I was (and will be, upon my return to Munich next week) staying at the Euro Youth Hostel, one of several hostels located on a side street almost directly across from the main entrance to the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station. I quickly checked in, handed over a €5 key deposit and went straight down for a nap. Refreshed and alive after a couple of hours, I headed out into the cold, damp, rainy streets of Munich to do a bit of exploring. My goal was to head towards the Marienplatz and then loop back towards the hostel, hopefully finding food somewhere.
I quickly learned that Munich is, for the most part, very pedestrian friendly. In a few places it was a bit challenging to figure out where to cross the road – and I’m not the only person who noticed this – but there were wide sidewalks and entire streets set aside for those who like to shop and stroll. I should have counted the number of H&M stores between my hostel and the Marienplatz because it seemed as though there was a new one everywhere I turned… and they were all full!
By the time I reached the Marienplatz I noticed there were a lot of people standing around in the rain, seemingly waiting for something. A quick perusal of my map showed that they were waiting for the Glockenspiel, a tourist attraction so ridiculous it has to be seen to be believed. Basically, the glockenspiel plays a song and after a few minutes some sculptures start to spin around. I was more fascinated by the people watching it than I was by the Glockenspiel itself and was glad to receive some context around it the next morning on the free walking tour I joined.
Virginia, the hilarious walking tour guide from Sandeman’s New Munich Tours, sarcastically described the story of the glockenspiel while telling us what to look for so we wouldn’t miss anything. The first scene depicts a wedding celebration, including a joust, while the second is in celebration of the Cooper’s Dance when the coopers danced and twirled through the city to tell people that the plague outbreak was over and they could come out of hiding.
The free walking tour was a great way to orient myself to the city and the guide was top notch… she was born in Germany, moved to Florida as a teenager and then returned to Germany to go to school. She had been guiding tours of Munich and area for 4 years so she was confident, funny and kept the tour moving at a solid pace. I was surprised at how much she discussed Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich as I wasn’t sure how it would be approached by the Germans – after experience travelling in Asia I know that countries often change the narrative, or at least get creative on the details.
She brought us to Dodger’s Alley, an alternative route that was used by Munich residents during the Nazi’s reign in order to avoid saluting a memorial plaque. The Nazi party eventually realized that people were using the route to avoid saluting the plaque and posted a soldier to record the names and details of those who took the route – if you took it one too many times you could be arrested, beaten and shipped to Dachau for “re-education”. There are a number of small, subtle memorials throughout Munich as apparently city leadership wanted to encourage research and thoughtful reflection in their memorials instead of creating massive monuments and tributes like one would see in other cities. Virginia also pointed out where Hitler made important speeches, where he marched and where he was almost killed before fleeing in cowardice. She quickly described the conditions in Germany after WWI which helped to give rise to the Nazi party and even passed around some of the deutschemarks that were used during hyper inflation in the 1920s.
Another highlight was a beautiful church, the Frauenkirche, recognizable for its two towers. The original church was built in only 20 years and there is even an accompanying legend where the architect made a deal with the devil – the church would be finished quickly, within the 20 year time span, so long as there were no additional windows built. The devil had apparently entered from the main door of the church where the pillars were perfectly designed to block out the view of the windows… but when he returned, in 20 years, he entered through the side door and was struck by an enormous amount of light and believed that the architect had compromised the deal. Upon learning that he had made a bad agreement, or so the legend goes, the devil slammed his foot on the ground in disgust and there is an imprint there today.
The real story, of course, is much less exciting… the architect was known for leaving his footprint as a “signature” of his work. The church, however, was mostly destroyed during the bombings of WWII except for the towers – they were an important navigational tool used by the bombers and thus were saved due to their usefulness. There is also a small menorah painted inside the church, a symbol of the diocese’s relationship with the Jewish community. As the first anti-Jewish laws were being passed, apparently the leadership of the church went to the leadership of the Jewish synagogues and offered to store their most important documents and relics in case things became worse. The Jewish community took them up on their offer in order to try and protect their legacy and so, after the war, the rebuilding of the church included the small menorah while the rebuilding of the synagogue apparently included a small cross. The Jewish community also, apparently, contributed financially to the rebuilding of the church.
The details of reconstruction in Munich were quite fascinating as the city is beautiful – we were told that over 87% of the city was destroyed during the war – and that was due to some foresight and planning by the Nazi party before the bombing broke out during the war. They knew that Munich was both a vulnerable and attractive target, so they ensured that photographs were taken throughout the city to ease the eventual reconstruction process. In order to save money and speed things up, brickwork was painted on some significant buildings, including the Residenz. Germany has finally paid off its war debts and so reconstruction has started again, with the goal of removing the painted brickwork and replacing it with real, 3D bricks.
Along the Residenz there are four lions, representing love, wealth, health and good luck. If you rub the golden noses of the lions then you will be guaranteed to achieve whatever the lion represented… but, of course, you can only rub the noses of three lions as to touch all four represents greed.
The tour brought us by one of Munich’s famous beer halls, the Hofbräuhaus, but we only had a 15 minute break to refill water bottles or use the bathroom. Virginia cautioned us against heading in and trying to find a seat, order and finish a litre of beer in that time… but, sure enough, someone came out after the break and proudly announced “Challenge Accepted!” Yikes! We wove our way through the streets before finishing at the Viktualienmarkt, an outdoor market also known, of course, for its beer garden. There was a massive May Pole on display, decorated with traditional Bavarian scenes. There is a longstanding tradition between Bavarian towns where they try to steal each other’s May Poles with those sneaky and lucky enough to do so being awarded with a huge party… the last time it happened in the Munich area, the city police apparently stole it from the airport. So I will leave you with this thought… what does that say about Munich airport security?