A visit to the Cheimsee Lake was the highlight of my trip to Bavaria. It is about three hours by road from Munich.
“If you want to see perfect harmony between Man and Nature you must go there,” said the frau in whose house I stayed.
Cheimsee the largest lake in Bavaria and the third largest in the whole of Germany, is actually in a basin gouged out of an Ice Age glacier. The first thing that catches the eye is an array of sailing boats with their sails unfurled, spread over an expanse of 82 square kilometers of blue water. In the distance are the Cheimgau Alps with the two peaks of the Kampenwand and Hochfellan silhouetted against an azure sky.
There are many resorts around the lake offering various facilities. On the east side is Cheming, a bathing resort with a beach of about one kilometer. The Prien Resort on the west side is famous for its Kneipp cure. But the two main islands on the lake beckoned. Motor boats plied between shore and these islands at frequent intervals. I boarded one such at the Prein-Stock harbour. It was crowded with holiday makers making the best use of summer sunshine.
The first halt was at Herreninsel, (Men’s Island) the larger of the two islands, extending over 250 hectares of wooded country. The Schloss Herrencheimsee and its vast acreage of green forests cover most of the island. It is a long uphill walk to the palace and I opt for the horse-driven buggy ride. The driver is a lady who invites me to sit beside her for a better view of the scenery. In her broken English, she is anxious to make conversation.
She tells me that there are eight buggies driven back and forth between pier and castle, eight times a day. The drivers are mostly women. They were given adequate training before appointment. She has been driving the buggy for ten years.
The horses look like royal stallions with deep brown glossy coats and white shaggy manes. Theirs is a leisurely trot all the way. They do not gallop even if she threatens them with her whip.
“Palace horses,” she explains, “They feel they are royalty themselves. They even get a weekly day off from work.”
But they haven’t been toilet trained and the audible stink they let out frequently is enough to anaesthetize the passengers. Both adults and children giggle and pinch their noses.
Schloss Herrencheimsee is a magnificent building patterned on the Versailles Palace. It is called the Versailles of Germany and the interior is more lavish than its namesake. It was built by Ludwig II between 1878 – 1885, in honour of King Louis XIV of France, as a monument to monarchy. It is also called the Temple of Fame. Many of the rooms have been converted into museums. They were opened to the public in 1987. The entire life of Ludwig II from birth to early death is captured through portraits, photographs, documents, music, royal robes and paraphernalia. His unusual devotion to Richard Wagner is not difficult to detect. Some of the furniture was brought from the royal residence at Munich.
The Cheimsee Art Gallery and the Julius Exeter Art Gallery can also be visited in the palace. But what is worth feasting eyes on is the best porcelain collection in the world, displayed in a small room designed in Rococo style, by the Meissen factory between 1884 and 1886.
In the foyer of the palace is the sculpture of a large peacock. I could not find out its significance. Tired of plodding through the museum, I stopped at the Schlosswirtschaft Restaurant for a cup of coffee and a muffin.
But what was even more refreshing was a walk through the gardens and parks. The landscape is also modeled on the Versailles Palace grounds. The Fania Fountain in the forecourt spouts water into the skies at an incredible height, its reflection being seen in the pond in front of it, surrounded by sculptures from Greek and Roman mythology. The palace is surrounded by deciduous woods with trees, plants, flowers and animals.
Back to the pier in the horse buggy. The lady driver says, “You must not go back without visiting Fraueninsel. I live there and I can bet you’ll enjoy your visit.”
Of course I wouldn’t miss going there. I’m so curious about this “Island of Women.”
Fraueninsel is the oldest part of the Cheimgau region. In the Stone Age it was a centre for pagan worship. Since then it has been sanitized by the Benedictine nuns who own the place. In 782 A.D, the Duke of Bavaria Tassilo III and his wife Luitpirc founded an Abbey here. He also gifted the nuns with several land holdings so that they could live a contemplative life and support themselves by cultivating the property for their livelihood.
The Abbey is set among lime trees. It is a small church with a single nave built in Romanesque style. In 1860 A.D. Sister Irmengard the great granddaughter of Charlemagne came to the island and became the first Abbess of the church. After her death, she was beatified as a saint. She was buried in a tin coffin placed inside a stone sarcophagus encased in wood. Her burial chamber was sunk into the foundation, symbolically to support the church. Excavated three times, her bones now lie in a shrine of crystal glass, which is visible under the altar table. The church is now a place of pilgrimage.
The other extraordinary feature of the church is its free standing bell tower alongside the church, its onion dome looking into the skies at a height of 36 meters. The tower is a solid octagonal structure 8.8 meters in diameter, with walls which are 2 meters thick. During the Hungarian revolution it was a defence sanctuary. It received its dome only in1573.
The nuns run a thriving business during summer months. The Convent shop is stacked with goodies and souvenirs. The convent has been brewing beer since the 17th century. It also makes a sweet red wine called Insularis and is said to be comparable to the Franconian or Mossel wines.
What is so beautiful about the island is the greenery. While the convent grounds and buildings dominate the southern area, a few cute little cottages are on the northern end. They are typical one story island dwellings of fisher folk with their gables pointing towards the lake. Some of them are 7th generation fishermen.
In between the buildings of the north and the south is a large central green area. On the highest point of the island, smack in the centre of the Linden Plaza is the Tassilo Linden tree which reaches to a height of 525 meters. The tree is more than thousand years old. Many years ago it was a beacon to travelers lost on the lake. Beside this tree is a War Memorial built in 1926 in Baroque style. Its walls are adorned by paintings of an Expressionist artist Hiash Maier- Erdling. It depicts a fisherman and his wife praying against a backdrop of Cheimsee and Fraueninsel.
The Linden Tree Hotel was a place to rest. I feasted on a typical Bavarian dish of Schweinbraten mit Semmel Knodien (Roast pork with bread dumplings) and washed it down with Fraueninsel sweet red wine.
Thus fortified, I walked briskly through the rest of the island. Once upon a time many skills and crafts were practised here. One of the crafts that have survived is the Island Pottery of Klamfleuthner. The pieces available are of unusual shapes and sizes. They are skillfully crafted There are many wood sculptures too. The artists seem to have given free rein to their imagination.
The Kocherfisherhaus is a typical island house that has preserved its 17th century façade, though the interior has been modernized.
It is not difficult to envisage why Professor Max Haushofer a famous painter made this island his home. In 1828, he established the famous Artists Colony of Frauenworth along with three other artists. He lies interred in the Island cemetery in the company of several famous writers, sculptors and painters.
Fraueninsel covers just 15.5 hectares of land and has a population of 250 people. There are no vehicles here. The nuns run the island on Benedictine principles of constancy, independence and durability, which have enabled them to remain totally independent and free to lead their monastic lives. They have also preserved the art, tradition and culture of Bavarian life. They project a fine example of spiritual growth through godly living.
The two islands in the Cheimsee Lake are so different from each other. While Herreninsel radiates the pomp and splendour of Royalty and symbolizes materialism, Fraeuninsel is an island of tranquility in the churning seas of modern-day living, and is run by saintly women living close to Nature and trying to maintain their relevance in a consumer-oriented world.
This trip has been a revitalizing experience of body, mind and spirit. It brings home the reality that Humanity can remain alive in whatever circumstances so long as it is linked to God’s spirit.