At the beginning of October I visited Germany with three friends. My first post was our visit to Oktoberfest. This one is on the city of Munich. One of our group has a friend in Germany, Marina, who arranged to meet us for a walking tour of Munich. The tour she gave us was spectacular! Marina is a longtime school teacher, born in California to one German parent and one British parent. Her experience and outlook gave our tour historical context and an international perspective. It is an amazing city, beautiful, friendly, and rich in history.
The tour began with a bang! Marina met us at our hotel and suggested we walk around the back of the building for a minute. There, right behind our hotel, was the building that had been Hitler’s Nazi headquarters during the war! The building has been left as a reminder and is now a school for performing arts. On the back of the building was several large scars from bomb damage. Suddenly, the fact that we were in what had been the epicenter of the Third Reich became very real!
Next we walked through Munich’s Museum District. Marina explained that over 70% of the city had been destroyed in the war and since rebuilt. She pointed out buildings as neogothic, neoclassical, etc. Thus, these relatively new buildings, built in the 50’s and 60’s were new, but built in the Gothic or Classical style.
It’s interesting because at once these buildings are impressive monuments and at the same time they are modern knockoffs! One benefit was an obvious increase in the awareness of architecture.
A great example is the museum known as Lenbach Haus. This gallery displays paintings from contemporary German artists. The building was originally built as a Florentine villa for painter Franz von Lenbach. The city purchased the villa and made it a museum. As it expanded, a wing was added that was fitting for a museum of contemporary art. Using alloy metal tubes that will weather with time, the modern addition manages to also integrate well with the original building. The Germans appeared to be much more demanding of local architecture and seem to be very proud of this example of adapting the modern to the traditional.
We then walked to the center of town, two main squares that I found very European. Karlsplatz/Stachus was the site of the large fountain that would become our meeting place on a couple of occasions. Officially named “Karlsplatz”, the locals still seem to refer to it by the old name of Stachus. It is a transportation hub for bus, subway, and streetcars, has charming cafes ringing the fountain and is a few steps away from the gates to the original medieval Munich.
As you pass through the gates, you enter Marienplatz. If Karlsplatz/Stachus feels very European, Marienplatz feels like you’re actually in a fairy tale. It is a pedestrian only town square with cafes, performers, food vendors, and magnificent architecture. The center piece is the Glockenspiel which a couple of times a day comes out of the tower with dancing figures as a sort of mega-cuckoo-clock.
There is a church worthy of a European capital, the New Town Hall, the restored Old Town Hall, and a number of modern buildings and stores in between. It felt like I was in a Disney theme park or a manufactured place like Las Vegas. This, however, was the real thing!
From Marienplatz we walked through town. It was the warmest day since we arrived. The Germans love to be outside, especially getting sun; so, if the sun was out, regardless of the temperature, so were they. Outdoor beer gardens were packed even though temps were in the 50’s.
It also helped that it was a holiday. This was German Unification Day, the day they celebrate the re-uniting of East and West Germany. It was a good day to avoid the tents at Oktoberfest because the promised to be mobbed from morning till night. It was also good to get a tour of the city because everywhere we went we found Germans relaxing, enjoying a day off and a chilly sun.
We walked through Munich’s Englischer Garten. This is a vast beautiful park radiating out from the center of the city to the edge. It is larger than New York’s Central Park! The name is rather interesting because it is an English style garden, in Germany, which was really started by an American! Sir Benjamin Thompson was from Massachusetts and supported the British on the wrong side of the American Revolution. He moved to Europe and became an advisor in Munich. There he advocated using soldiers in peacetime to grow crops, learn agriculture and create a vast garden. This eventually became the park it is today. We walked for a long time taking pictures along the way and asking Marina what every building was. It was fantastic because she knew the name, history, and interesting facts about every building! It was like traveling with Google! What made the tour so special was not just the wealth of ready information but the fact that Marina had an obvious deep pride in this city and was so clearly enjoying the opportunity to share it with four willing students.
Munich is also the center of several “cultures”. Of course to begin with everyone is German, but the city itself has its own culture and those from Munchen as it’s called, have a strong local identity. It is also the capital of Bavaria, a large storied state in southern Germany. Thus, most there are also Bavarian which meant a deep tradition, another layer of culture, and even to this day, its own dialect.
As we walked we asked Marina about German education, specifically, what were Germans taught about World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. As a school teacher she had personally participated in this education and she assured us they got the full unvarnished story. Each student spends a day at Dachau, learns the full story, and understands a certain national responsibility for what happened.
This led to a discussion of the traditional dress we saw throughout Oktoberfest, lederhosen, dirndls, etc. Marina explained that this was somewhat a recent phenomenon and that when she grew up there was not really a sense of national pride. It was, in fact, more like national shame and one did not boast of “German pride”.
Marina credits the younger citizens with the turn-around and felt the turning point was in 2006 when Germany hosted the Word Cup. It was at this point that young people especially seemed to throw off the aura of shame and start showing open pride in being German. The traditional costume began to appear at the beer tents during Oktoberfest and over the years began popping up as early as July and as late as the holidays.
Just as a person with Scottish heritage loves the opportunity to don his kilt, the young Germans began to love wearing their lederhosen! As it spread, this gave a tacit permission to the older generation that it was once again OK to be proud of Germany.
As we walked through the English Gardens, we came to a spot called the Chinesischer Turm, or Chinese Tower. Modeled on a Chinese Pagoda, this 5 story tower was set in the middle of a bier garten and on the 2nd level was a brass band. We were starting to realize that the band was sort of where the fun began! The beer garden was packed and there was great traditional food available so we sat and enjoyed a fantastic lunch.
After lunch, we walked across the park and emerged in the University District. Marina had one more important site for us as we came upon a haunting and beautiful monument.
During the dark years of the war, the White Rose was a non-violent group of intellectuals at the University of Munich. Seven of these students were arrested and executed for distributing leaflets and graffiti that was anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi. Some of the pamphlets were smuggled out of the country and were later dropped from Allied planes on the city. Today these students are considered heroes and this chilling monument is a thoughtful, and haunting tribute.
The monument is no ordinary obelisk, but rather permanent “pamphlets” placed in the ground, each with a history and bio of each student. From a distance it looks like someone dropped a folder–much the same as it must have when they left anonymous anti-Hitler leaflets. As we approached, however, there was a somber realism to the monument that made for a lump in the throat!
A Google retracing of our steps says we walked about 5 miles that day. All of us were surprised when Marina deposited us right back at our hotel because the circuitous route had all four of us turned around.
We stopped for a coffee at a place that felt quintessentially European and ended our tour at a gorgeous circle called Karolinenplatz, a block from our hotel. The last building we passed, right next to our hotel, was the Amerika Haus. While it is a fairly unassuming building from the outside, it is again, something the Germans are fiercely proud of, in large part because of its history and American involvement in post-war reconstruction.
Throughout the day we saw things the Germans consider common but make the city very different than the Washington, DC area where I live. Bicycles, for example. Hundreds of people use them simply for transportation. The result is that they weren’t typically on an expensive carbon fiber road bike; and they wear normal street clothes, instead of spandex padded shorts.
When you walked by a public building, like a library, bikes were piled on top of each other the way skis are piled up outside the lodge at lunchtime.
While my international travel experience is very limited, I feel Munich will be the bar by which future cities are measured. If this is the typical European travel experience, I hope to find a “Marina” in every town! I must thank Marina for an unforgettable day in Munich. Her pleasant explanations, her proud tour guiding, and her local knowledge made for a highlight of our trip!
The next day we rented a car and drove two hours south to a small town called Fuessen. This was the ultimate Bavarian experience and in my third post I will cover that part of the trip.