My latest trip, to the Berchtesgaden area of Germany, was a return to the beginning in a number of ways. This magical area, with spectacular alpine scenery and the vertical elements that I always look for in my landscape photography, was the venue for my first ever photography trip back in April 2016. I was so taken with the place that it was also the venue for my second ever photography trip back in May 2016. Germany itself has long been a favourite country of mine. I lived there for about three years when I was very young, leaving when I was three and a half, which may have something to do with it, but I also spent a lot of time there while working with great colleagues from our Ulm site in the Nokia days. For whatever reason, the country as a whole is a comfortable destination for me, and the southern part of Germany is somewhere that I just love to be.
The town of Berchtesgaden, at an elevation of about 700m, rests in a valley surrounded by spectacular hills and mountains. The area has rich salt deposits which made it an important town, changing hands between various countries in the conflicts of the 19th century. For my purposes it is a perfect base for a photography trip as it is in the middle of an area which is filled with amazing sights. Within 15 minutes you can be on the shore of the beautiful lakes at Königsee or Hintersee, at the foot of the cable car to Jenner (1876m), looking at the beautiful Maria Gern Chapel, exploring the gorges at Wimbachklamm or Almbachklamm, or driving up Rossfeldpanoramastrasse for amazing views of the surrounding scenery.
Visiting the area in November is something of a gamble when it comes to the weather. I had been watching the forecasts closely and it seemed that the weather would be a mixture of cloudy and clear days with temperatures fluctuating either side of zero. This sounded pretty good to me, there may be a chance to capture the area covered in the first snow of the winter and there could be a balance between periods of capturing new shots and other periods of going through the results. It was definitely the off-season for the locals, the hiking and summer tourism season was well and truly over, but the skiing activities were not yet up to speed, and that also showed in some of the attractions - the Jenner cable car was out of action for maintenance and the gorges were just open routes rather than being staffed as they are in summer.
My biggest hope for the trip was to get an updated and improved shot of the Maria Gern chapel. This has been one of my favourite places to photograph since the moment I first visited it in April 2016. The beautiful chapel, perched on a hillside, with the road curling round it in an s-bend, and the crowning glory of the iconic Watzmann mountain in the background. My best picture from there in 2016 was taken at night, capturing the headlight trails with a long exposure.
I hoped that during the trip I might be able to enhance this shot with snow, stars, more headlight trails, sunset/sunrise colours or many of those. Getting such an opportunity would require some persistence and also some cooperation from the weather.
On the afternoon of my arrival I headed for Hintersee, a fairly small lake surrounded by mountains, with a level path winding its way around the shore, a fantastic place to go for a walk in any season. On this occasion, in a pattern that was to persist through the whole trip, the clouds were almost constantly too low for the mountains to be visible. I had to make do with occasional glimpses of mountain through the clouds.
My accommodation for the trip was the fantastic Hotel Edelweiss in Berchtesgaden. I have stayed there three times now and it is just about perfect. The family run hotel is in a prime location in the middle of Berchtesgaden and has direct access from the very convenient and not very expensive underground parking. The rooms are generous, clean and well taken care of. The breakfast is sensational. The service is always polite and helpful, and there is a great pool and spa area. Considering all these things, the price is very reasonable. I would highly recommend it to anyone, but please don't all go there in case the prices go up and it makes it harder for me to get a room next time.
While Maria Gern might be my favourite place to photograph in Berchtesgaden, my favourite place to be might be Rossfeldpanoramastrasse - a toll road which lets you ascend from the valley floor (700m elevation) all the way up to the top of Rossfeld (just under 1600m elevation) via a series of hairpin bends. This is a real pleasure to drive, and it offers spectacular views, to all directions, both of Germany and across the border into Austria. On a clear day you can easily see Dachstein in the distance, some 70km away. On this trip however, the visibility was often closer to 70m than 70km.
Over the next days, the weather failed to live up to the forecast, the clear spells did not arrive and the temperature did not go low enough to allow snow at the level of the valley floor (there was however an abundance of rain). I tried to find some breaks in the weather, moving between places and also changing elevation in case there was a way to get under or over the clouds, but it seemed like there was no relief. I realised that all the things I had in my mind to photograph on the trip were impossible without visibility of the mountains. This was pretty frustrating... but all I could do was keep trying and hope for a break in the weather.
On the third evening, there was finally a short window of opportunity, as the clouds lifted higher than the mountains for about 25 minutes in the period after sunset. Luckily I was ready for this at Maria Gern, and tried to capture a longer exposure image with the headlights of multiple vehicles coming and going.
This was at least something... but the dark and moody weather makes it very hard to get attractive colours to an image like this.
The following day there was another short weather break, this time while I was near the summit of Rossfeld. The clouds were split, below 1400m there was no visibility and there was also cloud cover above the mountains, but in-between there was a window of partial clarity and the impressive Göll massif (the highest peak being Hoher Göll at 2522m) was visible from Rossfeld for the first time during the trip.
At Hintersee there was an improvement in visibility also as the surrounding peaks came into at least partial view, but still the featureless grey skies were ever present. Those characterless expanses of grey do rather limit your options for making beautiful images.
That evening another small weather window opened after sunset, and it was possible to see through the cloud blanket at Maria Gern for the first time in the trip, for about 25 minutes before the clouds gathered again.
That night, finally, the first snow of the winter arrived to the lower elevations in the Berchtesgaden area. As usual on these trips, I was up and out at about 0530 - around 90 minutes before the sunrise. I headed for Maria Gern, for maybe the 10th time in the trip, hoping to find it blanketed in perfect fresh snow and also dreaming that the Watzmann mountain would be visible. As many in Finland can recognise, the day of the first snow is the trigger for everyone to forget how to drive, this manifests in many ways but the main ones are to drive far too cautiously and to drive nowhere near cautiously enough... both things being relative, each of us has the luxury to place ourselves somewhere in-between at the "just right" point and observe how everyone else gets it wrong.
Early that evening, back at Maria Gern for the umpteenth time, the skies were at least more interesting, with many shades of grey instead of one, but the mountains were still not visible.
At this stage, the trip was starting to feel like a disappointment from photography point of view, the mountains had been visible for a total of about 90 minutes during the past 120 hours, and I had not really been able to make much progress. There was one night left, and then possibilities to shoot until lunch time before heading back to the airport. Last chance.
The final morning was a a beautiful one, but the world was still shrouded in cloud - the cloud was however white rather than grey and looked like it might burn off as the morning progressed. I headed to Maria Gern once again, hoping that the sky would clear to reveal the mountains as the sunrise approached. Once again this was a frustrating morning... 2 hours on top of a hill in temperatures below zero... above me I could see clear blue sky, behind me I could see the first rays of the sun hitting the Untersberg mountain but ahead of me a bank of cloud obscured the view behind the Maria Gern chapel. Disappointed, I headed back for breakfast.
The Edelweiss breakfast lifted my spirits somewhat as I sat with my back to the window and thought about what time I would need to leave to get back to Munich airport. After eating an enormous breakfast I turned to check the weather - it was stunning. The clouds has burned away and it was a beautiful day. I hurried to pack my things and checked out in a terrible rush before making my final visit to Maria Gern where a fairytale scene awaited me.
After drinking in the beautiful view for a while, and taking many photographs, I realised that my wallet was not in it's usual place. I guessed it would be in the car and carried on. Returning to the car, it became apparent that my wallet was gone... along with my credit card, drivers license, etc. This was not good. I retraced my steps... fortunately it was not a long trail. I had the wallet when checking out of the hotel, then I went to the lift (10m walk) and descended to the car park before driving to Maria Gern. I double checked my route at Maria Gern and also triple checked the car before calling the hotel and driving back to the car park... where I found my wallet and all its contents. It had been lost for about 80 minutes. No harm done, but I do not recommend anyone else to try this experience.
After this unplanned detour I had about 2 hours before I had to leave for the airport. I returned to the summit of Rossfeld where the fresh snow and beautiful blue sky combined to make it a place of amazing beauty. There is no better place to be than in the mountains when the weather is like that.
It was a fantastic way to conclude my trip, in such beautiful conditions at one of my favourite places.
As with my other November trip, to Iceland, it had been a pretty challenging trip, with a lot of time and effort needed to squeeze out comparatively few good photographic opportunities, but once again I loved being in Berchtesgaden despite the difficulties. It is usually the case when dealing with landscape photography, that you are at the mercy of the weather conditions to some extent... occasionally you hit the jackpot, but often you are limited in your options. All you can do is be in position and ready to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that you didn't consider in advance.
Now I need to try staying in Finland for a little while, at least long enough to sort out the insurance claim from my Iceland trip equipment accident, and then consider what my best options are for this time of year, I need to find destinations that are less weather dependant and subjects that are possible to work with regardless of poor visibility, the 2017 mountain photography season seems to be done.
Until next time!
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