17 September 2012

Old Munich is a bit lovely

The hop from Salzburg to Munich was quick and easy.

I opted for the slightly slower train, it takes two hours rather than one and a half, because I welcomed the down-time to listen to podcasts etc., it was cheaper and it could be made on a travel card that gave me free rein on public transport in Munich for the rest of the day.

Having found the hotel and dumped my stuff there I headed back to the station to catch a tram to the town centre. It was only a few hundred meters away but the tram was free and I wanted to save my energy for exploring the city. And I love trams.

The tram dropped me off at Karlsplatz, one of the main gates to the city. The approach to the gate and the wide avenue beyond it is pedestrianised which is always welcome. London could do more of that.

Like most Old Towns, the centre of Munich is basically circular but unusually the circle lies a little distant from the river rather than encompassing it.

Following the pedestrian thoroughfare for about 500m brings you to the centre, Marienplatz. This is a large square one side of which is filled with the ludicrously ornate Neues Rathaus. The grandeur of a city's main municipal building is a reliable indicator of its former status and the condition of the building shows you its current status. Munich scores well on both counts.

It is easy to forget that this is not all Old Munich, even a lot of the bits that look old are not. Munich suffered heavily in the war and the rebuilding has often been done in sympathy with what was there before.

For me, none of that mattered. I was interested in what the buildings looked like and did not mind that some of the old looking things were actually new, just as long as that old look was pretty.

Gdansk has adopted the same approach with, arguably, even greater success.

The city centre is beautifully stuffed full of attractive buildings with pointy towers, painted walls, statues and other such flippancy.

The city centre, as you would expect, also houses several other grand buildings, such at the national theatre and a collection of churches, but none looks quite as impressive (from the outside) as the Rathaus.

The lesser buildings and the lanes they live in are rich with charm too.

I had a plan for exploring the city, the route was marked on the mini-map supplied by the hotel (I had to pay 40c at Tourist Information to get a proper one), but I was frequently deflected by siren calls from prettier places.

A large part of the centre is either completely free of traffic or has priority for pedestrians so it is easy to get around and to be tempted off the main routes.

I am always going to be interested in heading in to narrow lanes that turn quickly to hide their secrets and in to covered passages that have burrowed their way through the buildings.

This was a Monday afternoon and the city was busy. There are lots of shops there, mainly aimed at the locals with only a few targeting tourists and none of these doing so in a garish English way. No kiss-me-quick hats here.

For some reason Germans touch statues for luck.

I first learnt about this last year in Bremen where the hooves of the donkey who is one of the three Town Musicians of Bremen, were rubbed bright by the constant attention that they got.

I thought that this custom was unique to that statue in Bremen until I saw a tell-tale patch on one of the statues in the town square and watched a young man brushing it casually but deliberately as he walked past.

Then I saw this statue of Julia (Shakespeare's Juliet and a gift from Verona). This is also rubbed frequently and I'll let you judge where. She looks rather upset about it.

There are plenty of cafes that spill out on to the streets so I was able to rest, drink and savour the city all at the same time. Eventually though I longer rest was required and I took a random tram out of town to a random stop.

Well, not entirely random. The tram map at the stop showed a stop with the word schloss (palace) in it so I thought that I would head there. How right I was.

Nymphenburg Palace is mental in so many good ways.

The main building, shown here, is not that large or even that impressive. What is astonishingly impressive is the totality of the palace and the grounds that surround it.

The palace stretches for around 200m each side of the central building with a large complex at each end. It then curves in a semi-circle around the front lawns and lake.

Simple maths show that the palace is something like 800m long. That's big.

And the palace grounds are sized accordingly, stretching back behind the main building for 1.5km.

It's about three times the size of Greenwich Park.

I was just awestruck by the size of the place made all the more dramatic by having few people in it as it was closing for the evening just as the sun set. The tranquillity, dusk and vast open space combined to make a very special moment. And in a city too.

All that was left to do was have a leisurely pint in the nearby bar, take the tram back to the centre and grab a cheese roll on the way back to the hotel.

That was my first few hours in Munich and a very satisfying few hours it was too. It was already starting to feel familiar and comfortable like an old pair of socks.

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