Snowcapped Zugspitze lends view of 4 nations


armisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a typical southern Bavarian village, comprises two towns merged into one to accommodate the 1936 Winter Olympics, which, ugly world politics aside, were staged here amid a picture-postcard setting.

Still a magnet for winter sports enthusiasts, the twin-community resort also attracts the spa set and year-round outdoorsy types who revel in the salubrious and challenging natural environment that characterizes the region.

The highlight of my visit, part of a fam trip sponsored by Renee Werbin's Werbin LTI Tours of Atlanta that included a stop in Lucerne, Switzerland, was an outing to the snowcapped Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany.

The 9,731-foot-high summit, one of several jagged peaks that identify the rugged Wetterstein Mountain range, is never farther away than a glance skyward from anywhere in town.

A journey to the top of the mountain is not for the timid or the acrophobic.

But anyone willing to throw caution to a chilling Alpine wind and hang suspended in a swaying cable car attached to a lifeline no more substantial-looking than a wisp of dental floss will be well-rewarded with a stunning panorama of four countries: Austria, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.

There are two ways for visitors to reach the summit (except for mountain climbers, of course, who can get there the old-fashioned way): first by cog railway or cable car to the Zugspitze Plateau, which is the nerve center of the mountain's ski activity, and from there by a separate cable car to the jutting peak.

At the top is a comfortable snack bar, where visitors can warm their chilled bones with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.

Sharing the enclosed observatory is an art gallery (high art, indeed!), where man-made creations vie for attention with the spectacular natural wonders just outside the glass windows.

The skiing from the plateau, by the way, is said to be magnificent, with nine ski lifts and one chair lift capable of transporting up to 12,000 skiers an hour to the trails, which remain open from November to May.

A buffet restaurant at the plateau caters to visitors and skiers alike.

As for the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen that resides in the mountain's shadow, its two communities are separated by the Leutze River, with Garmisch being the trendier, more upscale and more commercially active of the two, and Partenkirchen (which was settled by the invading Romans when they were too tuckered out from marching to advance any farther) the more picturesque and old-worldish.

The Marienplatz is at the heart of the charming Garmisch pedestrian zone.

Here travelers will find St. Martin's church, which is notable for the baroque onion domes that are typical of Bavarian Catholic churches, and a number of shops worth a visit.

For example, Kaufmann Kunsthandwerk, at No. 25 Am Kurpark, features hand-done gold, silver objects d'art and pewter plates as well as glassware and beer steins. Grassegger, at No. 8, is a three-story extravaganza of fairly priced Tyrolean outfittings, woolens and textiles.

If you are in need of refreshments, try a traditional confectionary called an Agnes Bernauer torte, a local pastry of layered nuts, egg-white and meringue, at the Cafe Konditorei Kronner (at Ashenfeldstrasse), or a cup of strong coffee at Tchibo, a cafe that doubles as a discount house where everything from software to underwear is on sale.

If you must, there is a McDonald's improbably ensconced in a cross-hatched Bavarian townhouse on the square.

The Ludwigstrasse is the main street in Partenkirchen, and visitors will find it lined with quaint houses whose fronts are embellished with large and ornate trompe l'oiel fresco-like ornamentation.

Typical is Das Alte Haus (the old house), whose renovation, mind you, dates to 1771.

The Olympic Ski Stadium, built here for the 1936 games, is still active, with two imposing ski jumps and a slalom course.

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