When I think of Germany, I think of cars, I think of discipline, I think of science and technology, I think of…oh, all sorts of unromantic things that aren’t exactly the stuff of travel dreams. I found myself in Munich only because my companion wanted to visit at least one German city during our European trip, and Amsterdam-Munich-Rome via City Night Line sleeper trains appealed to the rail enthusiast in me. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the Munich stop but thought: why not?
My first indication that Germany wasn’t going to be quite what I expected it to be was when the CNL night train arrived at Amsterdam Centraal 30 minutes late. A German train…on Filipino time. Imagine that!
But I should have known, really. I’d forgotten that this land of precision and efficiency is also the land of fairy tales, home to both Max Planck and the brothers Grimm, to discipline and drunken revelry. This contradictory German duality was especially evident in Munich.
München, as it is locally known, is the richest city in Germany, with an exceptionally high standard of living, and is home to such giant companies as BMW, Siemens and Allianz. It is also home to the Frauenkirche, the seat of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, administered once upon a time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI. Bavaria, the German state of which Munich is the capital, is predominantly Roman Catholic, and on Sundays, religion trumps economics: most commercial establishments remain closed on the Lord’s Day.
The path we took from Munich Central Station to the Marienplatz was at once magical and mercantile, imposing and homey. We went through a castle-like archway and walked along Neuhauser Strasse, Munich’s main shopping street. Large trees, their leaves winter brown, marked the middle of the road; at night, Christmas lights lent the place a fairy-tale glow. The architecture all around us was impressive and almost intimidating, but the warm yellow light and occasional steam coming from stalls selling chestnuts, fruits and various sorts of comfort food made the atmosphere remarkably cozy.
I loved it.
On the advice of a Dutch backpacker we met over breakfast at our hostel, we joined a half-day tour that started at the Marienplatz and explored places of interest around the city center. We craned our necks in fascination as the puppets of the Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) glockenspiel performed the same play they have been performing for centuries. We stood at the Odeonsplatz and gazed thoughtfully down the square, imagining the Nazi soldiers who once stood there, arms outstretched in stiff salute. We popped by the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, a world-renowned beer hall, and discussed the different types of beer in the city, including which one was particularly favored by the former Pope. We entered various churches: the Frauenkirche, Theatinerkirche, Michaeliskirche – where we heard Mass later that day – and Peterskirche. The latter had a tower, the Alter Peter, which we climbed after the tour for a magnificent view of the city. And finally: the Viktualienmarkt, where we wolfed down heavenly German sausages chased by a pint of ice-cold beer.
As always, there was still so much to see and simply no time to see them all. We found ourselves, too soon, back in Central Station, waiting for the night train to Rome. As I bought a buttery pretzel for the journey, I remembered how unenthusiastic I’d been at the prospect of visiting Munich. The regret I felt then at leaving so much of the city unexplored was perhaps only fittingly contradictory.
© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. An earlier version of this post was published in this blog last April 2014.