Bavaria’s largest city is peppered with modern architecture yet immersed deeply in tradition. Chris Beanland discovers a multifaceted Munich that melts into bucolic fields and acres of rolling greenery...
A mix of the old and new gives Munich character.
There’s something a little different about Bavaria, something you can’t quite put your finger on. Maybe it’s the local dialect, the strange leather trousers the locals are known to wear, or the singular blue and white flag that seems to symbolise not just a free state of Federal Germany but another country?
Bavaria – like the UAE in a way – is also a mix of deeply traditional and hyper-modern. There’s a lot of churches and a lot of freeways and tall buildings. It’s this interesting mix of old and new that really defines Bavaria, and especially its capital. Munich is a sprawling city, but beyond it lie bucolic fields and kilometres of rolling greenery.
Bavaria’s biggest city seems to always be bathed in warm sunshine. Its citizens sit on terraces, sipping drinks and eating gourmet food. It’s a rich, clean, safe and friendly place. In Munich’s centre lies the chocolate box Germany you’ve already heard about – Marienplatz with its Old and New Town Halls, each decorated elaborately. The New Town Hall is the most fun because it has a glockenspiel that marks 11am every day with a flourish – a mechanical display of dancing knights and jesters parade around while bells ring and cocks crow.
Marienplatz was also the spot where a less savoury but no less
flamboyant display took place in the run-up to the SecondWorld War – this was where Hitler tried to stage a coup in 1923. Bavaria, understandably, has tried to forget that the Nazi party’s origins lay here. But you can’t ignore the end results of terror, and nor should you. A quick ride out of Munich by the S-Bahn brings you to Dachau, one of the first concentration camps. Walking around in eerie silence is as sobering as it is terrifying – contemplating evil is essential to extinguishing it.
Modern Munich is thankfully a much more tolerant place, though a number of tragedies have stalked it too. You can pay homage to the Busby Babes – the great generation of Manchester United football players who perished in the Munich Air Crash of 1958 – at Manchesterplatz, where a memorial sits. And in the Olympic Park there’s a memorial to the athletes killed during the 1972 Olympic hostage crisis. The Park is one of Munich’s greatest spaces – it’s all public. A huge space you can just explore at will. The Olympiaturm, the huge tower at its centre, looms up. Go to the top and you can get a marvellous view over the city.
One of the buildings you can spy on from up there in the sky is the BMWHeadquarters. BMWis a Munich company through and through (the BMWcar badges wear Bavaria’s blue and white colours). And petrolheads will enjoy the BMWWelt and company museum next to the HQ. It’s all very 70s – the dystopian movie
Rollerball was shot here – perhaps because, as well as looking cool and futuristic, there’s also something a bit sinister and domineering about some of these corporate buildings – like BMWWelt, which is cast as the HQ of the all-powerful Energy Corporation in the film.
Cars went on to define modern Germany, and nowhere has more autobahns filled with more BMWs than Munich. This is the German Alphaville, its streets filled with Teutonic cars that are always clean and never dented. And similar to the
Plush restaurants cater to affluent young things who head out on Friday nights after a hard week at work
precision BMWs are designed with, Munich loves its good design too.
In the new breed of design hotels such as the Cortiina and the Louis, sober and tasteful modern decor creates a luxurious backdrop. It’s all completely different to the wood-panelled stereotypes you might imagine. Modern Munich is flush with cash – incomes here are high. Plush restaurants such as the Brenner cater to affluent young things who head out on Friday nights after a hard week at the office.
Munich likes to relax – whether it’s playing sport at the Olympic Park or strolling through the English Garden – one of the largest urban parks I’ve ever explored – or splashing around at the Therme Erding waterpark and spa on the city’s outskirts (one of the largest such watery kingdoms in the world).
Therme Erding is remarkable for being a huge mistake – oil companies thought they’d found a new source of black gold outside the cutesy little town of Erding, but instead hit a mineral spring – and this hugely popular waterworld opened up. With its glass domes it looks like a space station implausibly perched among meadows filled with mooing cows.
You might notice a theme regarding size recurring here too – Munich likes it big. New skyscrapers are dotted all around the city, and the U-Bahn system, created from scratch in the 1960s, is one of the most sprawling on earth. Munich has muscle – and self-belief. Maybe that comes from its feeling that it should really be a capital city of its own country?
And if it was a capital city then what of its country? The outskirts of Munich blend so gently into the Bavarian landscape – the green country warmly embraces the city. The gap between urban and rural gently merges. It’s very pleasant to stroll or cycle along paths and lanes at this crossover point, and even to travel on the S-Bahn trains that ply between city and country, offering views of rail yards one second, small towns squares the next, and then rolling green vistas.
The emerald fields and the low golden hills are joyous on summer days when the light is good. This liminal hinterland doesn’t have the romance of Provence or the bravado of the Alps, which lie just away to the south, but in its own way it is a pleasing and very comforting landscape of flowers and trees.
The Museum für Konkrete Kunst in a former army barracks in Ingoldstadt is one of Germany’s most
remarkable museum and gallery spaces – dedicated to the muchmaligned influence of concrete on artists. There’s video art, a sculpture garden and architectural exhibits that will blow your mind. At the moment this place is hardly visited, but that will all change when Vienna’s Querkraft Architekten builds a new extension to the museum, which is scheduled to open in 2017.
Back in Munich there’s more eye-opening architecture to keep your senses sharp. The Allianz Arena, home to footballing powerhouse Bayern Munich, is so futuristic it could be a spaceship – especially when it lights up at night in different colours. And yet Herzog and de Meuron’s design, on closer inspection, is organic. It’s a living thing. Nature and technology united again – Bavaria’s calling card.
On the northern outskirts of the city, Munich’s huge airport, which was opened only in the 1990s, also fuses those two things. They may have had to erase a couple of unlucky Bavarian villages to build the thing, but the airport sits neatly in its landscaping. It seems quiet and relaxed – you can sit on the primped and preened lawns outside the Kempinksi – one of the nicest airport hotels you could ask for – and have a picnic. At the spotter’s park there’s a huge man-made hill the like of which I’ve never seen at an airport anywhere on earth. And from the top of this mini-mountain eager young plane spotters can watch the traffic.
The best bit ofMunich’s airport is Lufthansa’s Terminal 2 – an extension to which is being built. The terminal is one of the sleekest and calmest there is. The beauty, cleanliness, light and swagger is nothing special for Asia, but among European airport terminals, this is the bee’s knees. Anyone lucky enough to be flying on good old Lufthansa – the terminal is the airline’s secondary hub after Frankfurt – will also be lucky enough to wait for their flight in the utmost comfort, enjoying free cups of coffee and newspapers to boot.
As you fly away above Munich the city forms into shapes that recall the leaves on trees – the streets as the veins. It looks like it all just happened by chance rather than by the hand of man. Which is funny in this most technologically advanced city.
It’s not easy to mix natural and man-made, traditional and modern. But Bavaria – and especially Munich – pulls off this trick with style.
Nymphenburg Palace is a tourist hotspot
The Olympiaturm offers glorious views of the city
Allianz Arena is an example of a football stadium of the future
The ghostly concentration camp at Dachau
This placard honours the victims of the Munich air crash of 1958
Petrolheads will love the magnificent BMWWelt
The Brenner restaurant caters to the elite traveller
The modern architecture of the metro station is stunning
Grand buildings such as Bayerische Staatskanzlei contrast with the more futuristic architecture
The Old Town Hall in Munich has an eventful history
The Chinese Tower is a venue for food, parties and Christmas markets
The New Town Hall houses Munich’s famous glockenspiel