Travels & Traditions: Munich, Germany - #101

This is the city of Munich, in a part of Germany known as Bavaria.  At the end of the Second World War, it became one of the most important cultural centers in the nation. It also became a city of great corporate wealth. The wealth combined with the culture and the natural beauty of the area to make Munich a major tourist attraction.

Beneath Munich’s commitment to its culture and its corporations is an even greater devotion to its local customs and its everyday pleasures.  Munich has a big-city intellect with a small-town heart.

During the next half-hour we’ll visit the most popular beer garden in Europe... discover why Bavarian maypoles must be guarded 24 hours a day... visit a palace that didn’t quite turn out the way the king expected... and take a driving tour through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.  So join me, Burt Wolf, with TRAVELS & TRADITIONS in Munich, Germany.

Most of the important sites in Munich can be reached on foot, and as you move around the city you can’t help noticing the fountains. There are over one thousand of them. Donating a public fountain has become a local fashion. Public fountains and public gardens have been placed throughout Munich. They bring in light, and quiet space, and give the city an open feeling.

One of Munich’s most beautiful open spaces is the 900-acre English Garden, which sits in the center of town. It was constructed during the late 1700s as a park open to all, where people of different classes could come together in a relaxed and natural setting. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The English Garden was the idea of a man named Benjamin Thompson, who was born in Woburn, Massachusetts in the middle of the 1700s.  But when the American Revolutionary War came along, he sided with the English and moved to Europe. He became friendly with the Prince of Bavaria who gave him the title of Count Rumford. Everybody in Munich thinks of him in connection with the English Garden. But I think of Rumford as the man who invented the original prototype for the modern kitchen stove -- and that was an extraordinary achievement.

The rulers of Bavaria were into parks, but they were also into music and they made Munich a great city for music lovers. The National Theater is one of the finest opera houses in the world, with a special interest in the works of Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Down the block from the theater is a statue of one of the rulers of Bavaria, Maximilian I. He was hoping to be shown on a horse, but the sculptor felt that for the long haul he’d be more comfortable in a nice chair. The word around town is that his hand is directed to the cafe across the street and that he is gesturing for a waiter. Along with everyone else.

A few blocks down the pedestrian street from Maximilian is Marienplatz, which is in many ways the center of Munich. The area is named after the statue of the Virgin Mary that stands in the middle of the square. The Town Hall contains a mechanical clock which goes into action every day at 11am, noon, and 5pm. The figures are performing the “Coopers’ Dance.”  During the early 1500s there was a great plague in Munich. The first group of people to realize that the plague was coming to an end were the barrelmakers, who were known as coopers. In 1517 the coopers came out into Marienplatz square to perform a dance of thanks to the Virgin Mary, marking the ending of the plague and cheering up the city. And they are still cheering up the city.

Behind the square you can see the twin towers of the 500-year-old Church of Our Lady. The onion-shaped domes were put on originally as a temporary measure, and they don’t match the rest of the church’s Gothic architecture.  But with one thing and another, they never got replaced. Today they are the symbol of the city’s skyline.

Just down the road is another church worth visiting. It’s called the Asam church and it is a magnificent example of the architectural style known as German Baroque. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Catholic church was always interested in monumental architecture.  But the Protestant Reformation was against ornate buildings. They wanted a  plainer style.

To reaffirm the greatness of the Catholic church, Baroque architecture was introduced. The Catholic church was saying... “you want to see the majestic, take a look at this.”

And speaking of majestic, if you’d like to see how the rulers of Bavaria lived during the good old days, you have two locations. Their in-town winter place is known as the Residenz. It belonged to the Wittelsbach family, who controlled Bavaria from the middle of the 12th century to the beginning of the 20th. An 800-year reign, the kind you could have in the old days before term limits. You can see the royal apartments, the crown jewels, and an extraordinary collection of objects from the royal court of Bavaria.

The Nymphenburg Castle was their edge-of-town summer place... though they did come here from time to time during the winter when the water would freeze over and the family could practice their ice skating. We estimated seventy-six bedrooms, fifty-three sitting rooms, thirty-three reception areas, four ballrooms... no bathrooms.

But the ballrooms in the Nymphenburg Palace were not the only ballrooms in town. In 1875 Stutzel’s Ballhaus was built for debutante balls and concerts. And since then, it has been the focal point of Munich’s social scene. 

Today it is the Hotel Rafael, and its owners have restored the rooms to their previous elegance. Hanging in the center of the lobby is a work by the famous German sculptor Josef Boyce -- a giant fedora and an oversized trenchcoat with a copy of the Herald-Tribune in the pocket.  It was given to the hotel as a gift for its opening day.  There’s also a work by the British artist Richard Long, who paints in mud.  The work is called the “Rafael Circles,” and the mud comes from the Avon River in England.

The furnishings are in a style called Biedermeier, which was popular in Germany and Austria during the first half of the 1800s. Biedermeier was a character in a play who became a symbol of the responsible middle class. Biedermeier furniture is made from woods that are usually light in color. The design elements are drawn from Greek and Roman architecture and there is always a meticulous attention to detail.

One of the things that makes the hotel unusual is that it reflects Munich’s unique balance between modern metropolis and Bavarian village. The rooms give you the feeling of a wealthy family residence. Some of the rooms have private terraces that look out over the city. I was particularly impressed with the bathrooms. High ceilings, huge mirrors, marble all over the place, spacious showers, and over-sized soaking tubs. You can even soak in the tub and look out at the skyline. And the place is so quiet, you’d never know that you were right in the middle of the Old City. There’s a swimming pool on the roof with spectacular views.  And during the summer the pool is heated.

The hotel’s restaurant is a good place to begin eating your way through Munich. The executive chef prepared a five-course meal of traditional Bavarian foods updated for a city restaurant.

He started with a plate of sliced beets and apples with a balsamic vinaigrette.  The second course was beef consommé with chanterelle mushrooms and dumplings made from pretzels.  That was followed by panfried catfish with celeriac sauce.  Then medallions of beef in a dill sauce, topped with horseradish butter... and for dessert, a strudel of mango with a lime and vanilla sauce.

A tour of what’s good to eat in Munich should also include a visit to the outdoor food market. This may be the spot where Munich began over a thousand years ago when a group of Benedictine monks founded a monastery nearby. Many of the present-day stalls have been in the same family for generations. The square feels like a village marketplace, a gathering spot for hanging out, as well as eating and shopping.

A few blocks away is St. Michael’s Church. Its construction began in 1583. When it was finished it turned out to be the largest Renaissance church built outside of Italy, and the cost of the project almost bankrupt the government.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In order to find a source of new revenue, the chief accountant for the Duke of Bavaria suggested that instead of buying beer from an out-of-state brewery, a royal brewery be set up right in Munich. And it was a great idea --  kept all the cash in town and resulted in the introduction of the first Hofbrauhaus.

The beer is served in a liter mug called a mass. If you are the designated driver you might skip the mass and have a radler, which was designed for people going about on bicycles. It’s half beer and half lemonade.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Along with the beer you should have a sausage. The German word for sausage is wurst. And there are dozens of different kinds of wursts in German cooking. But the people of Munich think that the best of the wurst is a white sausage called weisswurst.

Locals think that the place to have it is Franziskaner, where the rules of weisswurst eating are carefully followed. First of all, weisswurst is morning food. Anyone ordering weisswurst past noon is committing a serious faux pas -- one of the wurst. The meat is removed from the casing in what could easily be considered a surgical procedure. Then, for better or wurst, it’s dipped in sweet mustard, and taken with a pretzel and a wheat beer.

When you toast with a regular beer you clink glasses with a full broadside. Wheat beer toasting, however, uses only the base of the glass.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): And there’s a bit of protocol around the pretzel, too. Munich is the center of pretzel mania. Pretzel folklore says that they were developed by German monks as a symbol of hands praying, and given to people to remind them of the importance of prayer. The word “pretzel” comes from a Latin word meaning “little arms.”

In Munich pretzels are found everywhere and at all times. Usually they are presented as a bread in a basket rather than as a snack. At the end of the meal the waitress will ask you how many you ate and you will be  charged accordingly. If you visit Munich, remember to keep track of your pretzel intake. There’s a question period at the end of the meal. 

Other Bavarian specialties include a liver cheese, which is a little strange since it doesn’t contain any liver or any cheese. It’s actually a form of meatloaf that tastes like bologna. Then there’s a plate of five or six different sausages served with sauerkraut and potatoes.  Another classic is roast pork with cabbage and dumplings... a homemade pasta with melted cheese and onion... There are also mushrooms in a cream sauce served over giant dumplings... and pork’s knuckle, a very traditional Bavarian dish.  And for dessert, Kaiserschmarrn -- kind of a scrambled pancake with almonds and raisins and applesauce served on the side. Big food for big appetites, and quite frankly, all of it’s worth the calories.

Munich is also the home of the high performance automobile, and a number of manufacturers offer a purchase option known as a European Delivery Plan, which can be quite valuable for a tourist.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I’m gonna test drive the plan with a BMW. You order whatever car you like in the United States, pick it up in Munich, and head off on your European vacation. Depending on how you work out the plan you can save up to seven percent of the U.S. cost of the car. And there are additional savings during your holiday.  There will be no costs for planes, trains, taxis or buses.  And if you have two or more people travelling together, those costs can really add up.

The dealers in the States handle all the paperwork for the insurance and registration. They’ll also make arrangements for shipping your new car back to the U.S. after your holiday.  Just head into the Munich delivery center and get your official introduction.

You can also schedule a visit to the Munich factory and see how the cars are made.

The BMW Museum is also nearby. It illustrates the history of transportation technology through five generations. The company started as a manufacturer of airplane engines. The logo represents the propeller. The museum presents the story of the consumer automobile as well as the racing automobile. And along with the cars they have some of the oldest and some of the newest motorcycles.

Of course, what you’ve really come here for is the car.  It arrives in the delivery area, and before you take off, you get a complete briefing on every aspect... sort of a hands-on instruction manual.

BURT WOLF:   All right, what do I need to know?

BERNHARD HAUSMANINGER:  Is it your first BMW?  That’s my first question to you...

BURT WOLF:   Yes.  It isn’t even mine, I’m only borrowing it.

And now, once you are suitably informed, it’s time to take the top down, buckle up, and hit the road.

BURT WOLF:   I’m outa here.

The part of Bavaria I’m heading to is about fifty miles southeast of Munich. And part of the trip is on the Autobahn.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Autobahn is a major German highway system that was designed with high precision automobiles in mind. There are large parts of it without any speed limit at all.  It’s a place to find a balance between your own driving skills and the technology of the car. This car was designed to do up to 150 miles an hour... and here it is perfectly legal. 

Long before the New World was added to the map, the roads of Europe were well-known highways for traders and troops. Many of the roads were built by the Romans, and many of the original routes are still in use. Driving these roads will show you Europe in a way that most tourists never see.

You set up an itinerary tailored to your specific interests and time schedule.  For example, you could base a tour on the Romantic Roads of Bavaria... stopping off at medieval castles... or you could pay a visit to a gilded palace right out of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm... or drive through the charming villages of Bavaria -- the settings for some of the great romantic stories of European literature.

Virtually every village has a Maypole. The cutouts on the pole present the occupations and favorite pastimes of the townspeople. A century’s-old custom calls for the villagers to go out into the forest in January and find the finest spruce tree, cut it down and guard it day and night until May 1st, when it is erected in the center of the town. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The reason for the guards is to protect the Maypole from being stolen by a neighboring village. If that happens, the pole has to be ransomed, and some of the ransoms can get pretty bizarre.  A recent ransom consisted of 120 liters of beer, plus forty servings of roast pork with cabbage and dumplings. The folklore around the Maypole says that if you live within sight of the Maypole you will be protected from evil spirits and have lots of good luck.

You can also base a driving tour on the Garden Roads, which will show you the horticultural centers of Europe.  Or chart a course based on good eating that will transport you from one great restaurant to another.  Or base your trip on the Mountain Roads... serpentine strips... deep passes... beautiful scenery... and routes designed to challenge your driving skill.

The first production cars started coming off assembly lines just over a hundred years ago, and since then they have changed the world. We could easily look back at the 20th Century and describe it as “The Age of the Automobile.”

The automobile was one of the first high-priced products for the mass market. Most people didn’t have the money to buy one. So the automobile manufacturers developed installment purchasing. And for the first time, it became acceptable, even fashionable for the average person to go into debt.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The gasoline companies introduced credit cards for the purchase of their products, so you could increase your indebtedness at many points along the road. And how we used and misused our automobiles stimulated the growth of the insurance companies.

The automobile also changed the economics of real estate. Land that had been too far away from cities to be valuable soon became high-priced because the automobile made these places accessible. Welcome to the suburbs.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The automobile brought us the motel, fast food restaurants, the drive-up shopping mall and the drive-up bank.  As a matter of fact, it brought us the drive-up everything.

The world became laced with highways.  The cities changed their shape to accommodate the needs of the car and the driver.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The automobile on the open road created a more open society. Teenagers in love, previously confined to the front porch, suddenly discovered an ideal spot for the rituals of mating.

The automobile even affected our DNA and changed the genetic pool. In the past, most marriages took place between people who lived within walking distance.  Since the introduction of the car, people have been courting over hundreds of miles.

For many people the car is an extension of their desire for power, adventure and romance. But lots of real power, adventure and romance can involve lots of real danger. We may want to experience the edge of life like our heroes, but most of us don’t want to experience the risks.

Manufacturers know that -- and they are, in their own way, trying to help. They offer us objects that represent the experience. Now we can skip the peril and just purchase the product. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Can’t make this year’s climb on Mount Everest? Well... wear the boots. Missed your opportunity to learn how to fly a jet plane? Get the watch. And if we can’t live like James Bond, well, at least we can drive his car.

The way the product is advertised stamps it with an image. And when we buy that product, we stamp the image on ourselves.

Most of the time the automobile only gets to live out its image in advertising, but the European Delivery Plan is at least one way to buy a car and get a fair shot at living out the dream of performance, adventure and romance, surrounded by some of Europe’s most beautiful scenery.

Chiemsee is a lake. It’s the largest lake in the district of Chiemgau, and known as the Bavarian Sea. There are a number of islands in the lake which can be visited with a tour boat that runs up and back throughout the day.  For me, the most interesting of the islands is Herrenchiemsee... the home of one of the most unusual palaces in Europe.

In the middle of the 1800s, Ludwig the Second became King of Bavaria. But Ludwig was not into power or politics. His thing was palaces. And while his money lasted he built some beauties. This was the last of his palaces. It’s called Herrenchiemsee.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Ludwig had visited the palace of Versailles just outside of Paris and Herrenchiemsee was his version of Versailles.

Sandra Moder is one of the guides and she took me on a tour of the palace.

SANDRA MODER:  So this is the main entrance of the palace.  Herrenchiemsee Palace was built by King Ludwig the Second of Bavaria from 1878 to 1885.  Seven years is a very short time to build a palace like this, and you can probably imagine that the whole palace could not be finished in only seven years.  So only twenty out of seventy rooms are finished, fifty are unfinished.

BURT WOLF:   Seventy rooms, twenty finished, fifty unfinished.


BURT WOLF:   Why is that?

SANDRA MODER:  That’s because the king ran out of money; he had two other palaces built before, and so the king simply ran out of money in 1885, one year before he died, and so they had to stop building.

BURT WOLF:   I’m glad to see that somebody else is bad with budgets.

SANDRA MODER:  And you can see sixteen different kinds of marble in here.  There are more than forty different kinds in the whole palace, but only the floor, the stairs, and the fountain are made of real marble.  And everything else that you can see on the walls -- that is fake.  And you can see on the doors, that is just gold paint, because there are only about nine pounds of real gold in the whole palace.  So almost everything that you can see on the doors and the walls -- that’s only gold paint. . . .  Well, this is the “Table Which Sets Itself...”

BURT WOLF:   “The Table That Sets Itself”?


BURT WOLF:   Okayyy...

SANDRA MODER:  ...because underneath this table there’s a huge construction made of iron, so you can lower the whole table down there.  The servants were supposed to set it there, and they would bring it back up here so that King Ludwig the Second, [who] was a very shy person, could have dinner here all by himself without being disturbed by anybody or having any servants around him.

BURT WOLF:   Amazing.

SANDRA MODER: So this is the king’s bathtub, totally made of marble.  It is twenty-one feet wide, almost six feet deep, and they’d fill about sixty thousand liters of water in it.  The water was supposed to be pumped in there from the lake, and then was supposed to be heated by steam from underneath. . . .  Now this is one of the fifty unfinished rooms of the palace.  It was supposed to look just like the so-called State Staircase that you saw before; the only difference is that this was supposed to be the private entrance, just for the king, while he wanted to receive all his guests in the first one.  But unfortunately he ran out of money, as you can see.

This palace was built as a memorial to Louis XIV, king of France, who was the symbol of absolute monarchy. But those days had come to an end.  Ludwig, however, built this castle dreaming of those old days, of a time when it was good to be King. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And I am dreaming of the open road. Freedom, adventure, romance... And I hope you will be joining me as we hit the road next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.