Saturday, May 1, 2010


At the centre of Munich is (and has been since tournaments were held there) Marienplatz, an open square of the variety so common and organic in Europe and so rare and artificial in the New World. It seemed like a perfect spot to start my sightseeing. Upon emerging from the S-Bahn, my eyes were greeted by the Old Town Hall, a small Gothic (not Neo-Gothic, mind you) building, which looks exactly like the buildings you might associate with Bavaria and Switzerland.I was not fully in awe, but turning around and corrected that.

Dominating the square, is the 19th-Century, Neo-Gothic New Town Hall. A building as impressive as the Canadian Parliament buildings, if not more so. The facade has arches, buttresses, spires, and statues, and is topped off by a clock tower, more commonly called a glockenspiel.
In the middle of the square, stands an elegant marble tower, at the top of which sits a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. The tower and sculpture commemorate the end of the Swedish occupation of Munich during the 30-Years war.

Despite the historical surroundings, the square is very much alive. My first day there, a Saturday, Marienplatz is being set up for a fair (apparently having to do with Emergency Services), and the next day it was teeming with tourists. All the while the square is watched over, not only by Mary, but by cafe-goers, sipping coffee on patios. Many of the venerable and grand old building now (as they likely did in their heyday) house trendy stores, selling the latest fashions and technologies. Little seems to have changed in Marienplatz.

When my gawking at Marienplatz was done, I went looking for churches. Munich, being one of the few major Catholic cities in Germany, has a church for just about every style, from the elegantly Gothic Frauenkirche to the tiny but ornate-beyond-description, rococo Asamkirche and plenty in between. My first stop on my Munich Pilgrimage was Peterskirche, the closest to Marienplatz and the oldest. The church's high vaulted ceiling decorated with beautiful frescoes gave struck a balance between the elegant and the elaborate. The elaborate decoration of Peterskirche perhaps gave me certain expectations for my next stop, Munich's Cathedral, Frauenkirche.

Upon entering the Church of Our Lady, the first aspect I noticed (as with most of the European churches) was the ceiling. It was a plain white, which at first disappointed me. At least, until I got into the nave, to which it gave a light and airy feel, perhaps due in large part to the many windows. Perhaps the most impressive parts of Frauenkirche were the many chapels: little alcoves lining the nave and choir, decorated with beautiful statues and oil-paintings, and lit by stained-glass windows. The most distinctive parts of the Cathedral were it's two domed towers. Being of the original Gothic style, the exterior was quiet plain, devoid of statues, arches, and flying buttresses. The towers dominated the church and the rest of the old city.
Having heard from my jet-setting parents stories of dizzying tower-climbs that yielded spectacular and satisfying views, I resolved to climb as many church towers as I could. First up (and thankfully, serviced by an elevator) was one of Frauenkirche's towers. One of the best things about a tower view is that it gives you a preview of architectural sights; often times, you can pick out buildings and monuments to see up-close that weren't in guidebooks or that you wouldn't have gone out of your way to see. Also, they just give you a spectacular view of the older cities.

Next stop was Michaelskirche, a Jesuit church just outside of Marienplatz. St Michael's Church is a renaissance church, decorated not so much with frescoes as statues and reliefs. The a magnificent, gold-adorned high altar.
By the time I was done with the churches, it was just about lunch time. So, I decided to see the nearby Viktualienmarkt, a two-hundred-year-old open air market. I went expecting the height of folksy charm and was not disappointed. The market, complete with a maypole, was alive with locals and tourists alike, buying fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, cheese and bread from stands in the square, or meat from stores lining it, or enjoying a hearty lunch of meat, bread and beer at picnic tables in the shade. Not ready to brave the massive crowd in order to get a seat to enjoy a litre of beer, I enjoyed a leberkäse sandwich standing up. For those of you unfamiliar with Bavarian cuisine, leberkäse is a meatloaf consisting of cured beef, bacon, pork, and onions, and it's delicious served hot on a roll.

Feeling full of meat and down-to-earth, I decided to check out Munich's regal side, so, I made my way over to the royal Residenz. According to my guide-book, the Residenz is nearest the Odeonsplatz U-Bahn station. My guide-book didn't mention the square that shares its name with the U-Bahn station. The Platz was definitely smaller than the other squares I had seen that day but it was formed by a the literally monumental Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshal's Hall) and the imposing Theatinerkirche, and was watched over by a flock of cafe-goers all facing the square. Opposite the Italian-style Renaissance church, lies the appropriately landscaped Hofgarten (Court Garden). Not having had my fill of Royal Munich, I wandered the area and took in a great many statues and state buildings, like the Staatsoper, and the Bavarian State Chancellery, before making my way toward the Englischer Garten.

At 370 hectares (914 acres), the Englischer Garten ranks among the largest urban parks in the world, edging out New York's Central Park by around 30 hectares. I was lucky enough to be in Munich on a sunny, albeit slightly chilly, Saturday, and was able to see the park in near-full swing. It was full of young families, sunbathers, cyclists, and other Münchners enjoying the day. I strolled through the park until I reached the Chinesischer Turm, where I stopped to enjoy a maß (litre) of beer while a brass band played Sousa marches of all things. Finishing my beer and feeling a bit light-headed I hiked up to the Monopteros for a view of the Skyline.

At this point, my feet and stomach forced me to call it a day and I made my way back to my hostel. On the way I spotted a number of guys and girls heading out on the town dressed in traditional lederhosen and dirndls, a common sight while I was there due to the Spring festival which was taking place at the time. Far from quaint and old-fashioned, the traditional Bavarian costume has a timeless and adaptive quality to it, similar to the Scottish formal dress or the Indian Sari.

After my exhausting Saturday, I was ready for a relatively relaxing Sunday. At least I was until I discovered that the Munich Art Galleries (called "Pinakotheken") charge €1 for admission on Sundays. I resolved to go that afternoon. After a disappointingly ordinary mass at Frauenkirche (I missed the High Mass at 10AM), I decided to find the coolest monument in Munich, the Kurt Eisner memorial. Kurt Eisner was the first democratic Premier of Bavaria, a position he held for less than four months when he lost an election. On his way to resign as Premier, he was shot in the back by a German Nationalist. His memorial marks the spot where he fell.
On the way to Eisner's chalk outline, I came across a few more traditional monuments including one, to Composer, Orlando Lassus, which had been converted into a shrine to Michael Jackson,

And this modern one:

And after those, it was on to the Pinakotheken. Each of the three galleries covered a certain time period. The Alte Pinakothek covered the 14th-19th centuries and included a room dedicated to Rubens' Last Judgement series.
The Neue Pinakothek covered 19th Century art, which includes Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism and others. My Favourites. Finally, the Pinakothek der Moderne is the modern art gallery. I didn't go into this one because, simply put, I don't like modern art. There, I said it. Like most modern art museums, it did have a cool exterior.
Each Pinakothek had a sizable green space in front; green spaces that Münchners took full advantage of for sunbathing, picnicking and soccer-playing.

Art galleries take a lot out of me, so after the Pinakotheken, it was time to find somewhere to eat. A tall order in Munich on a Sunday. My search for a decent, cheap restaurant near Marienplatz proved fruitless, but it did cause me to stumble upon the Asamkirche. Once some merchant family's private chapel, the Asamkirche has enough gold, marble, and frescoes to fill a tasteful cathedral jammed into a space the size of a townhouse.
I eventually found a spot to eat, and headed back to the Hostel. The next day I was off to the next.

While my Hostel was nice, it lacked character. It was more of a hotel. That, of course, meant that it was safe and clean, two very important factors.

All-in-all, I would go back to Munich in a heartbeat. I think I could even live there. It had a certain laid-back grandeur that blended well with it's country volk-sy feel and embraced both it's history and modernity. Whatever that means. It certainly wasn't Paris, Vienna, Berlin, or NYC, and it certainly wasn't pretending to be. Munich is just Munich.

Another great thing about Bavaria is it's natural beauty, especially around Füssen, and Hohenschwangau ...