Sunday, 19 August 2012

Summer Days in Munich

As we traveled across the border from Verona to Munich, the sun shined brightly through windows of our train. The landscape was lush and green and perched on the hillside alpine style homes became increasingly apparent. The steep roofs and large piles of chopped firewood suggested that it wasn’t always this way in these parts, with a snow-covered landscape probably being a much more familiar outlook. For now the skies were blue, it was summer and our first introduction to Germany looked particularly picturesque.

Walking out from the station, the streets were bustling and we instantly sensed the German economic prosperity that we had heard so much about despite the recent problems with the struggling European currency. It may have been the warm summer weather, but people seemed happy and relaxed, the outdoor cafes were full, the roads were full of late model Mercedes, Audis and BMW’s and the shops appeared to be doing a roaring trade. The devastation of Munich following World War II appeared to be a very distant memory and it was now the most economically buoyant city in the most economically buoyant country in the EU. It was not too long before Jules and I had joined the masses who were leisurely strolling through the picturesque boulevard of Marienplatz, which seems to be the central meeting place from which other major retails areas of Munich are linked. It is dominated by the gothic town hall, which is humorously translates into German as the ‘Rathaus’. This ornately decorated building is the focal point for many visitors; not only for the information centre it provides, but for the regular chiming of bells accompanied by dancing figures below the clock. To be honest this really isn’t our thing, but we were somewhat amused by the amount of people who flocked into the square each day to stand in the hot sun to witness the wooden marionettes doing their regular turn.

We were of course much more interested in visiting ‘Viktualienmarkt’, which is the place to find all things gastronomic. There was certainly a great atmosphere here with plenty of wonderful produce for sale, which could be sampled to the accompaniment of the various ‘umpa-pa’ bands that seemed to be scattered around the open-air market. In the centre was a leafy green canopy of trees where hundreds of people sat on packed tables enjoying cold meats and the obligatory German sausage. Naturally enough this was being washed down with bucket sized glasses of cold beer. This wasn’t totally surprising as we were well aware of Germany’s reputation for beer consumption to the point that it could almost be regarded as part of the staple diet, which is enjoyed daily and in enormous quantities. We were amazed to find that the amber liquid was generally the same price as bottled water and with two complimentary bottles placed in our hotel fridge daily, an afternoon pint quickly became an easy habit for us to slip into. Of course the crowning achievement of Munich’s beer drinking prowess remains the annual ‘Oktoberfest’, attracting millions of visitors and generating a fortune for the local economy. We caught a glimpse of the tents being set up for this year’s event and couldn’t quite believe the sheer scale of the festivities. Spanning over several acres, we were proudly told that over 7 million litres of beer would be drunk here, fueling raucous singing and dancing over the 18 days of the event.

As the days passed, there were many things that we liked about Munich and we could well understand why it had been voted one of the most livable cities in world. As legacy of its days as an Olympic host city, it has a fabulous underground rail network as well as numerous tramlines that weave their way around the busy streets. Despite the wartime bombing, there are still many wonderful buildings and palaces that were originally built by its big spending monarchy. There is a fabulous array of art galleries and an extensive range of parks and gardens that provide a cool and quiet haven from the noise and heat of the big city.

Probably the most impressive is the ‘English Garden’ that spans over 900 acres (one of the worlds largest urban parks) and features a number of impressive buildings and monuments. On a hot summers day, Jules and I took refuge in this lush green oasis only to find thousands of ‘M√ľnchners’ (citizens of Munich) had exactly the same idea. The most popular spot with the younger crowd was the fast flowing river that made its way through the park. Jumping in here could see you traveling several kilometers down stream very quickly, but oddly enough that’s what seemed to be the main attraction. We watched plenty of kids bobbing happily along with the current, only to make the long trek back by foot to do it all over again. An equally popular pastime was river surfing! This was something we had never seen before, but it was extremely popular with wetsuit-donned surfers who queued patiently for their 30 second turn. It seems that at some stage it was realised that near one of the bridges, the rapidly flowing water became compressed resulting in the formation of a small but sustained wave. No sooner than this was discovered that a surfboard was thrown in and a popular pastime was born. Munich was full of such surprises and having the opportunity to spend a few glorious summer days in this impressive city was certainly the best way for us to see it.

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