I had four compelling reasons to wander to Munich this past December…
- To feed my starvation for seasons with a feast of snow;
- To place a check by “Munich’s Christkindlmarkts” in my 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book;
- To travel back in time to a fairy tale castle (and place a check by “Schloss Neuschwanstein” in aforementioned book);
- To meet a penpal in the flesh who would make sure I saw (and tasted) the best of Munich.
Day 1 – Friday
I am officially a “gifted” flyer…out of a total of 13 hours of flight time, I slept for nine. My travel day whizzed by and before I was fully awake, I was on the S1 train from Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss Airport to München Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) where I would hail a taxi to my hotel.
Leonardo Hotel München City West is just a few subway stops outside of the pricier section of Munich. As soon as I unpacked, I walked a half-block to the Underground to experience the magic of my first Christkindlmarkt. The history of these markets goes back to the 1300’s with the advent of the “Nicholaus Markets” (later renamed “Christmas Markets” in the early 1800’s). The market I was walking into is the oldest in Munich…
When I ascended the stairs into Marienplatz, Munich’s bustling central plaza, I smiled. Yes, the cold shocked my season-less San Diego system, but there was plenty to distract me…vendors selling thousands of ornaments, glühwein (hot spiced wine) everywhere you turned, hot chocolate or coffee with rum, roasted marones (chestnuts), sweet or savory crepes, burnt almonds (or candied cashews, or walnuts, or macadamia nuts), lebkuchen (glazed spice cookies), bratwurst, and so much more. The locals cozied up right next to the tourists to enjoy all of these delectable winter treats. As usual I forgo the rules when I wander, so I experienced not a smidgen of guilt when I tasted my first glühwein and groaned over a banana & Nutella crepe on my way to dinner.
Once again there is no doubt I am in Europe…all of the food and beverages being served to throngs of people are actual dishes. Not styrofoam, not paper, nor landfill-clogging plastic, but festively decorated ceramic. They understand what I have tried to convince more than a few American eateries…that everything tastes better on a real dish. You might be wondering how these German food vendors are not all bankrupt. They have an ingenious, yet simple, system…when you pay for your item, you are charged a small deposit (usually 1-2 Euros) for the dish. You have a choice…either keep it as a souvenir (some of the glühwein mugs were quite cute) or return it and receive your Euros back.
Dinner would have been quick had it not been for the crowds packed into Vapiano. I would forgo Bavarian food for one more day…tonight was a delicious prosciutto pizza that rivaled those I’ve eaten at some of my favorite New York pizzerias.
Day 2 – Saturday
Breakfast for me on my first day in Europe is rarely “breakfast”…it’s not even brunch…technically, it’s lunch. The buffet on the top floor of the Nordstrom-esque department store Oberpollinger was just what I needed…mounds of ethnic foods available by the plate. And, steaming milchcaffe to wake (and warm) me up…
The problem with such a late “breakfast” in Munich is that night comes very quickly. The sun starts sinking – and the real cold kicks in – at about 4 p.m. Before darkness engulfed us, my penpal friend brought me to Olympiapark…one of Munich’s treasures built for the 1972 Summer Olympics. An elevator ride up the Olympiaturm can sometimes gift you a view to Austria, but not on this slightly overcast (arctic) day…just a helpful sweeping view of Munich.
At the edge of the park is an architectural gem…the BMW Museumdesigned by Karl Schwanzer. I imagine the 250,000 people who come here every year would agree that it’s definitely worth the free visit. I wonder how many of these quarter million visitors miss the extremely cool kinetic sculpture like I did…if you can’t find it, ask.
Darkness actually improves the atmosphere of a Christlkindlmarkt…especially the more intimate one at München Freiheit, a small square near the Englischer Garten. Rather than the standard tourist fare, this market was a temporary home for artisans selling their unique creations. Just my style…and, definitely my favorite.
About every 2-3 hours, it’s necessary to warm up with a steaming hot liquid treat. Cafe Rischart reheated me with a hazelnut latte and gave me a taste of real German apple strudel…multiple layers of perfectly cooked apples topped with a light crust and a corn syrup-free (and, almost sugar-free) fresh whipped cream. Another reason to be disgruntled when I return home…
You can’t go to Munich and not at least peek inside the infamous Hofbräuhaus. If you can’t be happy here, you might as well just give up on mirth. Every patron has a smile on their face…and, a massive stein of beer in their hand. Thankfully, today’s smiles quiet the echos of Hitler’s hate-filled speeches that were given from podium inside the walls of this state-owned brewery.
A little beer-inspired side bar…the “Reinheitsgebot” (or the “Bavarian Purity Law”) was introduced in 1487, and regulated the production of all Bavarian beer. The only ingredients allowed to be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. Although no longer in effect, many brewers still advertise adherence to this strict historical regulation in order to increase the reputation of their beer. Today the “Provisional German Beer Law”, which allows additional ingredients like wheat malt and cane sugar, is in effect. Post-production is when the Germans get creative. Coming from California where a wine connoiseur would gasp in horror if you added anything to a vintner’s work of art, I was shocked at the strange (yet oddly delicious) ingredients Germans would combine with their brew…Sprite (Radler) and Coke to name just a couple.
Tucked inside the courtyard of the Residenz (“Royal Palace”) is yet another Christlkindlmarkt. It was here that I was introduced to Orangenpunsch…hot orange juice (with a touch of cinnamon) spiked with Cointreau. Okay…this one I can recreate (and will this Christmas)!
Day 3 – Sunday
Even a local equipped with GPS can get a bit lost on the way to Schloss Neuschwanstein (“New Castle”)…I would have stressed out trying to get here alone. I was so grateful to my friend for making the effort to show me one of the most magical sights I have ever seen…a fairy tale castle surrounded by snow-laden mountains and perched above a vibrant blue lake (Lake Starnberg).
It was 1869 when King Ludwig II began to build this medieval-inspired castle. Since childhood, Ludwig had been passionate about the Middle Ages…and, what better salve for the bitter wound of Prussian domination than a secluded dominion where he could quietly rule his shrunken fiefdom. Sadly, he did not live to see it completed. After being declared insane by the government (with the help of his family), he died under mysterious circumstances…drowning in Lake Starnberg. The castle was never lived in and was opened to the public in 1886.
On our brief guided tour, we wandered through rooms painted with vibrant murals (inspired by Richard Wagner’s operas), glimpsed a couple of the castle’s “modern” conveniences (a toilet/throne and a central heating system), marveled at the massive gilded hall reminiscent of the Middle Ages, and dropped our jaws at the exquisite mosaic floor in the private chapel. If this is what results from a bit of craziness, may we all be blessed with some…
Tonight I had my first Bavarian feast. Augustiner Am Platzl is a quaint pub-style restaurant near the lively Hofbrauhaus, but is much more conducive to conversation. I dined on traditional roast pork with the most flavorful sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted. Lecker! (German for “Yum!”.)
Day 4 – Monday
All journeys should include an occasional day off…and, today was my first day of rest. After a long night’s sleep that continued far past morning, I assured everyone back at home that I had not met some horrible fate in Germany. My friend had the ideal plan to continue my theme of rest…a visit to a German thermal water spa. OK, not just any German spa, but Europe’s biggest thermal water spa. When you walk inside Therme Erding you would never know it was bone-chilling and snowing outside…if I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in a balmy tropical Paradise. In exchange for 10 Euros, we received three hours of water-enhanced relaxation, which we split between the meandering soaking pool (complete with darkened caves and cascading waterfalls) and and the thermogenic oxygenated soaking pool (with a couple breakneck runs down the water slides). Three hours flew by. On my way back to our locker, I walked amidst a group of men…one stark naked. I panicked…sure that I had made a wrong turn upon exiting the women’s showers and somehow landed in the men’s showers. I’m sure the four German men had quite a chuckle at the look on my face…and, my English ramblings…as I abruptly turned around to get the hell out of there. My friend patiently reminded me I was in Germany where public nudity is totally acceptable. Duh…
Day 5 – Tuesday
Today my goal was to wander slowly, explore deeper, Christmas shop, and try to capture the beauty that surrounded me with my camera at the München Freiheit, Marienplatz, and Residenz Christkindlmarkts. Rarely am I in the mood to shop, and especially not when I wander, so my hope was to get all of my souvenirs purchased today. Four hours later, I had almost accomplished my goal…
I did learn a bit more about my environs…
Marienplatz has been Munich’s central square since 1158. Named after the Mariensäule, a column erected in 1638 to commemorate the end of Swedish rule, it’s now home to the gothic New Town Hall. “New” in Europe means something quite different than back in the States…construction of the “New” Town Hall commenced in 1867, and was eventually completed in 1908. Today the building houses the city council, mayors’ offices, a restaurant, several businesses, and the city’s main tourist office. Between Marienplatz and Karlsplatz is a pedestrian walkway lined with stores…many recognizable to Americans, some not…and, of course, more gluhwein at the end of the road.
The Residenz is the former palace of Bavarian monarchs…the largest in Germany with a complex of buildings and 10 courtyards. Although construction began in 1385, it was severely damaged in World War II and was reconstructed throughout the 20th century. Today the building houses a 130-room museum renowned for its architecture and collections.
Day 6 – Wednesday
Today I was bound for Viktualienmarkt (“Victuals Market”)…a gourmet farmer’s market with 140 vendors that officially opened in 1807 to accomodate the overflow of the Marienplatz market. I slowly meandered among the vendors selling hot and cold Bavarian delicacies (the smells!), fresh fruit (the choices!), vegetables and flowers (the colors!), glüwein (of course!), and all things Christmas. I found a treasure just across from the market…Beluga Chocolaterie. After snatching up some chocolate souvenirs for my kids, I made a plan to return for a gourmet hot chocolate (or two…or three). On the way back, I wrapped up my souvenir shopping at Holz-Leute…a small store specializing in artisan-quality wood products.
Something happened to the European immigrants over the centuries in America…the art of the specialty and the passion for pleasure was replaced by resigned acceptance of chain grocery stores and unceasing work. As I walked toward a “secret” restaurant tucked in a tiny plaza behind Viktualienmarkt, I encountered a crowd surrounding a bellowing man. Were they angry? Did I need to scope out the quickest escape route? Well, not unless German choirs have a tendency toward violence…I had come upon a gathering of carolers who had stopped to savor the season. God, I love Europe…
At Bratwurstherzl, I feasted on authentic wiener schnitzel (breaded and fried veal), spaetzle (similar to pasta), and stimulating conversation. I reverted back to childhood when I ordered…my eyes were much larger than my stomach. Knowing that one never requests a “doggy bag” in Europe, I crammed myself as full as possible…and, mourned the waste. Apparently our server has learned the signs of a frugal American and asked me if I would like a box. No worries about lunch tomorrow!
Of course, all the internal crevices left by such a great meal must be filled up with liquid sweetness, so it was back to the Residenz Christlkindlmarkt for some Heaven in a cup…also known as Eierpunsch and Lumumba. I was told that Eierpunsch is “egg nog”….that is an Olympian understatement. Here’s my best description…a melted orange Creamsicle infused with rum and topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream (tasting even better than it sounds because it is served in a glass mug). Exquisite, decadent…and, filling. The less rich, but just as tasty, Lumumba is hot chocolate (with a subtle hint of hazelnut), a shot of rum, and a dollop of whipped cream. Both were served up by a man who doesn’t realize he is in such close vicinity of Heaven…my friend and I are on a joint mission to raise the corners of this man’s mouth.
Day 7 – Thursday
One cannot be too happy, right? Today I put a damper on my joy with a tour of Dachau. I met up with my tour guide (a Los Angeles transplant who fell in love with Munich and moved here three years ago) with Munich Walk Tours under the Glockenspiel in Marienplatz. As we waited, an elderly man approached her…although I understood virtually nothing that was said, I could see and feel the tension (and some burgeoning dementia). As soon as the “gentleman” left, a couple of us inquired…“What the heck was that???” Her response…“What do you think his father did for a living?” We had just “met” the son of an SS guard who was none too pleased with the existence of this particular tour. Thank God Mother Nature is taking care of this problem…
Being a free spirit, I’ve become extremely particular about the occasional tours I take…the endorsement of Munich Walk Tours by Rick Steves and Frommers convinced me to briefly follow the pack. It was educational, enriching, and enjoyable…although it just seems wrong to describe a tour of a concentration camp with any word alluding to pleasure. There were four particular reasons I was thrilled I took the tour: 1) Getting to Dachau by myself would have brought unwanted stress into my venture since it involved taking the Underground to the Hauptbahnhof (“Central Station”), transferring to a train that stopped at the Dachau station, then catching a bus to the camp; 2) I didn’t have to read one placard…the guide’s stimulating stories were more than enough to inform and stimulate me; 3) I got to harmonize with the collective groan about the subzero temps and Siberian wind cutting right through all the layers of useless fabric covering our bodies; and 4) I wouldn’t have had the privilege of meeting Seth Miller and James Bain.
Wrongfully convicted of rape in the mid-1970’s, and released thanks to the efforts of The Florida Innocence Project, Mr. Bain was in Munich to be interviewed for a popular television show (Menschen 2010…click here to read about his visit). When he shared some of his story at the end of the tour, there were very few dry eyes when he explained how he understood firsthand how the prisoners of Dachau felt. (To read more about James, click here.)
Dachau was opened just months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. It was the model for all other concentration camps, an SS training facility, and was one of Hitler’s primary tools to instill fear in the German citizens…fear which bred silence and cooperation from the majority. There are so many lessons here…about psychological and physical intimidation and the power of fear, torture, mob mentality, and the depths to which human beings can sink. I left with a greater understanding as to why the German populace didn’t rise up against Hitler…Germans tend to be rule followers, Hitler was incredibly charismatic and helped those most impacted by Germany’s dire depression, and there was a deep-seated fear of being swept up in the middle of the night and deposited in Dachau (or one of many other such “camps” across Eastern Europe).
One last – albeit much less serious – lesson learned…I will no longer wander away from a tour guide even if given permission. After a quick trip to the cafeteria to grab a pretzel, I returned to our meeting spot with five minutes to spare. Where was everyone? I am not known for the wisdom of my split second decisions…I felt the onset of decision-impairment. I literally had seconds to opt for hopping on the overcrowded bus that was revving up in front of me or waiting and hoping that my group was still here (but where???). I ran for the bus…and, hoped I beat my usual track record. I pushed my way into the middle of a large herd of teenagers and began searching for a familiar face. There were no middle-aged people to be seen. I tried to peek out the windows in the hopes of seeing something remotely familiar…my heart rate rising as each stop went by with no sign of the train station. Time began to play with me…wasn’t the bus ride from the station to the camp much shorter??? I was desperate…and, turned to the teenage boy standing next to me. “Sprechen Sie English? A little? Yes? (Phew!) Do you know if this bus goes to the Dachau train station?” Teenage facial expressions are universal…the blank face staring back at me told me everything I needed to know (nothing). So much for getting help…I was surrounded by pubescent faces. Just before my heart rate spiked, I managed to understand the bus driver’s garbled announcement of the next stop…the Dachau train station. As relief flowed throughout my body, I watched my teenager get off the bus…is it possible he was really that clueless??? When my feet hit the ground, I was overcome with relief when I practically ran into my group…which eliminated any irritation at the guide, who showed absolutely no indication that she had lost one of her groupies.
Although I didn’t get lost, I did leave my frozen ass in Dachau…and, by the time I got back to Marienplatz, the marrow in my bones had frozen solid. Since a hot bath was out of the question (I have yet to stay in a European hotel with a bathtub), a steaming milk chocolate infused with Amaretto from Beluga Chocolaterie would have to suffice. I think I actually groaned while I thawed. I made it back to the room just as the hot chocolate aura wore off.
This evening I took a field trip with my friend to Real, a local discount grocery store. Although it looked like a typical super-sized American grocery store, nothing is “regular” when you’re an American in a foreign country. I was subjected to more culinary torture here…there must have been 50 varieties of yogurt, 20 kinds of mustards, more kinds of unfamiliar tantalizing treats than I could eat in a month, enough candy to feed a small nation, and a microscopic American section (I don’t blame them at all). We had a blast tossing all kinds of new foods in the cart for me to taste. About two hours later I became distraught…how am I going to survive without Kinder Pingui Cocos bars???
I forgave my hotel for missing a bathtub when I found the sauna room…one wet sauna, one dry sauna, a hot & cold shower, and a cedar lounge chair to plop on. I successfully thawed all remaining ice crystals in my marrow. More European lack of inhibition here…after the naked lady left, I had the place to myself.
Day 8 – Friday
I decided to prolong my relaxing sauna stint into today. A short wander through Marienplatz (yes, again), a rum-infused dark hot chocolate at Beluga, and an afternoon nap (back at the room). Dinner came quickly. Tonight’s feast was roast pork with beer sauce and potato dumplings at Marktwrit. With some serious determination, my friend & I returned to the Residenz Christkindlmarkt and succeeded in our mission. Eierpunsch Man smiled.
Day 9 – Saturday
The perfect day…eating all things Germanic.
Leave it to the Germans to have a rule about sausage…okay, not one rule, but five.
- Rule #1 – Weisswurst must be poached in hot (not boiling) water…never grilled.
- Rule #2 – Weisswurst must be eaten before 12 p.m…seriously (Lacking preservatives, apparently it can’t wait much longer.).
- Rule #3 – Weisswurst must be eaten only with a pretzel & sweet mustard. Nothing else.
- Rule #4 – One must not eat the skin of Weisswurst…you can cut & suck or peel it off.
- Rule #5 – Weisswurst can only be washed down with wheat beer.
I obeyed all the rules…okay, I didn’t drink any wheat beer, but I also didn’t cheat and allow any prohibited beverage touch the sausage.
I would consider moving to Germany just to eat Leberkäse…although at the time I let it linger in my mouth I had no idea that the literal translation of the name is “liver cheese”. According to Wikipedia “it consists of corned beef, pork, bacon and onions and is made by grinding the ingredients very fine and then baking it as a loaf in a bread pan until it has a crunchy brown crust.” Sometimes it’s good to be ignorant…
Today I finally saw the Glockenspiel in action! At 11 a.m. and noon each day in winter, almost everyone stops for at least a moment to listen to the ringing bells and gaze up at the revolving figurines in the New Town Hall tower…a reminder of the medieval days when Marienplatz bustled with markets and tournaments. Ten minutes of immobile gazing initiated the freezing process, so at the last bell, I returned to Oberpollinger for a latte and some lebkuchenstrudel. I’m not sure what lebkuchenstrudel is, but it doesn’t matter because it will never replace German apple strudel.
We were too late for dinner at Andechser am Dom…it was packed on Saturday night at 9 p.m…so we climbed three floors up to Augustina Am Dom for some consolation Bavarian delicacies…I have yet to tire of bratwurst & sauerkraut. It was here that I learned I prefer looking at people rather than walls…a good sign.
Now it was time to dance off some Bavarian calories. Muffathalle Clubis only open on select days throughout the year (maybe to give all the middle-agers time to re-energize in between all-nighters???) and in addition to confirming you are of drinking age, they check for middle age. The fact that I wasn’t carded to see if I was 30 years old was a bit of an “Ouch”, but I quickly forgot my angst once I saw the two bars and three dance floors. The crowd – comprised of 30+ year olds and an occasional grey (or no) hair and a mix of straight and gay couples – was the classiest I had ever danced with. And, the music…ahhhh, the music…electronica and classic and current rock with a beat…hypnotized me. Until 3 a.m.! My friend and I dashed to the Underground hoping that the trains were still running…after a mini-snooze on the bench, we caught the last one back to Marienplatz. There decided to splurge on our first taxi rather than succomb to frostbite on one of the dark city streets.
Day 10 – Sunday
Even though it was frigid cold in the midst of winter, I still wanted to see a small part of the 900-acre Englischer Garten (“English Garden”), Munich’s version of Central Park. Surprise…another Christlkindlmarkt! I indulged in warm potato pancakes and blotorangenpunsch (blood orange punch). Okay, so I admit this wasn’t quite as exciting as the usual garden activities…I will have to come back in the summer to visit the four beer gardens and nude sunbathers. As I walked back along the park path, it began to snow…this might be making the locals grumpy, but I was like a kid again trying to catch (yes, on my tongue) the huge clusters of individual snowflakes floating down from the sky. Such a perfect day…to surf??? As I approached the street, I saw a small crowd gathered. Being curious (okay…nosy), I stopped to investigate. They were watching several wetsuit-laden men taking turns surfing underneath a bridge where the water rushed up and formed a small wave! Wow…European wonders never cease.
Did I mention it was FRIGID cold??? I definitely needed some warming from the inside out. I decided to take the advice I received from a fellow wanderer on Afar.com and sip coffee at the San Francisco Coffee Company. This Americanized coffeehouse was jam packed. I managed to squeeze into a spot by the window seat and savor the warmth of a caramel macchiato while watching the snow fall just outside.
Tonight I made a point to arrive at Andechser early enough to get a seat…and, I did…at the communal table. If only I spoke German, I would have made friends. But, I just smiled and ate my veal meatball, cabbage salad, bratwurst & (more) sauerkraut, Leberkäse (!), and German-style potato salad (putting the American version to shame). I bypassed a solid dessert for another Eierpunsch…served up with a smile.
Back at the hotel, I about jumped off the bed when I saw my fellow Dachau groupie, James Bain, telling the host of Menschen 2010 about his horrific ordeal and recent visit to Dachau!!! The grand finale of an amazing day…
Day 11 – Monday
Today would have been more relaxing if I didn’t have to distribute baggage weight among my three bags. My final treat was a visit to the Tollwood Festival, a massive indoor/outdoor Christkindlmarkt with tons of food (I blew it on the Thai noodles, but scored on the deep fried apples), more vendors than I could count (I found the last of my souvenirs, including a couple for myself), and live music. The perfect grand finale…
So, what lessons did I learn on this arctic adventure?
- I need seasons! All the changes – climactic, visual, culinary, activities, etc. – quench my thirst for variety.
- When I’m in Europe, I feel like I “fit”. I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason, but passion is at the core. I must live there at some point in my life…
- I dipped my toe into German culture and I want to dive in. Contrary to what the American educational system would have you believe, Hitler is not even close to being all that Germany is about.
I’m contemplating returning soon to quench my craving for Leberkäse and Pingui Cocos bars…