By Trevor Claringbold
Every cloud, so the saying goes, has a silver lining. And as I recently discovered, that’s also true when the clouds are actually where you’re supposed to be. Returning from a hiking trip to the Alps, I was amid a group of disgruntled passengers who learned that the flight back to the UK had been cancelled. After the initial annoyance of having my plans disrupted, I resigned myself to having to wait until the following evening before I would head home.
As I settled into the hotel room provided by the airline, I decided to make the best of the situation, and checked out the train times to the city centre for the follow morning. The 40-minute route was well served from the station just over the road from the hotel, and the hotel reception was able to sell me a ticket. From my room on the 6th floor, I could see the lights of the city in the distance. It had been almost 10 years since I was last in Munich, so I was looking forward to reacquainting myself.
Munich is more than just another big city. It has a grandeur and aura more befitting a nations capital than a regional centre. Of course, for the locals it is a capital… of their beloved Bavaria.
I arrived at the large clean station beneath the Marienplatz, and even as I rode the escalators up to street level I could hear the music and crowds from above. It was a festival weekend in the city, which is not especially unusual since there are more weekends with something going on here that those without. Bizarrely nobody seemed able to tell me what this particular festival was all about, even though it appeared to spread throughout much of the centre of Munich. One woman told me it was to highlight local musical talent, another said it was a Bavarian holiday, and a smiling man in full lederhosen said it was to do with the full moon. Whatever the reason, Munich was in a party mood!
The Marienplatz is the undeniable heart of the city. It’s a Mecca for street entertainers, and a meeting place for the young and trendy. The large and elegant Neues Rathaus commands the backdrop of one entire side of the square. Although it is lavishly decorated with a mass of Gothic spires and columns, it actually dates only from the late 1800’s. It’s home to one of Munich’s most alluring attractions – the Glockenspiel. From its position high on the tower, the figures play out scenes from local folklore to a captivated audience below, at 11am, midday, and 5pm each day.
The tower itself can be visited, and the climb gives you a fabulous 360 degree panorama. It’s a good way to get your bearings, with the entire city laid out before you. You also get a unique view of many of the taller landmarks.
The old town hall still stands on the opposite corner of the Marienplatz, an now houses a toy museum above the former arched gateway into the city. All around are pavement cafes, food stalls, and a general excited hubbub.
From the Marienplatz, the main arterial routes head off in all directions. The main street, Kaufingerstrasse, leads you past chic boutiques and major stores, to the Karlstor – another arched city gate, this time with a spectacular fountain in the heart of the adjacent Karlsplatz. Just behind the shops of the Kaufingerstrasse is another of Munich’s iconic buildings. The Frauenkirche, (often referred to simply as the Dom), is difficult to appreciate from the outside. The surrounding buildings are so close that it’s not easy to see the two huge towers, with their onion shaped copper domes.
Inside, however, the fairly plain white walls bear witness to one of the stranger legends of old Munich. It’s said that the architect, Jerg van Halspach, made a pact with the Devil to get this church financed. In return the Devil insisted that it must be built without a single visible window. Once it was finished, the Devil came to check, but saw the tall windows all around and thought he was certain to get the architect’s soul. But he was led inside to a spot where not a single window was visible, as all were masked by pillars. He was so angry that he stamped his foot in the pavement by the entrance as he rode off. The ‘Devils footprint’ can still be seen to this day.
Head north from the Marienplatz, and you’ll find yourself in the classiest part of the city, with glitzy shops, expensive jewellers, and pricey café’s. It’s an area that is unashamedly wealthy, but also boasts some of the most impressive architecture, squares, and places to visit.
The highlight is the splendid Residenz, which was first built in the 16th century to replace a 14th century fortress. It was expanded and embellished, and took on the role of a royal palace. Like many of Munich’s finest buildings, however, it was severely damaged during the Second World War, and has since been restored to its former glory again. The Residenzmuseum is well worth a visit, and allows you to see more than half of the extensive palace buildings. It’s worth checking carefully when you want to visit, as there are different tours – allowing you to see different areas in the morning and afternoon.
Close by there are a wealth of other museums and historic buildings, as well as the National Theatre. It’s an area where you need to wander slowly, taking in the views not just at ground level, but the magnificence of the upper parts of the buildings too. Everywhere there are quaint alleyways, enticing little lanes, and small but relaxing gardens.
For the really green parts of the city centre, you either need to visit the famous English Garden, or cross the river to the Maxamilliananlagen. I chose the latter, and after a brief diversion into the Viktualienmarkt to stock up with some local bread and fruit from the bustling market, I headed past the large Isartor gate to the Ludwigsbrucke. The Isar river is divided by a number of islands as it passes though Munich, and the German Museum is located on one alongside this bridge. If you head the other way you come through a pretty and secluded small garden to a large weir. This is one of those places known to the locals and often missed by the tourists, but you can descend the stairs to the small beaches along the river bank. Follow the path along, and you can cross the second part of the river, into the main gardens.
You’ll find plenty of places to relax, but don’t drop your guard while you’re walking or you’ll come a cropper with the many kamikaze cyclists. Sitting and enjoying my makeshift picnic, it was hard to believe the heart of the city was just across the river. But the roar of the traffic is drowned out by the noise of the water, and it’s a surprisingly relaxing spot. The skyline appears fleetingly between the rustling leaves of the trees, but otherwise I could have been miles away.