though, goes back to the Hoellentalklamm (pronounce ‘huh-lan-tul-clum, meaning hell’s valley’s gorge) near the Zugspitze (pronounce ‘tsook-shpit-sa), Germany’s highest mountain. It combined the dramatic parts of the Leutaschklamm with the duration of the adventure in the Partnachklamm. And at its end, you faced beautiful mountain meadows and a hiking path. Okay, maybe I liked the part that came next even better (ah, you know foodie me!). There was a rustic mountain cottage with a restaurant – typical for the European Alps – and even overnight sleeping places for those hikers who pass through to head for the Zugspitze the next day. I remember sitting there on the terrace, having some wonderful potato salad (made with a refreshing vinaigrette), a long Wiener-style sausage, and mustard, looking across the slope down towards the exit of the Klamm. Or maybe I love best the memory of a thunderstorm threatening and our hastened retreat down the slope and through the gorge. We reached our car just a second before all hell broke loose. Somehow, the combination of a white-water gorge and an impending thunderstorm is hard to top.