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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The weather report is calling for rain today, so when I stretch my aching limbs and draw aside the drapes in my room I’m surprised to see a bright blue sky and warm sun.  This will give me a good chance to make a day trip outside the city this afternoon.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the Hotel Platzl, I decide first to visit the interior of the Frauenkirche, and then the tomb of “Mad” King Ludwig II in St. Michael’s church while I wait for the 11:00 AM glockenspiel show back in Marienplatz.

Munich’s famous glockenspiel on the new town hall dates from 1908 and consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures that reenact two stories from the 16th century.  At the top is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine.  In honor of the happy couple there is a joust with knights on horseback representing Bavaria, in white and blue, and Lothringen, in red and white.  The Bavarian knight wins every time, of course!  The bottom half depicts the Schäfflerstanz, or cooper’s dance.  According to myth, 1517 was a year of plague in Munich.  The coopers are said to have danced through the streets to “bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions.”  The coopers remained loyal to the Duke and their dance came to symbolize pervereance and loyalty to authority through difficult times. 

After the festive music and the dancers have once again fallen silent and the tourist crowds have dispersed, I head underground and buy a day pass for the S-Bahn and ride the train to Dachau station, where I transfer to a free shuttle bus to take me the rest of the way to the remains of Dachau concentration camp, about 10 miles northwest of the city. 

Like so many other S.S. camps during the Holocaust, the slogan on the iron gate at Dachau makes a cruel promise: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which means “work sets you free.”  Established by the Nazis in 1933 and run continuously until its liberation by American troops on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 Jews and other political prisoners were interned here. More than 30,000 died–of disease, malnutrition, and murder.

A sculpture by Nandor Glid, erected on the parade grounds in 1968, represents the scale and human cost of those sins.  It is a massive wall of twisted metal, blending haunting human forms with fence posts and barbed wire.  Nearby, a plaque translates a simple message into a multitude of languages:


I spend the next few hours in solemn thought, walking quietly through the interior of museum.  There are displays that attempt to explain the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, a mundane office desk that was once used to register prisoners, a pile of chain from which prisoners were hung from, and a crematorium known ominously as “Barrack X.”

Before I go, I walk out past guard towers and rusted barbed wire fences and a row of reconstructed barracks towards the Jewish memorial on the far edge of the camp.  It slopes gently into the ground, allowing only a narrow beam of light to seep through an opening in the ceiling, revealing a menorah high above.  Chiseled over the entrance is a psalm: “Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men.” 

As I leave the cool air and dim light of the memorial and face the full glare of the afternoon sun, I squint and brush away a tear.  It has been hard, this visit, but it must be so.  How could it be otherwise? 

I ride the train back to Munich, where at 4:30 the day’s expected rain finally starts to fall.

For dinner, I want to stay close by and the promise of Italian food at Trattoria La Valle just down the street sounds like a refreshing change of pace.  Truth be told, I am growing weary of beige Bavarian cuisine.  I order a caprese salad and veal saltimbocca, which pale in comparison to a similar meal I once had in Rome, but for now it is more than good enough.  Afterwards, I turn the corner and walk down Tal street to Bäckerei Aumüller so that I can buy something sweet for later.

The sky is still spitting rain, but the cooler night air is pleasant, so I continue on to Odeonsplatz and the Theatine Church and the Feldherrenhalle, modelled after the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.  In the Hofgarten nearby, I duck under the cover of the Diana pavilion and then circle back to the Platzl Hotel, where a dry robe and a slice of lemon cake await.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The night’s drizzle has worsened into a steady morning rain, but since I am intent on spending the day in museums, the inclement weather doesn’t concern me in the least.  After breakfast, I plan to head first to the Schatzkammer, the treasury in Munich’s grand Residenz, but I can’t resist wandering through the luxury food store of Alois Dallmayr, at 14-15 Dienerstraße along the way to drool over trays of decadent pastries.

The treasury exceeds my wildest expections and I spend my time there happily.  On display are countless priceless objects that once belonged to the Bavarian kings, including religious art, orders and insignia, crowns, tableware, and toilet sets.  My favorite is the jewel-encrusted statuette of Saint George and the dragon, made in Munich between 1586-1597.

By midday, I’m back on the U-Bahn heading towards the Alte Pinakothek, which has one of the world’s greatest collections of Old Master paintings.  In honor of the museum’s 175th anniversary, Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance” is here on temporary loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  In the early 19th century, the painting was part of an exceptional private collection amassed by the first king of Bavaria, Maximillian Joseph, but after his death it was sold at auction in 1826.  There is also a special exhibit devoted to Lucas Cranach.  I ask the clerk at the desk for a ticket to everything–the permanent galleries, the special exhibitions, and for good measure, the Neue Pinakothek next door.  It’s shaping up to be a fantastic afternoon. 

After admiring the Vermeer again (I’ve seen it several times in Washington, and it remains one of my favorites), and touring the Cranachs, I stop for a break in the museum café with a cappuccino and a slice of pear tart before heading upstairs.  For the next two hours, I wander from to gallery after gallery, immersed in Rubens, Bruegels, and van Dycks.  It’s only when I look at my watch that I grow concerned with the time.  There are several Van Goghs waiting for me across the street.  I’m down in the gift shop when a postcard reminds me that I somehow missed seeing a charming self-portrait of Rubens with his wife, Isabella Brant.

On a whim, I start to jog back up the long staircase, but halfway up I suddenly find myself out of breath.  By the time I reach the landing, I’m gasping for air.  My heart is pounding and I am shaking like a leaf.  I try to walk it off, but when I can’t, I grab my coat from the cloak room lockers and rush outside.  The cool mist is a relief on my flushed face, but I feel terribly, horribly, unwell.  Nearby, there is a taxi stand.  I pace until one arrives, then slump in the backseat as the driver takes me back to my hotel. 

I’ve felt tired for days, but dismissed the signs of illness as jet lag or merely the overexertion of travel catching up with me.  Now it seems like something more.  I call home for reassurance and later ring the front desk for room service when it becomes clear I won’t be going anywhere for dinner.  A mug of peppermint tea and a small bag of dry pretzels are all I can handle.  It’s not until 10 PM that the waves of nausea finally start to lift and I sink into a much needed sleep, not sure of what will happen in the morning.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I feel completely wiped out this morning.  I’m not in any condition to go anywhere and yet my itinerary calls for me to head south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen today.  Reluctantly, I cancel my reservation at the Hotel Gastof Fraundorfer and talk to the clerk downstairs about staying two additional nights at the Platzl.  It’s going to cost me, because a single room isn’t available, but I don’t have any choice.

I lounge around the hotel, take a slow walk around the block, buy some medicine from a local pharmacy, and later buy a ticket for an open-top sightseeing bus so that I can be out in the fresh air seeing something, but while expending as little energy as possible. 

For now, I’m in a holding pattern, nothing more.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

After a cheerful breakfast at the Hotel Sonne, I stretch my legs by wandering down through the cemetery of St. Sebastian to the Franciscan Monastery, which provides a lovely view of the town of Füssen.  I head back up the hill just in time catch the bus to Hohenschwangau, retracing the steps I took yesterday afternoon.  This morning, however, I have to keep my eye on the time because I have reserved tickets to tour the interiors of Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein

Hohenschwangau Castle, with its tangerine façade and blue and white striped awnings, was the childhood home of King Ludwig II.  The original castle on the site was built in the 12th century, but later destroyed in war.  The ruins were acquired by Ludwig’s father, King Maximillian II and the castle was rebuilt according to the original plans between 1833 and 1837.

It’s high on a hill overlooking the village, so when I see a sign outside the ticket office advertising a horse drawn carriage ride to the top, I seize it. 

Tour 152 doesn’t depart until 12:20 PM, so while I wait I admire the view from the castle gardens out across the valley to the foothills of the Alps, and then turn my attention to the castle itself. 

The lavish rooms inside, covered by murals of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, confirm what I already knew.  Namely, that while there are turrets and battlements and coats of arms here, this is clearly a 19th century romantic vision of a medieval castle, which is more than all right with me. 

I make it to the 477 tour of Neuschwanstein Castle at 2:25 PM with little time to spare.  Here, much of the interior was left unfinished when “Mad” King Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances in 1886.  Only fifteen rooms are complete, including the Throne Hall, decorated in elaborate Byzantine style, the Singers’ Hall, intended for banquets and musical performances, and Ludwig’s bedroom, circled by wall murals depicting the story of “Tristan and Isolde” from an opera by Wagner.  It’s quaint and charming and sad, all at the same time. 

I would take pictures, but our tour guide is a young man with a chilling demeanor who promises to escort anyone who does into the eager embrace of castle security.  No one dares try, and although I am tempted to ask where Hitler and the Nazis hid their hoard of stolen art during the war, I don’t have the nerve.

All in all, though, it’s been a satisfying day.  I collect my luggage from the lockers at the station in Füssen and head back to Munich on the train, where I check in to room 519 at the ultra-modern Fleming’s Hotel across the street at Bayersraße 47, tuck in for dinner in the restaurant downstairs, and then shuffle off to bed.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Sensing a shift in both luck and momentum, I have decided to give Mittenwald another try before moving on to Salzburg, Austria tomorrow morning.  Along the way, the Bavarian landscape outside the window is an evolving panorama of tiny villages and barns and onion-domed churches.  As we approach the Alps, I start to see the remanents of snow in the highest peaks of the mountains, which for a native of the eastern United States are fantastically tall and sharp.

When the train pulls into the station in Mittenwald, I jump to my feet, eager to explore the town, which is best known for the colorful frescoes that adorn its houses.  As I step across the tracks, however, a familiar wave of dizziness and nausea cascades through my body.  I look around, feeling lost, and then find a park bench outside the tourist information center, where I sit patiently for the next hour, waiting for it to pass.  It does not, and so I sit for a few minutes longer, digesting the situation.  There are two things I know:  One, that it is time to see a doctor, and two, that the trip I had planned for over so many months, is over.

I open the door to the TI, step inside, and approach a young woman at the counter to explain that I’ve fallen ill.  She brings me a cup of water and I ask if there is a doctor in town who speaks English.  She makes a phone call and returns to say that there is and that his office is just a mile or so away.  She starts to me offer me walking directions, but I interrupt and ask if she might call me a cab instead.  She furrows her brow in incomprehension and says: “But that will cost you five Euros.” I assure her that will be fine.

She makes another call, and minutes later I’ve arrived at the office of Dr. Kristian Dressler, who is expecting me.  In truth, there is not much he can do so far from home, but he checks my blood pressure, shows me the result, and pronounces it “not good.”  It’s 159/96.  He gives me half of a beta blocking pill to lower it, but when that doesn’t work, he adds the other half.  Still nothing.

He thinks I have a virus and that I haven’t given my body sufficient time to recover from it.  He’s probably right.

By now, I’m desperate to lie down and he offers me the use of one of his examining rooms.  When I’m still not better two hours later, he recommends that I return to Munich on the train in first class so that I might prop my feet up.  He starts to give me walking directions back through town to the station when, as I had done earlier, I interrupt to ask that he call me a cab instead.  “But that will cost you five Euros,” he says, sounding exasperated.  I think: “What is it with these people and five Euros?”

I have come to believe that the Germans are tight fisted with money and that they do not tolerate weakness.  I am tired of their beige food and I want to go home.

This is terribly unfair, I know, and yet it is easy to think such things when we are sick.

Three days later I do go home, but not before dismantling the remaining days of my trip one hotel at a time.  There will be no Sound of Music tour this time around, no boat ride across Lake Hallstatt, no Vienna Boys Choir or Spanish Riding School, and no opera.  The closest I will come to Austria is the terrace of Neuschwanstein Castle with its sweeping vista south towards the Alps.

Travel is an adventure, and by virtue of that definition, it is not always a pleasant and rewarding experience, despite (or even because of) our lofty goals and expectations.  I will need time to recover from this, and to mourn for opportunities lost, but after that, I will—as I always do—cast an eye towards next year, in the persistent and unrelenting hope of doing it all again.