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 Pilgrimage in the Alps

St. Bartholomew’s Church ()

On the western shore of the Königsee, deep within the Berchtesgadener Alps in southeast Bavaria, lies an unusual destination. Many American travelers have never heard about it, despite being close to some installations. In fact, the only reason I knew about this place was because of an old painting my German grandmother owned. The painting captivated me as it pictured the most beautiful location I had ever seen: a pristine mountain view mirrored off a crystal-clear alpine lake with a red-topped church as the centerpiece. I told myself I would visit that place, and after years of waiting to grow up I finally made it. This destination goes by the name of Saint Bartholomew’s Church.

St. Bartholomew’s Church

St. Bartholomew’s Church is not the oldest or largest church in Europe, but it surely can be considered a highly memorable church with fabulous natural scenery all around. Its namesake is Saint Batholomew, one of the Apostles of Jesus, who is the patron of the alpine farmers that traditionally inhabited the area. The church of today, built in 1697, was constructed on top of a previous chapel, built around 1134.

The designers of the modern church chose a Baroque style, with the red onion domes taking inspiration from the nearby Salzburg Cathedral in Austria. Since its consecration, the primary purpose of this remote church has been that of a pilgrimage location for the local Roman Catholic population. Honoring tradition, the people of the town of Maria Alm in nearby Austria make a yearly pilgrimage to the church on the Saturday after Aug. 24. The inside of the church is not the same as other Catholic churches around Europe, but the small church has its own debonaire that projects a humble and elegant identity.

Lakeside hunting lodge

The church is not the only structure on the tiny peninsula. Near the church is a wharf for the tourist boats, a seafood restaurant and an old hunting lodge dating to the 12th century, when the original church was built. It is not the original building from then; it has been updated over the centuries.

This hunting lodge served as the private residence of the Princes of Berchtesgaden until 1803 when the area was absorbed into the Kingdom of Bavaria. After that, the Bavarian ruling family, the Wittelsbach dynasty, used it as their personal hunting lodge. Today, it serves as an inn where a peaceful meal can be enjoyed all while viewing the church and the marvelous scenery all around.

Getting to the church

The church does not require an admission fee. However, the trek to visit can be quite strenuous. There are two ways in which eager travelers can visit the church. The first is a grueling seven-mile hike, starting from the town of Schonau am Königsee, which has many uphill areas and can be tricky for unsuspecting visitors.

The second option of arrival is the most common and more entertaining of the two. From the town of Schonau at the Northern end of the lake, there is a ferry that takes travelers to the church in small, electric boats intended to be ecologically friendly to the rare fish that live in the lake (which are served at both restaurants). A round-trip ticket runs about 22 euros per person, and 11 euros for a one-way trip (not suggested). These boats depart every 30 minutes. The journey is about 45 minutes to the church and back, so the full round-trip is an hour-and-a-half. Along the way, there are beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and pristine water of the lake, and boat conductors use trumpets to communicate an ancient tune with the other conductors that feels just right on the calm lake water. The schedule may change during the winter depending on if the lake is frozen or the presence of inclement weather. The service is closed on Christmas Eve. The timetable is listed below.

  • Schonau am Königsee-St. Bartholomew: the first ferry to the church leaves at 09:15 a.m. and the last trip to the church leaves at 4 p.m.

  • St. Batholomew-Schonau: the first ferry back to the town leaves at 10 a.m., and the last trip to the town departs at 4:50 p.m.

St. Bartholomew’s Church is a magnificently beautiful site that can inspire a visit just through a painting. The historical aspect combined with the calm atmosphere makes this a great destination no matter the time of year, with or without family. This location is the perfect getaway to experience the serenity of the Bavarian Alpine region.