Monday, May 30, 2011

I’ve got a long and tedious journey to Munich ahead of me and I’m eager to get through it, but before leaving Rothenburg I have one last stop to make, with my luggage in tow.  For the past few days, I’ve been eyeing a beautiful sterling silver and seed pearl lavaliere in the window of an antiques shop along Rödergasse, so on the walk out to the train station I decide to stop in and see if I can negotiate a price.  The owner of Sammler Truhe is a sweet woman with an excellent grasp of English and before long I have a beautiful pendant around my neck, the perfect souvenir of my stay.

I board a mid-morning train to Steinach, change lines in Ansbach, and then change again for the final leg to Munich.  It’s not a difficult trip–the luggage belts that run alongside the stairs make changing tracks relatively easy–but it feels long.  By the time I reach the massive hauptbanhof in Munich three hours later, find my way outside, and settle into the back seat of a cab, I’m more than ready to relax.  Thankfully, the view from the car window on the way to the hotel seems to confirm all I had heard and read about Munich.  On first impression, it has a lively, laid back charm that I like very much.

I’m staying at the Platzl Hotel, in a prime location just a short walk away from Marienplatz. I check in at the front desk and take the elevator to room 515, a comfortable single room with a burgundy print carpet and green drapes.  It’s more than satisfactory, but when I pull back the curtains to look out the window, I’m thrilled by the view.  I am high among the red rooftops of the city, and the spires of the Heiliggeistkirche, Alter Peter, and Altes Rathaus stand before me.

I make my way outside and down the street, following the crowds to Marienplatz before deciding to climb the tower of Alter Peter for a better view of the city.  There are some 300 steps to the top and I have to stop multiple times along the way to catch my breadth.  Perhaps it’s jet lag finally catching up with me, or perhaps it’s only the fatigue that comes with energetic travel, but I feel unexpectedly tired and out of shape.  It’s only when a woman stumbles past me, panting heavily, that I feel justified.  She looks up at the spiral of stairs yet to come and grumbles “Jesus Christ!”

From the top, all of Munich is at my feet.  I gaze down at the fountains in the square and at the tourists perched lazily upon their brim, and then pan up the long, lacy façade of the Neues Rathaus and its carillon before turning to admire the twin onion domes of the Frauenkirche, their copper sheathing aged to a brilliant verdigris by the weather.  It is only then that it occurs to me that nearly everything I see was obliterated during the Second World War–the old town hall, the Frauenkirche, even St. Peter’s itself on which I stand–all were badly damaged by Allied bombs and painstakingly recreated after the war.

The afternoon is waning by the time I climb downstairs, but I’m eager to understand more of the history of Munich, not just of Hitler and the Nazis, but of the more distant past of the Bavarian kings. I check my map and see that The Residenz is just a few blocks away, so I chance to see what I can before they close for the day.  The exterior is entirely obscured by scaffolding, but the interior rooms of the palace are opulent beyond belief, from the Hall of Antiquities to the Ancestral Gallery, where more than a few of the Wittelsbach portraits lining the walls bare scars from being cut from their gilt frames in haste as the Allies approached Munich during World War II.  Indeed, much of the Residenz was bombed in the war and later rebuilt, as the signs posted in each room explain.  It’s a sad legacy, but an oddly worded one, too, for the plaques explain in a jarringly passive voice that the rooms “were destroyed,” with no reference to the armies involved on either side.  I leave feeling unsettled by it all. 

Several years ago I had a long conversation over coffee with a local couple in Bruges, Belgium.  I spoke then about wanting to visit Germany someday and they did little to conceal their distain.  The events of the war were too recent, they said, the wounds still too fresh, the crimes too unforgiveable.  I leave for the day, thinking of my Belgian friends and wondering if a brutal history can ever be forgiven, especially if it is not owned?

The early evening sun is still warm and there are some welcoming outdoor tables at Spatenhaus an der Oper, just across the street.  I grab one and order some traditional Bavarian fare for dinner: Wiener Schnitzel with Hollandaise sauce and buttered potatoes.  When the plate arrives with a generous helping of thick, white asparagus on the side, I sigh in disappointment and wonder when Spargelzeit season will come to its merciful end.  What is it with the Germans and their affection for beige food? 

In search of the lively, colorful city I saw earlier out the taxi cab window, I walk back through Marienplatz to the stalls of the Viktualienmarkt, past baskets of fresh produce and tables of tourists drinking beer under the shade of the trees. 

I’m not a beer drinker myself, but I am in Munich after all, so I decide to end the day with a stop at that cathedral of beer, the famed Hofbräuhaus. The atmosphere is jovial inside, but also loud and chaotic.  As a woman travelling solo, I don’t quite know how to find a seat along the long wooden tables.  I slide shyly onto a vacant patch of bench, but before long I’m greeted by the two cheerful men seated at the other end.  Their names are Tom and Rick, they’re from Ohio, and they are extraordinarily nice.  I order the best I dare, a one liter mug of “Radler” made of half beer and half lemon soda, which visually passes as beer for the photo I intend to send to doubting friends back home.  Tom and Rick have been here before, so as we listen to the Oompah band, they teach me how to clink glasses whenever a proper drinking song is played, which is, it seems, at least once every five minutes. 

Soon we are all singing along:

In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Da läuft so manches Fäßchen aus: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Da hat so manche braver Mann: Eins, zwei, … g’suffa!
Gezeigt was er so vertragen kann
Schon früh am Morgen fing er an
Und spät am Abend kam er heraus
So schön ist’s im Hofbräuhaus.

I’m whistling it still when I stroll back around the corner to my hotel and fall into bed.

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