Though all is not as it seems, jolly Munich brings Bavarian cheer to the masses
MUNICH — How are they doing in jolly old Munchen, land of the Glockenspiel, bratwurst and Bavarian cheer?
While the city’s rowdy bonhomme does suggest a movie in which you find yourself an actor, just a few moments bending your elbow inside the Hofbrauhaus or outside at the Augustiner Keller beer garden may have you in the spirit, quaffing a dunkel or doppelbock and singing just as boisterously as the townsfolk.
Suffice it to say that, based on a four-day sampling of the urban mood, the people are upbeat, crime is at a low ebb, foreigners are courted and all the taxis are pale yellow Mercedes (and all the taxis are new).
Munich, a surging economic engine, is Germany’s third largest city, and arguably its most fun-loving.
Get your bearings
Though the tourist-averse may say Marienplatz is the one place to avoid, pay no heed. Start your explorations in this spacious city center square for the simple reason that it is still the best place to plot a course.
The square is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof train station along the pedestrian malls that are the Neuhauserstrasse and Kaufingerstrasse shopping gantlet. Marienplatz also is home to the Old and New City Hall. More importantly, it’s the nexus of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn base stations, as well as the launching pad for Mike’s Bike Tours (www.mikesbiketours.com), Munich’s best.
Spend at least part of a late morning or early afternoon atop Cafe Glockenspiel at 28 Marienplatz, taking in the view of St. Peter’s Church and the unfolding city.
Don’t be fooled by the wonderful “old” architecture spread out before you, appealing though it is. Large swaths of the historic district (the Alstadt) had to be rebuilt from scratch after the aerial bombardments of World War II, and much was re-created stone for stone in the traditional style. But this particular preservation instinct also lends the scene a vaguely theme park tenor.
Slightly incongruous in the heart of Munich, architecturally, are the three neoclassical temples flanking Konigsplatz — one containing a sculpture museum and another the State Collection of Antiquities — that together have been christened Athens-on-the-Isar.
Food and drink
The rather heavy, sometimes bland nature of the general run of German food does not inspire hosannas, though like any great world city, a little research will render some gems.
It is, however, a paradise for beer fanciers who don’t have to wait for Oktoberfest to quaff their fill or tour the Weihenstephan Brewery, the oldest brewery in the world.
While the cavernous Hofbrauhaus on Platzl is no longer reserved for those born to the purple, and remains (like the Ratskeller) a quaint sort of dining and drinking interlude, a few steps away are the much less hectic and decidedly less corny neighborhood watering holes Augustiner am Platz and Augustiner Brau Munchen 1328.
Invoking the past
Tour guides are quick to remind visitors (albeit fleetingly) that Munich was the birthplace of the Nazi party and where the terrorist attacks of the 1972 Olympics took place.
A walk along the principal avenues radiating from Odeonsplatz is a bracing refresher course on how Munich and the rest of Germany was either seduced or silenced by the fervor of National Socialism.
Yes, the square also harbors the massive Kath Pfarramt St Kajetan Theatinerkirche, a beautiful church whose confessional queue offers the comic touch of an automated traffic light. But you can’t quite put the historical signposts of Nazism out of your mind.
By contrast, it is gratifying to see the black graphite monument to the White Rose Movement, a memorial to the Munich University students who resisted Nazi rule during the war. These students ran an anonymous leaflet campaign between 1942 and 1943 supporting active opposition to Hitler until the Gestapo infiltrated their operation and everyone was executed.
A different sort of arrogance and excess of the royal variety is reflected in the staggeringly opulent Nymphenburg Palace (at Schloss Nymphenburg) and Residenz (Max Josephplatz).
The former was commissioned in 1664 as the playground for the son of Ferdinand Maria and Henriette Adelaide, then expanded into a palace that rivals the grandeur of Versailles.
The latter exhibits the astonishing wealth of the Wittelsbach dynasty, Bavaria’s rulers for five centuries. Its 112 ornate rooms (in varying architectural styles) are jammed with priceless treasures.
Of the trio of outstanding museums around Barerstrasse, perhaps the most impressive is the Pinakothek der Moderne, which displays one of the best Dali and Picasso collections in Europe, not to mention a fascinating modern design wing.
The Neue Pinakothek offers a winning collection from 19th-century masters, while the Alte Pinakothek showcases a slightly stodgier yet still interesting array of the finest German art from across the centuries.
Set on an island in the Eisbach River just three blocks from Baederplatz is the immense, extraordinary Deutsches Museum, a wonderland of science that pays as much attention to the technologies of weaving, glassblowing and photography as it does to maritime history, aviation and space exploration.
Oasis of serenity
For a more bucolic experience and a respite, there are the many pleasures of the English Garden, a huge central city park that dwarfs its Manhattan counterpart.
Here you will also find the totally unexpected: surfers. Munich is land locked, but a few witty German and American engineers, using a controlled inflow of the Eisbach River, had the happy idea of creating a perpetual wave “machine” in the northeast corner of the garden.
Wetsuited enthusiasts can be found riding the swells daily despite the “No Surfing” sign.
Up Leopoldstrasse, and far from the madding crowd, is the quiet district called Schwabing. It’s a largely residential area once known as the Greenwich Village of Munich, but now superseded for bohemian trappings by the Westend and Glockenbach districts.
Still, it’s refreshing to hear nary a word of English spoken, to blend in, and to sample less touristy restaurants.
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.