The elderly gentleman asked if he could join us. "This is the best air in Germany," he said. "I come up here to clear my lungs."
He peered at the menu and advised: "Try the plum tart. It's special this time of year."
I commented on his fluency in English, and he explained: "I painted portraits all over the States--in New York, San Francisco, Carmel and Beverly Hills, and then came back to Berchtesgaden to retire."
We sat in the restaurant at the top of Kehlstein Mountain, the site of Adolf Hitler's Eagle's Nest.
Down below was the town of Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. To our left was Salzburg, Austria, and around us were visitors from all over the world who had come to gaze at the view Hitler once enjoyed.
Although he often came to Eagle's Nest, Hitler did not live there but at Obersalzburg, farther down the mountain.
Site of 'Mein Kampf'
He went there in 1923 after his imprisonment in Landsberg. During his stay, Hitler lived near the home of his sister in a little block house, where he wrote "Mein Kampf."
When Hitler became chancellor of the Reich in 1933 he bought his sister's house and enlarged it. Soon he was followed by thousands of his followers, and his lieutenants bought property nearby.
In 1935 Hitler's home, which he called the Berghof, was enlarged, and the guest house, Turken, became the control center of the Reich's secret service. Joseph Goebbels built a house nearby; so did Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann and Albert Speer. Underground bunkers were constructed, as well as greenhouses and other supply bases. A new Chancellery of the Reich was built near Berchtesgaden.
The Obersalzburg homes of the German High Command were repeatedly bombed by the Allies, and, to ensure against pilgrimages, remains of the Berghof were destroyed in 1952. After a long political struggle, Bavarians were given permission to open a restaurant and outdoor dining area at the solid granite building known as Eagle's Nest.
It was Bormann's idea to build Eagle's Nest for Hitler's 50th birthday at a cost of more than $10 million. Most visitors go there, 6,016 feet up Kehlstein Mountain.
The trip up the mountain is well run, and visitors can take a bus from Berchtesgaden, or drive to Obersalzburg in the foothills of the Kehlstein, where one may walk around ruins of bunkers and homes.
From there the road is open only to special buses from mid-May to mid-October. More than 4 1/2 miles long, it was carved into the rock face of the mountain, and winds through five tunnels on the way to a parking lot 5,577 feet beneath the Kehlstein.
From that parking lot a 406-foot tunnel bores through the mountain, at the end of which another shaft of more than 400 feet lifts visitors into the interior of Eagle's Nest. It costs about $7 for the round-trip bus trip from Obersalzburg to the tunnel, then another $1.65 for the elevator.
The tunnel is meticulously constructed of marble, and the interior of the 45-person elevator reminds one of a pub, with its padded walls and benches, copper walls and siding and ornate light fixtures.
A young American winked at me and said: "Only a dictator could have built this, right?"
A German shepherd, held on a leash by his master, turned not a hair as the elevator rose silently.
It was only in 1944, after the call to total war, that German workers were replaced by foreign ones for the Eagle's Nest project. Because of daily bombardments, attention was directed to completion of the bunker system.
But Berchtesgaden was a resort long before Hitler. Pilgrims, for centuries, came to the churches of St. Bartholoma and Maria Gern, and it was a center for woodworking and salt production.
In 1810 better roads were built, and when the railway reached Berchtesgaden in 1888 it became a favorite haunt of the Bavarian, Austrian and Prussian nobility. The royal house of Wittelsbachof Bavaria built a castle there, which still remains.
From Eagle's Nest, Lake Konigsee looks like an emerald scarf dropped into a cleft of the mountains. Its surface is only two square miles, but it is one of Middle Europe's deepest lakes. It is embedded like a fiord between rock faces, and the mountain slopes prevent any construction of roads and buildings around its perimeter. It is surrounded by a national park.
Electric boats take sightseers across the lake, and halfway across a bugler plays a tune, pauses, and lets the echo from the cliffs repeat the melody. The tour passes the lovely church of St. Bartholoma, with its three semi-domes in the form of a cloverleaf. The two-hour boat trip costs about $7.
The road from Berchtesgaden to Lake Konigsee passes the suburb of Schonau, with its flower-bedecked Gasthofs and homes, green meadows and placid cows and goats.
Renowned Ski Area
Berchtesgaden is popular for both summer and winter visitors. It is a world-renowned ski area, a contender for the Winter Olympics and a center for Alpine hiking. Visitors may tour an old salt mine, too, and may ride its 656-yard railway cut straight into the mountain.
There is little reminder of Hitler. Along the picturesque streets an occasional bookstore sells pamphlets telling of his rise and fall, as distant as Grimm's fairy tales to most of the German young.
The two hotels are owned by the U.S. Army in Berchtesgaden, and though the presence of American servicemen who go there on leave is unobtrusive, our old painter friend sniffed: "I don't know why they had to come here!"
The town of Berchtesgaden is built in layers like a wedding cake on the Alpine foothills. Below is the railroad station, in the middle the market, shops, hotels and restaurants, and the residential section is at the very top.
Berchtesgaden is a walking town, easy to explore and the heart of Old Bavaria. Many residents dress as they have for centuries in feathered Alpine hats and knee breeches and women often wear dirndl skirts and embroidered aprons. Wary Westerners look twice before they're assured that the dress isn't a tourist put-on.
The market place is surrounded by traditional Alpine buildings. A big corner house opposite the market fountain is called "House of the Stag" and dates to 1594. Its southern side is covered by Renaissance frescoes, painted around 1600.
An archway leads from the marketplace to elegant arcades, an ornamental castle and a church, built in the Romanesque style of the 12th Century. Guided tours go through the castle, the church, with its Roman cloister, and museum.
Some shops in the marketplace sell nothing but hats, and many sell hiking equipment, breeches caught at the calf with bright wool stockings, colorful jackets, feathered hats and always sturdy boots and walking shoes.
A National Passion
Walking and hiking are a passion in Germany, and though the cuisine is substantial (leaning heavily toward sausages, whipped cream and red meat), elderly people appear lean, rosy-cheeked and fit. Clad in hiking gear, they climb difficult trails with gusto.
Another German passion is water, and many German hotels have spas or pools. We stayed at the Hotel Demming, and noticed a couple named Heinz and Hanna (surely past 70) who went to the pool twice each day and emerged rosy and energized.
Our room at the Demming was large, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Kehlstein Mountain and a private balcony and bath. The cost, with an elaborate buffet breakfast, was $79.
One of the chambermaids was a pretty blonde, and I remarked on her good English. She told me her father was a GI and that she and her mother had followed him to the United States.
"We lived in New York," she said, "but after two years my mum had enough and came back to Berchtesgaden."
I asked if she would ever return, and she was astonished. "Why would I ever want to leave here?"
We ate our dinner each evening in the hotel, and Heinz and Hanna, the spa lovers, ate at an adjoining table. My husband spoke a little German, I some French, as did Heinz. Hanna understood some English, so each evening we learned a little more about our neighbors.
Captured at Stalingrad
Heinz, an officer in a German panzer division, was captured at Stalingrad. Taken as a prisoner to Central Asia, he was forced to work in an underground mine for four years.
Hanna, with their young son, fled across Germany as the bombs fell, and was able to communicate by post card only once each year with her husband.
Reunited in East Germany, they escaped one night to the West, and for a year worked among refugees like themselves. Heinz taught in high school, Hanna in the primary grades, and, finally, both retired.
The last evening, as we drank our coffee, we gazed out of floor-to-ceiling windows at the Kehlstein looming in the distance. Heinz and Hanna watched intently as a light winked on at Eagle's Nest.
Were they thinking of the man who lived on the mountain, who set the torch to Europe, and savaged their lives?
We didn't ask.
For further information about Berchtesgaden, write to the German National Tourist Office at 444 S. Flower St., Suite 2230, Los Angeles 90071, or phone (213) 688-7332. For colorful brochures and a listing of accommodations, write to Tourist Bureau, 8240 Berchtesgaden, West Germany.