Our next destination was Austria, where we’d planned to stay for six nights to give us a break from travelling, and a nice chunk of proper relaxing holiday time. Our campsite was close to Zell am See, with snow-capped mountains surrounding it on all sides.
It was nice to know we were going to be in one place for a few days, and we spent our first night watching a livestream of the Eurovision Song Contest while we ate strudel, which felt exceptionally European of us.
Despite staying in Austria, our next Band of Brothers destination was back over the border in Germany. We drove to Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, to visit Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, also known as The Kehlsteinhaus. It is a mountain retreat which was presented to Hitler as a birthday present, but apparently he wasn’t all that keen on it, and only visited a handful of times. There is some debate about which Allied troops were the first to liberate it, but Easy Company were amongst the first men to reach it.
It was wet and chilly, so luckily both of us had put on our winter coats and boots. When I packed for this trip I felt insane throwing in shorts and strappy tops as well as my winter coat and boots, but I am so glad I did.
When we arrived, we had to board special buses which took us to the top of the mountain. The track is narrow and steep, so this is the only way to get to the top. The buses made their way up in convoy, then we had to book ourselves a slot on one of the return buses, for when they made their way back down the mountain.
The Eagle’s Nest is over 1800 metres above sea level, and halfway up the mountain it started to snow. We were expecting rain and cloud, but we were not exactly prepared for snow, the weather forecasts had made no mention of snow at all. It got heavier and heavier the closer we got to the top.
When you disembark, you make your way into the tunnel carved into the mountain, then you get in the shiny brass lift which takes you up to the top. We snapped a selfie before we realised you weren’t supposed to take photos. Whoops.
We also both thought, independently of each other, that the lift area reminded both of us of the Gringotts ride at Uinversal Studios in Orlando, which is a bit weird.
My first impression when I got to the top was how accurately the TV series had recreated the main room, which is now the restaurant. The stone walls and the windows looked exactly how they did in the series. It was crammed with people, but we eventually found a table by asking to share with some young American girls, and we had sausage soup and apple cake. It was a little bit surreal to be eating lunch in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest!
After we’d eaten, we made our way outside. First we came out into a corridor, which is obviously the setting for the funny scene in the Points episode of Band of Brothers, where Nixon, Welsh and Speirs are all drunk. Again, I was amazed by the accuracy of the TV show, it looked exactly the same.
There’s a famous photo of Major Winters and the other officers sitting on the balcony at the Eagle’s Nest, and our main goal of the visit was to pose for a photo in the same spot. Unfortunately, it was difficult to figure out exactly where this was because the weather had obliterated every single geographic landmark we could have used to pinpoint it.
We posed for some photos anyway, and both of us were excited to see that the paving slabs look like they’re the exact same ones as in the photo, so we were walking on exactly the same ground. Yes, we’re that nerdy.
Just to illustrate how unforgiving the weather really was, this is what you’re supposed to be able to see from the balcony, and this is what we could actually see.
We attempted to walk the ‘panoramic mountain path’, but after having to scale a huge icy, snow-covered slope, we decided we’d turn back before one of us slipped and fell off the mountain. We got massive giggles about how ridiculously rubbish the view was.
After we headed back down the mountain we went to the Documentation Centre Museum, which has a lot of very interesting information about the Nazi takeover of Obersalzburg, and the construction of the Eagle’s Nest. Underneath the museum you can enter part of the huge complex of bunkers which spread out beneath the buildings.
It’s a fascinating place, and we enjoyed our visit despite the weather.
Our final day of Band of Brothers tourism was a visit to Kaprun and Zell am See.
In Kaprun we found the area opposite the castle where the last photographs of Easy Company were taken. It was tough to see from the old photos exactly where they’d been taken, but we think we got close enough.
In Zell am See we went on a boat and afterwards dipped our toes in the lake where Major Winters had taken his morning swim every day. I’ve heard that a lot of Band of Brothers fans have gone for a swim themselves, but it was way too cold for that!
We had hot chocolate and cake in the Grand Hotel tea room. The Grand Hotel was the Battalion HQ while the 506th were based here. After our cake we skulked about a bit and went upstairs into the hotel for a nosey. There were lots of old photos of the hotel on the walls, but nothing from 1945. Apparently other people who have visited have found the hotel staff to be unaware of the connection with the 506th, which I think is a shame.
That brought an end to our tour of Easy Company locations. We had originally planned to visit Haguenau and Mourmelon on our return journey through France, but time didn’t really allow for it, and we couldn’t find many significant locations in either place for us to visit.
But the Band of Brothers touring is not over for us! In December we’re headed back to Bastogne for another actors’ reunion, where we’re going to take another tour of the Bois Jacques with the actors. We hadn’t planned on visiting twice, but the reunion was announced after we’d booked this trip, and we couldn’t pass it up. The reunions are always fun for us on two levels – we love to see the actors and hear about the real stories behind the series, but we’ve also made a lot of very good friends through the various events we’ve attended, and the same faces tend to show up each time, so it acts as a reunion for us too.
I’d also like to tour more of the UK sites where Easy were based, and it seems crazy to have not done more of that. We’ve been to Upottery, but I’d like to see more of the places where they were based during their training. Also, next year we are hopefully planning to combine a holiday to Orlando with a few days in Georgia, where we’ll visit Toccoa and climb Currahee. I’m sorry to say that it will be a slow walk, rather than a run, for us though. Three miles up, three miles down!
There wasn’t a campsite near to Dachau in Germany, so we booked into a hotel. It was called something like the Tulip Inn Alp Style, so we were expecting some sort of quaint Alpine-style lodge, but what we got was a concrete block overlooking a roundabout and a Burger King. But it was clean and modern inside, so it was fine with us.
I was a bit hot and sweaty from sitting in the car all day, so I decided that before I had a shower I may as well get myself even more sweaty by going for a run. I got to the main road, randomly picked a direction and set off. I hadn’t been running for very long when I saw a watchtower and barbed wire.
Our purpose for coming to this area of Germany was to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, which I’ll admit is not a typical kind of holiday destination. As depicted in the Why We Fight episode of Band of Brothers, Easy Company liberated one of the satellite camps of Dachau, at Buchloe. There is nothing left of that site, so we decided to visit the main camp, which is now a memorial centre and museum. It’s a grim but important piece of Easy Company history.
Even though I’d done research into the location of the hotel, I had no idea it was quite so close to the camp, and it came as a bit of a shock to be jogging past it, it looked very eerie and imposing against the grey sky, which was by now promising rain.
It felt fitting that the weather stayed grey and cloudy the next day when we visited the camp. I expected it to be a very emotional experience, and it was, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. I cry easily, and I expected to be a blubbering wreck throughout our visit, but instead I just felt drained and exhausted.
Dachau was the first Concentration Camp built by the Nazis, and it was in operation almost continually for the whole 12 years of Nazi rule. It was used as a template for the other camps, and also as a training facility for the SS. Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was a product of Dachau’s training programme. The people imprisoned here were mostly political prisoners at first, but this was widened to include Jewish people, homosexuals, gypsies, beggars and criminals.
I found it all very hard to process. The camp was enormous, especially the main yard where the prisoners were made to line up for hours for roll call. To think that this was one of a series of camps in the Dachau area, which was in turn part of the even bigger network of camps across the whole of the Nazi territory is mind-boggling to me. I have difficulty extrapolating the figures on that sort of scale.
I also found it difficult to process the horrors the prisoners were subjected to, which included sadistic experiments into infectious diseases and the effects of air pressure on the human body. The crematorium here is intact, as is the gas chamber, and although there is no evidence to suggest the gas chamber was ever put into large-scale operation, I still did not want to set foot in there. This was the part of the camp I found most affecting, there is a memorial trail behind the crematorium with markers placed at various points where there are mass graves, or where there were execution areas. My eyes welled with tears a few times and I felt physically sick, but on the whole I just felt too stunned to cry. I found it all so unfathomable.
I think everyone should visit a place like this just once, to see the devastating effect that prejudice, hatred and ignorance has on the world. I left the camp feeling drained, exhausted, and with a real sense of despair at what humans are capable of.
We’d planned to go out for dinner, but neither of us were really in the mood, so we retreated to our concrete block hotel with supplies from the supermarket, and had a hotel room picnic. The following day we’d be heading to Austria.