Soaring Alps, Disneyesque castles, dark forests, flower-filled meadows, tightly-worn lederhosen, beer steins, pork meat in every guise and medieval walled towns – Bavaria enjoys a reputation even among those who have never actually even visited it.
We don’t, however, normally associate Bavaria with warm scenic lakes and fabulous swimming yet the region offers both, and often well off the beaten track, which makes you appreciate the area in a unique way.
South of Munich, Bavaria’s capital and largest city, are a slew of lakes spread over a wide area. In fact there are more than 100 lakes in the region so the biggest problem is choosing which ones to swim in. A few years ago we ran trips to these Bavarian lakes and decided to opt for the three largest (Amersee, Starnberger and Chiemsee) and Königssee in the mountains, perhaps the region’s most stunning lake.
The second problem is the large distances between the lakes – more than 160km for the four on our trip – and the not insignificant travel times that result from this. However, the region has a wonderful public transport network and we found travelling by train between the lakes ideal. Also, the proximity of stations to swim start and finish points was quite unique for any multiple swim locations that I have been involved with over the years. In fact my memories from that trip include many enjoyable encounters we made while travelling between swims, and it also gave us a real taste of the region as well as just a swimming experience.
Starting the trip, we caught the train from Munich to Diessen on the south-eastern shores of Amersee (Lake Amer). From here we swam across the lake to Aidenreid, a marshy area with a couple of beaches. The crossing actually took in part of the Mitterfischen bird sanctuary, which is home to one of Europe’s most varied bird populations with more than 200 species. From Aidenreid we hiked 4km up to the Andechs monastery situated on the so-called “holy mountain” above Amersee. The monastery is famed for its flamboyant Baroque church (built in 1712) and its own brewery, which provided a welcome tonic following the somewhat arduous climb up to it.
From the monastery we walked the 10km to Tutzing, a town of 7,000 inhabitants on the western shore of Starnberger See, which is Bavaria’s second largest lake. From the town’s beach we struck out towards the east coast directly across the lake. On our right, to the south, loomed the striking Wetterstein Mountains with the imposing peak of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest at 2962m, dominating the skyline. Starnberger See is around 4km wide at this point and it’s traditionally one of the warmest Bavarian lakes in summer. When we were there in July, the water temperature was a very comfortable 24 degrees Celsius.
Once we crossed the lake we made our way to the town of Starnberg on the north end of the lake (home to Germany’s wealthiest population) and from there took the train west to Priem, 100km away. Priem is a health resort situated on the banks of Chiemsee, Bavaria’s largest lake. This lake is widely referred to as the Bavarian Sea because of its size and it contains several islands, two of which are populated. The largest is Herreninsel on which stands Neues Königsschloss, the palace built by Ludwig II in homage to the Chateau of Versailles.
Of course, rather than catch the regular boat services we arrived there by swimming after a 1.5km crossing from Priem. After arriving at this rather grand setting in just swimming costumes we hurriedly changed into something a little more appropriate before visiting the stately rooms. We then walked to the north shore, got back into swimming attire and struck out for the smallest of Chiemsee’s islands, Krautinsel (Cabbage island). From here we carried onto Frauenchiemsee, the smaller of the two major islands, which houses a Benedictine nunnery, built in 782, as well as a small village. The nuns make a liquor called Klosterlikör (cloister liquor) and marzipan. We tried a little of both before heading off on the last 1km leg of the swim back to Gstadt on the mainland.
Our final lake and undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our trip was Königssee in Bavaria’s extreme south-eastern corner. This lake, surrounded by towering rock faces and near vertical cliff faces plunging deep into the water, is strikingly different to the previous places we’d seen. It is noted for its clear water and is allegedly the cleanest in Germany. For this reason, only electric-powered boats have been permitted since 1909. Due to its higher altitude it was also significantly colder than the 21-24 degrees we had previously experienced. The temperature here was around 16 degrees.
Swimming in Königssee is quite staggering; the striking 2700m high peak of Mittelspitze overlooks the entire length. Our first stopping off point was the Church of Saint Bartholmä located 5km from the northern end of the lake and situated on the western shore, on the Hirschau peninsula. It can only be reached from the water or after a long hike across the surrounding mountains. From here it’s a further 3km swim to the far end of the lake. Overhead is the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest), Adolf Hitler’s retreat and a place for him to entertain visiting dignitaries while he was in power.
Exploring Bavaria’s lakes is a unique way to see this very proud and progressive region and to get away from the clichés so often attached to it. The distance between the lakes just gives you an opportunity to see more of the landscape in-between. With kayak and boat hire on each lake plentiful it’s relatively easy to organise swims and travel is a breeze.