Quick! Think of something German… Chances are, you have thought of something Bavarian. BMW’s, sausages, pretzels, buxom blondes serving huge steins of beer, and men in lederhosen. All of these are actually Bavarian. Bavaria is the southern part of Germany that borders the Alps on the other side of Austria. The main city of Munich is much closer geographically to Venice than it is to Berlin, and for much if its history it was a separate state with proud traditions dating back centuries. Freddie and I met up with two German friends that promised to show us the best of all things Bavarian over the Easter holidays.
We arrived in Munich on Good Friday, which is taken very seriously in Bavaria. All the shops are closed, and playing music is not allowed. Bavaria is old school Catholic while the rest of Germany is officially Protestant. Luckily, the beer drinking tradition knows no religious limits. Munich is the only airport in the world that has its own brewery on site. Freddie and I found ourselves in AirBrau having our first brew just after we landed at 10:00am. We were off to a good start!
Time keeping is sacred to the Germans, and sure enough the trains from the airport to the city centre were timed to the second. The Sofitel hotel was just around the corner from the station and was dripping in style and luxury. It is apparent right away that Munich is a rich city that walks the line between high tech industry and Old World charm. The bell boys and front desk staff are dressed in traditional Bavarian livery while they walk you through the five star spa, state of the art business centre and the slick bars and restaurants where deals are made. This city of 1.3 million residents is a land of laptops and lederhosen.
Munich counts its blessings in one of Europe’s most picturesque settings, and counts its money in one of its most prosperous regions. For centuries farming and trade were the source of wealth in Bavaria. Most of what Germany eats is produced here, and it ranks number one in the world for harvesting hops and making beer. After World War II the economy expanded enormously, becoming a leader in aircraft engineering, car manufacturing, electronics, insurance and finance. World class companies are based here such as Siemens, Audi and BMW (which stands for
Bavarian Motor Works in case you didn’t know).
While business is bustling all around you, the city of Munich still feels like a large village in a rural setting. There are parks everywhere, and the lazy River Isar meanders through the centre of town. The Aldstadt (Old Town) is full of fine historic buildings and cobbled streets, and is the main tourist destination. We made our way very easily from the Sofitel by heading towards the twin clock towers of the Frauenkirche, the tallest building in the old town, and the symbol of the city. As it was Good Friday, the enormous church was filled with the Faithful in their traditional finery. We felt a little out of place, so we made a quick exit into the Marienplatz, a picturesque and bustling square with the fabulous Gothic town hall, called the Rathaus. After a quick look at the gorgeous architecture, we found an inviting old beer hall for lunch. Our first meal in town: A plate of three kinds of sausages, boiled potatoes and sauerkraut washed down with huge glasses of “white” beer. The place was rammed with tourists and locals alike. Tables of rowdy young men banged their beers and wolfed down fresh pretzels with sweet mustard. A couple of Croatian ladies sat next to us at our table and touted the pleasures of their capital city of Zagreb. One of them told me that the girls are the most
beautiful in Europe. The other one looked a little closer at Freddie and me and then added that the men are beautiful too.
Later in the evening we met up with our friend Felix to explore the nightlife. The bars we stumbled upon were good fun, although none of them were playing any music. Finally as the clock struck midnight, Good Friday was over and the party began. It was like a scene from Footloose. We didn’t stay out too late, as we wanted to be up early to visit the two most famous sites in the city in the morning. That, and the fact that we’re old.
The Theresienwiese is a vast flat fair ground where the annual Octoberfest is held every year over last two weeks in September. It is the world’s largest festival, attracting over six million people. Year after year record amounts of beer, sausages and roast chickens are consumed among the umm-pa-pa of Bavarian folk music. The tradition began in 1810 when King Ludwig I married Princess Theresa and the celebration was such a huge success, they decided to do it every year. While we were there, an old fashioned carnival was being set up which was quite eerie in the early morning fog.
We then ventured on to Olympiapark, which was built to host the 20th Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. On the site is the impressive BMW museum and headquarters for the car maker. We visited the Schwimmhalle were Mark Spitz won his seven gold medals all those years ago. The sweeping modern architecture is still impressive, but I sensed the black cloud that hangs over this place. The Munich Games ended in tragedy when a group of radical Palestinians kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes and demanded that Israel release political prisoners. Two days later all 11 Israeli’s were brutally murdered, and five of the eight Palestinians died in the fight. The other three were subsequently hunted down and killed in the following years by
vigilante groups. The site still functions as a park and sports hall, but I was eager to get out of there and head back into the Old Town to lighten the mood with more beer and sausages.
That evening we met up with our other friends Sylvia and Christian for a good old fashioned dinner. By this time I was over bloated from beer and asked our busty Fraulein for a glass of white wine instead. Riesling grapes are grown in Bavaria but the sweet white wine was not available in this proud beer hall. It was their own brew or nothing. But we had another great dinner of schnitzel and boiled potatoes, and caught up on our travels since the last time we saw each other. We also planned the next days adventure into the Alps, and a place I have dreamed about
visiting since I was a kid.
Two hours by train across some of the most beautiful pastoral lands I have ever seen brought us to the exquisite chocolate box town of Fussen. Surrounded by the Alps and overlooking a lake, it is a picture post card come to life. It is from here that the magnificent story book castle of Ludwig II is reached. Ludwig was a crazy queen that happened to be crowned King of Bavaria at the tender age of 18. He had no interest in politics, but had a great passion for architecture and music. He single-handedly revived the declining career of the great composer Wagner, and became his patron for the rest if his life. He also employed an army of architects and stone masons to build his palaces where he played out his fantasies entertaining Bavaria’s hottest men. The pinnacle of his passion was Schloss Neuschwanstein built from 1868 to 1892 at enormous expense. This castle was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s most recognizable landmark at the centre of Disneyland. My first job as an teenager was selling balloons in front of this castle and I had always wanted to visit the original. After a long hike up the side of a mountain, my teenage dream was realized. The Palace of the New Swan on the Stone (the translation from German) was before me, with all its crazy turrets sprouting out of
more turrets, pencil shaped roofs and immense draw bridge. Ludwig spent the royal fortune on this folly and was blamed for nearly bankrupting the country. He spent a total of 172 nights here before he was murdered at the age of 42 under mysterious circumstances. It may have been a fiasco at the time, but 120 years later it is Germany’s most popular tourist attraction and brings in
millions of euros a year. I like to think Ludwig II was a visionary!
Back in Munich that evening, we decided to go for some lighter fare, and Felix brought us to his favourite Bavarian Sushi joint. The old boy that owns it was decked out in his feathered hat and lederhosen, but thankfully the chap rolling the tuna was Japanese. Bavarians wear lederhosen for most any occasion, and Felix explained that the older the leather gets, the better. It is not unheard of for fathers to pass on their lederhosen in their wills to their first born sons. Another interesting
fact about Bavaria is that beer is not considered alcohol. It is a food (liquid bread), and therefore is not subject to the usual alcohol restrictions.
On the last day we decided to have a traditional Bavarian breakfast, and Felix brought us to his favourite place in the sprawling English Gardens. This consists of weisswurst (boiled white sausages made from veal and pork), fresh baked pretzels, sweet mustard and of course, a large “blonde” beer. It was delicious, but by mid-day I was as useless as tits on a bull. The only cure for the lethargy that kicks in after a huge boozy brunch is to drink more beer. So we joined Silvia and Christian for one last toast to Munich at yet another beautiful beer hall, this one positioned lakeside in the English Gardens. We toasted in the Bavarian way by clinking the bottom of our beer mugs, and drank to the health and happiness of our good friends here in Germany. Proust!