Bavaria is a special place. Though this southern German state is full of traditions that are not shared with the rest of Germany, the image of Bavaria has, ironically enough, come to symbolize all of German culture. Giant goblets of beer, yodelling and schuhplattler dancing, jaunty brass bands and lederhosen—all this is mainly found in Bavaria. This phenomenon mirrors the situation in Spain, which is known for flamenco and bullfighting, two traditions mainly found within its distinctive southern province, Andalusia, and largely absent from its north. Many of America’s stereotypes come from the south, too, such as our fried food and cowboy culture. I suppose a country is doomed to be identified by its most outlandish customs.
Though the image of Bavaria is often ridiculed—somewhat unfairly, since its silliest aspects are now mainly for the tourists—it has proven very seductive. Millions flock to Munich ever year for its annual Oktoberfest, to be served liters of beer by blonde waitresses in tight-fitting Dirndl dresses. And many millions more celebrate this extravaganza of beer and sausage in replicated festivals all across the world. Beer culture more generally owes much to Bavaria, as microbrewers set up Biergarten style establishments and serve artisanal baked potatoes. So the Bavarians have at least done some things right.
I was here, finally here, in the Englischer Garten of Munich.
One of my favorite stories is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which opens with the novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, strained and fatigued from his writing, taking a stroll in the English Gardens to revive his spirits. And here I was, standing in the same place where that imaginary man strode, melancholy and weary from his struggle to create beauty. More than likely, Thomas Mann himself stood here, too, as he lived in Munich for forty years.
Yet I was as far as it was possible to be from those literary heroes, imaginary or real. I was carrying a bright orange backpack, dressed in a grey hoodie, feeling sleep-deprived, achy, and lightheaded from hunger. Reality often falls short of fiction—and even fact. I had some time to kill before I could check into my Airbnb, and so decided to walk here, in the gardens of my fantasy.
The English Gardens take their name from the style of landscape architecture common in eighteenth-century England, wherein whole landscapes were reshaped to create pleasing compositions. The Munich park was designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson, one of those remarkable Eighteenth century Renaissance men; he was a physicist, inventor, and an official in the Bavarian military, in addition to a prolific designer of everything from parks to battleships. You know you have led an eventful life when designing a world-famous park is only a minor episode.
As I walked through the park, feeling heavy and sweaty, I passed by a man in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, who obviously stuck out among the tourists clad in shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. I did not know what to make of this. Then, five minutes later, an American asked me if I knew where the surfers are. Surfers in a park? It turns out that, yes, there is surfing in the Englischer Garten, at a point in the artificial river where it narrows, creating a perpetual wave, known as the Eisbach Wave.
Extreme sport aside, the most popular activities in the English Gardens are strolling and sunbathing. To my surprise, it is even legal to sunbathe nude in the Englischer Garten, specifically in the Schönfeldwiese (lit. “beautiful field meadow”), as I saw for myself while walking past. This was the second time in my life that I had come upon naked sunbathers, the first being in the Tiergarten in Berlin; and both times I was equally shocked. Public nudity in the center of a municipal park is something unheard of in the United States and in Spain. The Germans seem far more accepting of the human body—in all its hairy, flabby, and sunburned varieties—which I suppose is a good thing, though it does spoil the view a little.
Unsolicited flesh notwithstanding, the English Gardens are a delightful place to walk around. As much as I love Madrid, its dry climate makes even its parks seem sandy and bare. A boy from New York cannot help missing dark loamy soil, lush verdure, deep greens, and thick foliage, which Munich has in abundance—at least in summer. Walking paths wind under towering linden trees, which open up to reveal beautiful views, such as the distant Munich skyline or the glasslike surface of the Kleinhesseloher Lake. A massive Biergarten, the second-largest in the city, sits at the center of the park; and as I walked by I admired the giant pieces of roast pork being greedily devoured by the clients. Now here is some flesh I can appreciate.
Feeling hungry myself, I saw down to eat the lunch I had brought with me from Madrid: a salami sandwich. Life is less romantic when you’re on a budget.
Munich is both the capital and the largest city of Bavaria. And with a population of about 1.5 million, it is only behind Berlin and Hamburg within Germany for size. Though now one of the quintessentially Germany cities, many of Munich’s most prosperous years occured when the city was not a part of Germany. The region’s Catholic majority has always put it somewhat at odds with the Protestant north of Germany, making it a stronghold for the Counter-Reformation rather than Luther’s Reformation. After suffering Swedish and Habsburg domination, Bavaria emerged once again as an independent kingdom in 1805, with Munich as its capital. And even after Bismark unified the German states, in 1871, Bavaria retained its kingdom and special privileges. It was only the defeat of Germany in World War I that put an end to the rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty.
In the aftermath of the Great War, during the unstable Weimar Republic, Munich became the base of the rising Nazi movement. It was in this city where Hitler attempted his infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—so-called because it began with the storming the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer cellar—in which the Nazis attempted to take control of Bavaria by force. The putsch was a fiasco, poorly planned and quickly put down, and it resulted in Hitler being sent to jail—though he was given an extremely light sentence by sympathetic judges. The experience taught Hitler to seek power through official channels rather than by a coup, which he did successfully ten years later. Once in power, Hitler turned the ridiculous putsch into a national myth, treating the fallen Nazi roughnecks as martyrs. History is invented by the victors. Munich played another infamous role during the leadup to World War II, being the place where Neville Chamberlain, in 1938, officially agreed to cede parts of Czechoslovakia (without consulting the Czechoslovaks) to Nazi Germany, in an attempt to appease Germany.
One of my regrets from my Munich visit was not visiting the Documentation Center, which presents this ugly history to the public. The center opened quite recently, on April 30th of 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the city’s capture by the Allies; and it looks excellent.
After wandering around the English Gardens for a few hours, it was time to check into my Airbnb. I was staying with a German family in the suburbs of the city. They were nothing but kind and helpful, and I had an excellent stay. But I was amused at how many rules there were in the house—when to take a shower, where to leave your shoes, what do you can on the Wifi (I had to sign a contract for the internet). The bathroom was like a museum, covered in little laminated signs that gave directions from everything from the shower to the toilet. It all struck me as very “German.” But I did not have time to be indulging in stereotypes. I had a city to explore.
Perhaps the most iconic spot in Munich is neither a palace nor a church, neither a museum nor a monument, but a brewery and beer hall: the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus. This was my first stop. As its name indicates (“Public Court Brewery”), the beer hall is state-owned and traces its origin to Bavarian nobility—specifically, to Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, all the way back in 1589. Owning your own brewery is convenient, since you can brew to your taste and use legislation to create a profitable monopoly, which is exactly what the Dukes of Bavaria did. Even before the Hofbräuhaus was opened the Bavarians instituted their famous purity laws, restricting the ingredients that could be used in beer to three: water, barley, and hops. They did not know about yeast back then, so they didn’t include it; but obviously without yeast beer wouldn’t have any alcohol.
The brewery is enormous and still very successful, despite losing its lordly masters. From the outside it doesn’t look like much; but walking through the door, one finds an enormous series of rooms, filled with wooden benches and tables, with waiters running right and left and families and friends lifting enormous mugs to their mouths. In English these are mistakenly called “steins,” which properly only refers to stone mugs, and that only in English. (“Stein” means “stone” in German and doesn’t refer to mugs.) In German it is called a Maßkrug, or simply a Maß. It contains a full liter of beer, as your wrist and then stomach and then bladder will testify to.
Although I felt uncomfortable since I was traveling alone, I decided to walk in and try the famous Germanic liquid. As I made my way to the back room to find a seat, I passed the house band, an ensemble of brass instruments playing jaunty Bavarian music with polka rhythms. It suites the atmosphere. I found a seat at a bench with an older couple—it’s common to share tables. Service was surprisingly prompt, and soon I was faced with my own liter of beer. Gingerly, I sipped it, and then had a gulp: it was good but not exceptional. Feeling somewhat awkward and out of place, I did the responsible thing and downed the beer as quickly as possible in order to leave. Fortified and dizzy, I was ready to explore Munich.
The city center of Munich, like nearly all major German cities, was largely blown to smithereens during the Second World War by British and American bombs. Its reconstruction, however, was both carefully complete and faithful to the destroyed city, following the old medieval city streets. As a result Munich maintains the look and feel of a pristinely historic city. This is especially true of the Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, which is easily one of the most attractive plazas I have seen in Europe. It takes its name from the Virgin Mary, who stands on a column in the center of the square, as a shimmering golden statue. Presiding over this square is the Neues Rathaus, or New Town Hall, built in the 1870s because the old one was too small. Constructed in a glorious neo-gothic style, it is easily among the finest town-halls I have seen in Europe, only rivalled by the ones in Brussels and Vienna—which, not coincidentally, served as its inspiration.
It is a short walk from this square to the Asamkirche, the most beautiful church in the city. It takes its name from the brothers who built it as their private chapel: Egid Quirin Asam, a sculptor, and Cosmas Damian Asam, a painter. The church is wedged between their apartments; indeed Egid could look through his window at the altar. Built by themselves for their own pleasure and salvation, and with their own resources, the two brother artists had considerable creative freedom. The result was a masterpiece of design. The church is gorgeous—sumptuously decorated, harmoniously composed. Pictures do not do justice to the feeling of sitting inside the church, getting deeply absorbed in the Baroque decoration, enjoying the play of color and form that covers every surface.
The oldest church in the city is the Peterskirche, or St. Peter’s Church. Its fairly unassuming exterior gives way to a harmonious interior, with whitewashed walls and gilded statues, pleasingly pure and sweet. After being rebuffed from the church once—they were having mass—I returned to find that there was a free organ concert going on. This was the first trip in which I kept a diary, so I will include an excerpt of what I wrote as I sat there and listened to the performance:
The organ is overpowering when at full blast. Is this what it would have been like to listen to Bach? … I think I heard a tritone. Blasphemy! The organ has such a wide variety of timbres. Subdued, muted, to ringing, reedy, piercing, to clear, flutelike, to rumbling, to screeching.
The piece was the “Salve Regina” by Olivier Latry, a fairly unknown work that, nevertheless, I found to be powerfully enchanting and even otherworldly.
Munich’s Catholic cathedral is the Frauenkirche, and its two towers, topped with distinctive domes, are visible from far and wide because of the city’s regulation restricting height limits. Like the Peterskirche, the cathedral has whitewashed walls and is even more plainly decorated. The most striking object on display is the marvelous cenotaph of Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor from 1328 to 1347, which is defended by statues of soldiers and knights. Many other members of the Wittelsbach dynasty are buried here, too—including Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria—though their graves are not as eye-catching.
Germany, in general, is not terribly expensive. Indeed it is only slightly pricier, on average, than easygoing Spain. But Munich is an exception to this; it is a wealthy city, with a high standard of life, and so visitors must pay their tribute to the Bavarian gods. One testament to the city’s affluence are the cars on the street. Now, I am not particularly fond of cars; I don’t even like driving; so you know that the roads must have been striking for me to take notice. There were high-quality cars—mostly of German make, though not exclusively—everywhere I turned. Stranger still, 90% of these cars were either white, grey, or black—very few were an actual color. When I first noticed this, I waved it away as mere coincidence; but the more I looked, the more I became convinced that Münchners have a marked preference for grayscale locomotion.
It does make sense that Munich would have an eye-catching automobile population, considering that it is the home of one of Germany’s iconic car brands, BMW. There is even a BMW museum in Munich, near the glass tower that houses the company’s headquarters. Again, not being particularly interested in cars, I didn’t go. But you are welcome to.
Munich in general struck me—according to my diary—as a very “European city,” at times reminding me of Pisa, at times of Toulouse, at times of Avila. Old city centers all come to resemble one another after a while. But that does not mean they become any less attractive; and Munich is quite lovely to stroll around, with its medieval layout providing enough variation, and its rows of buildings tall and tasteful, with old and new styles coexisting peacefully. I saw quite a few bachelor and bachelorette parties on the streets—wearing matching hats and shirts, with the bride- or groom-to-be in a silly costume—whose presence inevitably means that you are in a major tourist center. Yet the city has a life of its own, not succumbing completely to tourist bric a brac, but maintaining a strong identity in spite of its cosmopolitan orientation.
One spot stands out for special mention as a walking area, and that is the Königplatz. It is an open green space surrounded by fine neoclassical buildings, very convincing imitations of Greco-Roman structures. Originally built by Ludwig I to house his Greco-Roman statues, this attractive group of classical structures in a big open space proved ideally suited to Hitler’s purposes, which is why he used the Königplatz to hold mass rallies, and even added two more neoclassical buildings to house the remains of the Beer Hall Putsch “martyrs.” The American army tastefully blew these up in 1947. Nearby is the Lenbachhaus, Munich’s most famous art gallery, which has an excellent collection of Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), Munich’s influential expressionist group of artists formed in 1911.
Munich’s role as the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria explains why the city has three palaces (of which I visited two, missing the Schleissheim). The Schloss Nymphenburg is situated somewhat outside the city, but can be gotten to easily with the tram. It was used as a summer residence by the Bavarian royals; and, indeed, the current head of House Wittelsbach, Franz, sometimes lives in this castle—though nowadays he has no power, ceremonial or otherwise. Currently 84 years old, he survived imprisonment in two Nazi concentration camps (the Wittelsbachs were anti-Nazi), and is technically a claimant to the throne of the United Kingdom, though he prefers not to talk about that.
From the outside the palace is ample though not imposing, sweeping across a wide area though not rising to any considerable height. Since I am normally not fond of palaces—all showiness and no substance—I skipped the interior and went straight to the gardens, which are vast and charming. The garden was first of Italian design, then French, and finally English. The Italian style emphasizes symmetry and order; the French style is similarly orderly, but expanded to a monumental scale and filled with ornate fountains. The English style, by contrast, is Romantic: striving to keep some of the ruggedness of nature. This last modification was planned by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell, who also did much of the work on Munich’s English Gardens. The man was clearly brilliant, since the Nymphenburg gardens are just as enjoyable to walk around, with its long central canal flanked by forest, through which paths wend their way. It is a successful combination of planned and spontaneous design.
A significantly larger palace can be found right in the center of Munich itself: the Munich Residence. Like nearly everything in this city, the palace was badly damaged during World War II, but has been reconstructed—for the most part faithfully, though at times in simplified form. This might account for the strange sterility I sensed when I visited, feeling that the place seemed unused. Added to this, the audioguide was mainly descriptive—explaining a room’s form and function—without providing any historical context. So I toured the palace without knowing who used it, or when. But in its heyday, under the Wittelsbachs, the palace certainly was used, as even the reconstructed version proves.
Right upon entry I came upon a marvelous fountain made of shells, wonderfully bizarre and ornate. Also memorable was the hall of ancestors, with rococo decorations surroundings portraits of all the Wittelsbach heads, tracing the family back all the way back to Charlemagne himself. (Claiming to be descended from important people is an easy way to seem special.) Even grander is the Renaissance Antiquarium, whose ceiling is decorated with allegories of the seven virtues, surrounded by grotesque decorations inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii. This room was created for the very important purpose of storing and displaying classical busts, and it performs that function marvelously. I also remember a beautiful little chapel, with a blue gilded roof, and a floor and walls of the finest marble. There is also a famous theater, apparently, which I somehow missed. As for the rest, I will let my diary speak:
The royal apartments themselves, with the antechambers, dressing rooms, throne room, bed room, and so on, were exquisite, and yet produced the now-familiar feeling of disgust with so much wealth.
This is not to say that the palace is not worth visiting. To the contrary, I enjoyed the visit far more than I expected. You even get to see some of the royal jewels and treasury, and some of the ceramics produced for the royal family. The seashell fountain alone is worth the price of admission.
Although I didn’t visit it, I would be negligent if I did not mention the Neuschwanstein Castle. An almost painfully picturesque palace, sitting atop a hill and looking straight out of a children’s book, the Neuschwanstein Castle is about two hours by car from Munich and a very popular day trip.
The story of the castle’s creation is wonderful. Rather than serving any military or governmental function, the castle was the pet project of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who was overly fond of Wagner’s operas, and so sought to create a building that embodied the mythical world of Wagner’s heroes and vikings. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the money to see his project to completion, and so used the very convenient recourse of getting heavily into debt. This naturally upset his ministers—who also would have preferred to see him govern rather than indulge in architectural fantasies—who ultimately had the king declared insane and unfit to govern, and then arrested. Shortly after being apprehended, the deposed king took a walk with his psychologist; minutes later the two of them were found dead, floating in shallow water. It is still unclear what happened. He is buried in Munich, in St. Michael’s Church. When it is not horrifying, German history can be quite whimsical.