A day in Munich, when spring has sprung and the sun shines bright. The purpose of my trip to Europe is to take a Viking river cruise on the Danube. But with a couple of free days beforehand, I decided to spend some time in Salzburg, Austria, the city of Mozart. And since my plane touched down in Munich, Germany, there was a day available for a quick look at the Oktoberfest city.
In fact, “a day in Munich” is almost an exaggeration, after a problem with my train tickets took up much of the morning. But in the little time left, I got a snapshot of a city with more to offer than I’d expected. When time is short, I usually take a city tour. And Munich, like most European cities, has a Hop-on-Hop-off bus that hits most of the highlights in an hour or two.
I chose the one-hour tour, which concentrated on the city centre, and it was the perfect choice, giving a glimpse of the most historic spots. But it also revealed a city with a lot of unexpected beauty. Big, green parks take up big swaths of old Munich. And with spring a couple of weeks more advanced than in Canada, the trees were in leaf, the birds singing, and the townsfolk out in force, enjoying the season.
The old part of town suffered some damage during World War II, as did many German cities. But it’s hard to tell: the broad boulevards are studded with historic monuments and lined with huge, grand buildings in a variety of styles, from the baroque to the utilitarian.
The best of them are impressive indeed: the massive Residenz, once the home of Bavarian dukes and kings and now an interior design museum, flanked by a theatre that looks like a Roman temple (below); the university; the national theatre and national museum; the 15th-century Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, whose twin towers have become a symbol of Munich; and the many other ancient churches that dot the downtown.
But the highlight, as always, is the oldest part of town – in this case, Marienplatz, best entered through one of the remaining city gates, built in the 1400s. The area beyond the gate has become a tourist mecca, lined with trendy restaurants, sidewalk cafés and classy shops – not exactly authentic, but a nice place to spend an afternoon.
A few metres father, through another pair of gates, I came to Marienplatz’s prime attraction: the huge, neo-Gothic Neues Rathaus, or “new” town hall. (It was started in 1867, so in European terms, that makes it a toddler.) Different sections of the hall seem built in different styles, but everywhere it’s amazingly ornate, one section more flamboyant than the next. Stone figures jut out everywhere,: gargoyles, medieval peasants, knights, and animals of all descriptions. My favourite was this lion, staring out from above a doorway where a dragon menaced passers-by.
With a grand medieval town hall, you’d expect a glockenspiel – and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Every day at 11 and 12, plus 5 p.m. in the summer season, a tune begins to play and in a balcony high on the central tower, a group of figures dance in a circle. The shows have historical inspirations, and figures including barrel makers, knights and the angel of peace. By a stroke of luck, I caught the 5 o’clock show, standing among a crowd of delighted tourists.
Backtracking a little, I found the Church of the Holy Ghost, well worth a look for its lavish Gothic interior and the beautiful frescoes that stretch the length of its lofty, arched ceiling. This is one of the oldest churches in the city, with a history that dates back to the 13th century.
And just next door, I wandered through an outdoor market selling meat, cheese and white asparagus, always a harbinger of spring. Of course, there was also an outdoor beer garden, where the good folk of Munich were gathered in the late afternoon sunshine, downing huge litres of the home brew and a sausage or two.
Speaking of beer and sausages – almost a religion in the city of Oktoberfest – I found the authentic experience a couple of blocks away, at the 16th-century Hofbräuhaus. Originally the brewhouse for the royal household, the building is now a traditional Bavarian beer hall. And you can get a little of the Oktoberfest atmosphere at any time of year by hoisting a huge, one-litre stein at one of the wooden tables in the ground-floor taproom, under its towering, cross-vaulted ceiling.
Sadly, with a stomach still rumbling from the rigours of an overnight flight, I gave the beer and sausages a pass: sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. Even so, Munich gave me more than I asked for — and a little taste of spring.
Photos taken with the Sony DSC-WX500 compact camera