Monday, February 2, 2009

München is cuter than Munich

(München is the German name for Munich. It means "Monk" but when pronounced as "Moon-chin" it sounds like a name for your new kitten.)

I visited Munich once before for Oktoberfest, but that excursion was more about finding the fair grounds – and beer - than exploring the cultural offerings of Bavaria’s capital city. This time, instead of staying on the outskirts of town in a tent city, Carolyn and I found a place in the city proper, near the train station and city center called the Hotel Daheim. With map in hand, we left the massive central train station and headed to the hotel to drop off our luggage.

The Hotel Daheim is surrounded by a half-dozen other hotels and just as many “gentlemen’s” clubs and döner kebab stands. Not a place to stay with the kids, but its location was hard to beat. The hotel itself was surprisingly clean with recently retiled floors and a massive wooden spiral staircase tenuously held together by scaffolding. The room was small, but not cramped and came complete with a shelf-like balcony and a small TV. I don’t own a TV and I welcome every opportunity to turn one on to figure out what entertains the Teutonic mind.

The best feature was the requisite stock art. Hotel and motel rooms that I have experienced usually feature uninspired depictions of lighthouses, flowers, or abstraction. The Hotel Daheim featured a portrait.

Over the two beds hung this image of a 50s pin-up as a coy gypsy girl. The picture was so out of sync with the room’s other simple, Ikea furniture that you couldn’t help but wonder who thought it was a good idea:

Hotel Owner: Well, we have everything we need to open this place to paying customers.

Hotel Manager: Don’t we need art on the walls, or something?

Hotel Owner: Crap, you’re right. Where can we get 30 things in frames? I don't really care what they look like, it just needs to be there or we won't be taken seriously by Rick Steves and Lonely Planet.

Hotel Clerk: Well, my Uncle Hans is an artist. Nobody buys his stuff so he has a bunch of it just sitting around his garage. I think people avoid his work ‘cause his favorite model is Betty Boop

Hotel Owner: That doesn’t matter, no one looks at the stuff on the walls anyway. I’ll give him 50 Euros if he can get it here by Tuesday.

On the phone:

Hotel Clerk: Hey Uncle Hans, good news! You can finally empty your garage…Yeah, the hotel will take it all for 50…Yeah, I’ll make sure “Esmeralda”, your Mona Lisa, is proudly displayed…Yes, I’m sure it will be appreciated and savored by everyone at the Hotel Daheim…No, I don’t think anyone will ever make fun of it on the Internet.

Uncle Hans's masterpiece. I'm not sure how to say "Come hither" in Roma.

The rest of our day was spent orienting ourselves in the Old Town. Cars aren’t allowed to drive though most of the shopping and eating district, leaving wide avenues for people to window shop and wander to the churches and museums. The car ban was instituted during the reconstruction efforts after WWII. Hitler first got the National Socialist ball rolling in the beer halls of Munich, and the city was a Nazi political stronghold. This made it a magnet for Allied bombing raids. However, the city was able to rebuild itself, debuting the restored city for the 1972 Olympics.

Entry gate to the Altstadt and shopping district. Public art prominently displayed in the center.

Outside the Bavarian hunting museum. Carolyn and I now believe massive catfish should be prominently featured in all trendy shopping districts.

Munich city hall gargling.

The Neo-Gothic city hall stands on a large town square called the Marienplatz. In each direction there are gorgeous churches to explore. One of the great advantages of European churches, is that they are all historic art museums, displaying frescoes from the 12th century and canvases from the 17th. Unlike traditional museums, they stay open late and are usually free to enter. Carolyn and I went on a church-tour binge visiting Frauenkirche, Peterskirche, and Michaelskirche. Frauenkirche is a cathedral and seat of the Archbishopric of Munich-Freising. In the late 70s and early 80s, Joseph Ratzinger was the Archbishop. Now he’s know as Pope Benedict XVI. The twin towers of the Frauenkirche dominate the Marienplatz.
Frauenkirche under construction. I don't think there is a church in Europe that isn't slathered in scaffolding.

Peterkirche: Okay, we'll just call this the exception (to my above statement) that proves the rule.

Interior of Peterskirche. The apostles line the wall - including St. Bartholemew with his skin - and the ornate alter dominates the nave. A Greek tourist started asking me questions in German. He misunderstood my confusion about what he was saying through a thick accent as confusion about his word choice. He whipped out his guidebook and told me something about the alter and asked if it was the same one his book talked about. Of course it was in Greek. I could confidently tell him "It's all Greek to me" and walk away.
Inside Michaelskirche which was decked out with images of predominately female saints and martyrs. It had a very Girl Power vibe, despite being dedicated to one of the chief saints of chivalry.

Near Peterskirche, the oldest church in the city, is the Viktualienmarkt, a large gourmet farmer's market. We had no idea what we had stumbled upon, but were quickly drawn to the displays of fresh game meat, ripe fruits, and perfect vegetables. There were also massive spice stands, wine merchants and so on. Carolyn was especially excited by the options. I think its safe to predict where she would shop if she became a Münchener.
At the center of Viktualienmarkt square, this pole is a tribute Munich's favorite pasttime: brewing. It's an icon of the city and often imitated by German restaruants in Cincinnati.

Every part of the animal you could ever want to eat, along with every part you wouldn't ever.

Carolyn basking in the glow of fresh produce and pickled veggies.

After examining all that unprepared food, we started to think about dinner. If you’re only in Munich for a short time, you need to try to eat at the Hofbräuhaus, so we dutifully tried to track it down. As one of the most famous beer halls in Germany we figured this would be a simple process. We wandered through the cobble-stoned streets, discovering a city gate hosting “The Largest Feuerzangenbowle in the world” before successfully locating the beer hall.

Feuerzangenbowle is a punch made from mulled wine and rum-soaked sugar. The sugar is set on fire above the wine, dripping into the beverage below. When I first described this process in a previous post, Carolyn mentioned she wanted to try the stuff. Here was our opportunity. I was also excited to have Glühwein one more time before all the stands are packed up for next holiday season.

We had to fight for a spot under one of the stationary heat lamps, elbowing in next to other, larger groups of Germans. I was told before I arrived that Europeans tend to have a smaller conversational comfort zone than Americans, and I shouldn’t be weirded out if someone tried to speak to me from less than an arms-length away.

I have not found this to be the case. I know Mediterranean cultures tend to speak closely, and I wonder if the warning I was given originated from someone who studied abroad in Spain and made a generalization about all Europeans based on their Spanish buddies. Germans don’t like to crowd together. On a packed bus or tram, there is usually a reluctance to pack in even if it is obvious there’s room for everyone trying to get on. Carolyn and I experienced this reluctance to huddle together, as we searched for heat, getting shouldered out repeatedly.

When the wine was downed, we finally set off in the right direction for the Hofbräuhaus. There was a lines forming at the doors, blocked by three official security personnel and a rope across the doors. No one seemed to be moving. We fell into line because we’re Americans and lines are comforting to us. As we stood there, no one seemed to be going in. The tables inside looked packed and cheerful, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of room. Some customers and families left through the exit, but no one from the line was allowed through to fill the new void. We waited and got antsy. I had a brief, traumatic flash-back to blockaded doors at Oktoberfest. Just as we were considering abandoning the cause, the rope was suddenly dropped and herd swept through the doors and into the restaurant.

The interior of the Hofbräuhaus is covered in wooden paneling and plaster. High, vaulted ceilings are painted with symbols of Bavaria and lanterns illuminate the scene complete with Oompah bands and hundreds of liters of beer. It’s a very homey place, if you can get a seat. Every bench and chair was occupied, so the mass we entered with flowed up the stairs, hoping for seating in another room or on a different floor. Groups branched off, but we continued in lemming-like fashion thinking there must be space if we were all allowed through the doors in the first place. Moving along a quiet corridor, we suddenly found ourselves in a subdued restaurant. It was still sporting the Hofbräu logo, but the clientele was lit with candles. A peeved Frau shooed us towards another door that lead to a stairwell. The stairs terminated at the exit with no other options. She stared at us as we took stock of the situation. Should we/Could we challenge her authority? I tried to explain our situation in German. I knew she probably spoke English, but hoped the German attempt might earn us some sympathy and seating advice.

In English she simply barked, “There is no room!” and turned on her heel, confident we would leave. Instead, Carolyn and I charged. Blowing back through the restaurant, trying to avoid the Frau, we wound up back in the main hall and started threading our way through the wooden tables, searching for two empty places. Rounding a corner near a group of authentic Münchener men sporting green hats and lederhosen, we spotted a table that only supported three other customers. We rushed to it and Carolyn asked, “Are those places available?” The three students nodded "yes", and we slid into our seats before anyone stole our new-found treasure from us, or the Frau managed to track us down.

I was hoping our table companions would be welcoming of our presence. I’ve heard stories of tourists bonding over drinks at a shared bench. But these guys didn’t reach out to us. They were too German. Instead of chatting, they begrudgingly handed a menu down the table to us and sized us up apparently bemused by what they saw. Carolyn ordered the house wheat beer and I ordered the Dunkel, dark beer described as the “original Bavarian beer.”

Our order sent our German companions into an active discussion. Speaking in their normal voices, they observed that Carolyn was drinking a girly beer and that I wouldn’t be able to finish mine because I would find it too bitter. I wanted to shut them down, but enjoyed the opportunity to eavesdrop. Our beer arrived and their conversation stopped. They raised their glasses with a “Prost!” and watched me take a sip. I did and found it incredibly smooth and actually pretty sweet. They discussed my facial expression and speculated I must be from Ireland because I seemed to like it. They preferred kölsch, a beer only found in Cologne and Bonn, so I knew where they were from.

Eventually two of them got up to use the restroom and I took the opportunity to practice my German with the remaining student, revealing my hand. “Are you from Cologne?” I asked in German. He was a little confused by my language choice, “Uh, yeah, originally, but now I got the University of Bonn.” “Really? I live in Bonn as well.” He was still confused by what was happening. “Yeah, I’m doing research there. I arrived in October and will return home in August.” “Where do you come from? Are you Irish?” “No, I’m from the U.S. So is she (indicating Carolyn). She’s my girlfriend. She’s visiting for Christmas and New Years.” His companions returned and raised their glasses with us. This time we felt more like companions than curiosities. Our food also arrived, spätzle (egg noodles) for Carolyn and Haxe (Pork knuckle) for me.

For a second round, Carolyn decided to show the Bonners she was made of solid stuff, by ordering a Hofbräu lager instead of the sweeter wheat. It’s only served by the liter, so I helped her finish it off. She only has so much body mass to work with. Proudly we snapped this shot of our massive glasses:

We then got up, took one more tour of the restaurant at a more leisurely pace because we didn’t have to fight for an open spot. We listened to the band, checked out the store and hit the street in search of Weißes Bräuhaus, the oldest wheat brewery in the city. It wasn’t clearly marked on our map, but we knew it was in the area because Rick Steves said so.
If you want your German stereotypes perpetuated, just head to the Hofbräuhaus.

As we stared at the guidebook and map, a helpful German approached and asked what we were looking for. We showed her our various documents and she called a friend over to help her think. He didn’t know where the place was, but pointed out the closed beer museum nearby. Thanking them for the unnecessary information, we gave up, deciding we would find another bar. As we walked up the street we saw the main street veered right and changed names, and there was our restaurant.

The same flush of discovery we had when we found free seats in the Hofbräuhaus washed over us and we entered. There were plenty of open tables and booths and we were shown to a spot in the corner. The other clientele seemed to be older than 40 and a little suspicious of our late arrival and youthful faces. After Carolyn and I sat and ordered our desert and beer without raising our voices, we were deemed acceptable.

After a long day with an early start, it was time to walk through the Marienplatz and head back to the hotel where Esmeralda was waiting to tuck us in.

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