Bavaria is the largest state in Germany, and has a feisty, independent spirit which makes the state feel quite distinct from the German “mainland”.
Bavaria is the largest of the federal states of Germany by area and the second-largest by population with the area of 70,550.19 square km (27,200 sq mi) and population of 12.9 million inhabitants. Bavaria has a long history, going back to at least the year 520, when the Bavarian people were first mentioned in written sources. This long history, along with the fact that Bavaria was an independent – and rather powerful – kingdom between 1806 until the end of World War I, is one of the reasons for the strong cultural identity Bavarians share to this day, which is also reflected in the official designation as a “free state” rather than a federal state. However, what is conceived as “typically Bavarian” outside of the state and internationally usually only refers to the Southern part of Bavaria (called “Oberbayern”- “Upper Bavaria”). The Franconia region around Nuremberg, for example, has a distinct set of cultural values, traditions and customs.
Bavaria has a very strong economy and would, if considered an independent country, in fact rank among the 25 most powerful economies in the world. While there remain a number of areas where agriculture is a major factor, the state is widely known for being home to many large, high-profile companies. Among these, BMW, Allianz, Siemens, Audi and MAN have their headquarters in Munich or in the city’s extended metropolitan area.
Tourism is also an important factor of Bavaria’s economy. Visitors from all over the world mainly come to see the picturesque old cities like Coburg or Regensburg, famous buildings like the Neuschwanstein Castle or the Würzburg Residence or recreational areas like the Lake Chiemsee or Lake Starnberg in the Pre-Alps region south of Munich.
The history of Bavaria stretches from its earliest settlement and formation as a duchy in the 6th century CE through the Holy Roman Empire to becoming an independent kingdom and a state of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Duchy of Bavaria dates back to the year 555. In the 17th century, the Duke of Bavaria became a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire. The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918, when Bavaria became a republic. In 1946, the Free State of Bavaria re-organized itself on democratic lines after the Second World War.
Bavaria has a unique culture, largely because of the state’s Catholic majority and conservative traditions. Bavarians have traditionally been proud of their culture, which includes a language, cuisine, architecture, festivals such as Oktoberfest and elements of Alpine symbolism. The state also has the second largest economy among the German states by GDP figures, giving it a status as a rather wealthy German region.
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Modern Bavaria also includes parts of the historical regions of Franconia and Swabia.
Bavarians have often emphasized a separate national identity and considered themselves as “Bavarians” first, “Germans” second. This feeling started to come about more strongly among Bavarians when the Kingdom of Bavaria joined the Protestant Prussian-dominated German Empire while the Bavarian nationalists wanted to keep Bavaria as Catholic and an independent state. Nowadays, aside from the minority Bavaria Party, most Bavarians accept that Bavaria is part of Germany. Another consideration is that Bavarians foster different cultural identities:
- Franconia in the north, speaking East Franconian German;
- Bavarian Swabia in the south west, speaking Swabian German;
- and Altbayern (so-called “Old Bavaria”, the regions forming the “historic”, pentagon-shaped Bavaria before the acquisitions through the Vienna Congress, at present the districts of the Upper Palatinate, Lower and Upper Bavaria) speaking Austro-Bavarian. In Munich, the Old Bavarian dialect was widely spread, but nowadays High German is predominantly spoken there.
Uniquely among German states, Bavaria has two official flags of equal status, one with a white and blue stripe, the other with white and blue lozenges. Either may be used by civilians and government offices, who are free to choose between them. Unofficial versions of the flag, especially a lozenge style with coat of arms, are sometimes used by civilians.
Bavarians commonly emphasize pride in their traditions. Traditional costumes collectively known as Tracht are worn on special occasions and include in Altbayern Lederhosen for males and Dirndl for females. Centuries-old folk music is performed. The Maibaum, or Maypole (which in the Middle Ages served as the community’s yellow pages, as figurettes on the pole represent the trades of the village), and the bagpipes in the Upper Palatinate region bear witness to the ancient Celtic and Germanic remnants of cultural heritage of the region. There are a lot of traditional Bavarian sports disciplines, e.g. the Aperschnalzen is an old tradition of competitive whipcracking.
Whether actually in Bavaria, overseas or full of citizens from other nations they continue to cultivate their traditions. They hold festivals and dances to keep their traditions alive. In New York City the German American Cultural Society is a larger umbrella group for others such as the Bavarian organizations, which represent a specific part of Germany. They proudly put forth a German Parade called Steuben Parade each year. Various affiliated events take place amongst its groups, one of which is the Bavarian Dancers.
Bavarians tend to place a great value on food and drink. In addition to their renowned dishes, Bavarians also consume many items of food and drink which are unusual elsewhere in Germany; for example Weißwurst (“white sausage”) or in some instances a variety of entrails. At folk festivals and in many beer gardens, beer is traditionally served by the litre (in a Maß). Bavarians are particularly proud of the traditional Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, initially established by the Duke of Bavaria for the City of Munich (i.e. the court) in 1487 and the duchy in 1516. According to this law, only three ingredients were allowed in beer: water, barley, and hops. In 1906 the Reinheitsgebot made its way to all-German law, and remained a law in Germany until the EU partly struck it down recently as incompatible with the European common market. German breweries, however, cling to the principle, and Bavarian breweries still comply with it in order to distinguish their beer brands. Bavarians are also known as some of the world’s most beer-loving people with an average annual consumption of 170 litres per person, although figures have been declining in recent years.
Bavaria is also home to the Franconia wine region, which is situated along the Main River in Franconia. The region has produced wine (Frankenwein) for over 1,000 years and is famous for its use of the Bocksbeutel wine bottle. The production of wine forms an integral part of the regional culture, and many of its villages and cities hold their own wine festivals (Weinfeste) throughout the year.
Bavarians consider themselves to be egalitarian and informal. Their sociability can be experienced at the annual Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival, which welcomes around six million visitors every year, or in the famous beer gardens. In traditional Bavarian beer gardens, patrons may bring their own food but buy beer only from the brewery that runs the beer garden.
In the United States, particularly among German Americans, Bavarian culture is viewed somewhat nostalgically, and several “Bavarian villages” have been founded, most notably Frankenmuth, Michigan; Helen, Georgia; and Leavenworth, Washington. Since 1962, the latter has been styled with a Bavarian theme and is home to an Oktoberfest celebration it claims is among the most attended in the world outside of Munich.
Bavaria is home to some of the most beautiful castles. This southern-German state has an internationally unrivaled array of castles, Medieval buildings and palaces. Every year, these historical marvels draw millions of international tourists to this green, forested and fertile region. Bavaria is nationally perceived as a tourist-trap – and the density of phenomenal castles is quite special there.
It’s partly thanks to Bavaria’s Medieval importance. The so-called “Romantic Road”, a vital trade route, sliced through Bavaria during Medieval times.
This route brought prosperity and wealth – but required protection, too. Castles and fortifications sprang up alongside the trade route to collect tithes, and to protect the highway from mischief-makers. The most famous castles in Bavaria are the work of one truly eccentric individual – King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Nowadays, he’s commonly known by the moniker of ‘Mad King Ludwig’. Without doubt, it was he who is responsible for forming Bavaria’s indelible connection to castles.
The world’s most-recognized castle, Neuschwanstein, can be found in Bavaria, and is a spectacular monument to King Ludwig’s passion for Wagner – and his gathering insanity. His other palaces, including Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, equally have to be seen to be believed.
Why did King Ludwig become so obsessed with building castles in Bavaria? The fact that he spent his childhood summers in his father’s 1800s replica castle, Hohenschwangau, undoubtedly planted the seeds of his future fixation. Hohenschwangau is, quite literally, a stone’s throw from Neuschwanstein – at the other side of the valley.
Ludwig wished to build Neuschwanstein (or, as he called it, ‘new Hohenschwangau castle’) to face across the valley from the castle of his childhood dreams. He actually set himself up a telescope in his bedroom in Hohenschwangau, from where he could watch the progress of the construction work going on in Neuschwanstein. King Ludwig also lavished attention – and money which he simply didn’t have – on building bizarre and elaborate palaces.
Linderhof is the most psychologically troubling — it’s a tiny, hidden little castle in Bavaria. The entire place was designed to be a solitary residence for a lonely king – the dining table is big enough only for one. It also sports a truly Disneyesque grotto in the garden – a chintzy spot for opera renditions.
The palace of Herrenchiemsee is slightly less camp and gaudy, but it’s nonetheless quite a spectacle. The entire palace is built to emulate the beauty and structure of Versailles in France – you can see the ordered, vertical columns and the Franco-gothic style.
It’s said that Ludwig wished to reconstruct the Alhambra as his next project – unfortunately, his untimely death ended any such ambition.