I’ve had a hankering to return to Munich, ever since my ex-husband Don, missed the autobahn turn off, on our first jaunt through Germany and refused to turn round. He said there was too much traffic. Getting there today from Liechtenstein isn’t going to be easy. Munich from Vaduz and then back down to Andorra before returning, eventually, to Germany isn’t the most obvious routing, but my hotel in Munich is non refundable, so I’m fitting things round those dates. Austria won’t allow the English in at the moment (thanks Boris) so I can’t take the obvious connections, through Kufstein or Innsbruck, and I’m having to travel via Zurich and Stuttgart instead. There’s a bus from Zurich that I was considering, but I discovered that this clips the corner of Austria too, by Lake Konstanz and I don’t want to risk being thrown into quarantine for two weeks.
At Zurich there is a large sign saying ‘Zurich to München in 3.5 hours. In 2021. It’s going to take me just under six hours from here. And we’re travelling at over 200 kilometres an hour for much of the time. But it’s much more comfortable travelling on trains that are half empty. I can swap seats when the train unexpectedly swaps direction, shunting out of a station.
Through pretty spruce covered hills, villages of steep roofed houses with onion domed churches and an intermittent 4G signal. North, towards Stuttgart the land flattens out. Stuttgart is very different from my experiences so far. The station is packed with people crammed sardine-like onto the platforms. They have Rauchen areas where the smokers puff away, masks discarded. The station is scruffy and the train is nine minutes late departing.
Out of Stuttgart it's terraced vines, castles with pointy turrets and a variety of churches in an assortment of colours, all with intricately decorated towers. For a few minutes we follow the Danube as it traverses Germany from its source in the southwest of the country.
I'm following a self guided tour which takes me under a cream arched and crenellated gate and into the Altstadt - old town.
It’s not a great start- the first two items on the list, the St Michael's Church and the famous double towered cathedral, the Frauenkirche, are both under renovation and surrounded by cranes and barricades. But the sun has come out and the several churches, fountain and intricate tracery on the town hall in the nearby Marienplatz are shown off to their best advantage. There’s an ornate glockenspiel on the facade of the Town Hall (Rathaus) and revolving figures appear and play it three times a day.
There are countless huge halls of varying kinds. Museums, old palaces (the Residenz complex is enormous), memorials, theatres and the beer halls of course. Munich is world renowned for its Oktoberfest, the world’s biggest folk (read beer) festival. Despite its name, Oktoberfest actually starts in the last week of September and officially dates back to 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig threw a party to celebrate his wedding to Princess Terese on October 12. There are also long streets of shops with some very swish department stores. Much the best place to go to the toilet.
The English Garden is a large, very pleasant area with some tree filled meadow (think Bushy Park), small hills bearing neoclassical follies, a Japanese tea house, a Chinese pagoda and (yes you're reading right), a channel with a wave machine. Crowds gather here to watch the surf dudes, who do well if they stand up for longer than five seconds – it’s a ferocious current.
Lunch is potato salad with enormous beef ribs in the park Biergarten. When in Munich..... Though I'm abstaining from the huge foaming steins of lager. And I have to scan in using my phone at the restaurant and fill in a form with my contact details.
The park and the beer garden are thronging – more people even than in the town. It’s Saturday, and I think the locals are out in force. So, I have to be careful where I’m walking - I’m not used to this, or to trying to avoid people in the wrong place in my photos. But the biggest menace are the bicycles. Munich is full of them: tricycles, groups of folk on tours, hire bikes and parents pushing their children along in attached to the front cars. There are bicycle lanes alongside some of the roads, but no-one pays much heed to those and they weave all over the park paths, cutting swiftly and scarily around the pedestrians.
Munich is big on its music and there are numerous accordion players with their begging bowls. Though sadly no oompah band playing in the Englischer Garten. Maybe it's because of Covid, but there are plenty of people around, many more than I have seen anywhere else so far. Maybe half do not wear masks, except in the shops where it is compulsory. There’s a street stall on the Marienplatz selling patterned face coverings. I've bought one decorated with glittery diamante.
German people I chat to seem surprised I'm allowed here; I hope I'm correct in thinking I am. Individual states make their own decisions.
I've been upgraded again. The hotel I was going to stay at isn’t open yet. Not enough clientele so now I'm in the sister hotel the Marc Munich just up the road. It's very convenient for the station and it's in a North African / Arab quarter with kebab stands, hookah bars gold shops and African barbers. Just like the Edgware Road in London.
The hotel seems very new. It markets itself as trendy - I would just say modern and stylish rather than innovative. The room is just big enough but not everything works. The air conditioning for example does nothing. Maybe it hasn’t been turned on yet.
A bus tour today. There are three contact details forms to fill in on the bus, one for the bus company and one for each palace I’m visiting. And every alternate seat is blocked off, as well as two rows at the front.
Neuschwanstein Castle has long been on my bucket list, so I'm off to see this as well as another of mad King Ludwig’s creations. Except that, according to our guide, Ludwig has been cruelly mislabelled. This King of Bavaria was officially diagnosed as mentally ill towards the end of his nineteenth century reign, but it is now thought that he was simply eccentric and creative, unusually so for his time. The psychiatrist who wrote the damning report had never met him.
Ludwig also refused to marry and broke off an engagement although he was pressed to marry. No wonder he retreated from reality. Even his death at a relatively early age is surrounded in mystery. He drowned along with his doctor, despite being a very good swimmer, the day after he had been certified as insane.
Ludwig was obsessed with Louis XIV, the Sun King and modelled Linderhof Palace after Versailles. Linderhof is tiny ( for a palace), but is the only one of Ludwig’s palaces that he properly inhabited. Its rooms are lavishly decorated and gilded, the walls almost entirely covered with winding curlicues, the ceilings with painted nymphs and gods. Nooks and pedestals filled with Meissen and Sevres china. There’s even a (small) Hall of Mirrors.
The tour is carried out at a gallop, as groups of no more than ten are allowed and we all have to stand on carefully placed spots on the carpets.
With the beautiful backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, cattle grazing on emerald pasture framed by for covered peaks, Oberammergau is the stereotypical alpine village, though perhaps more immaculate and with more cafes, restaurants and wood carvers’ shops than most. The gasthauser are so neat and beautifully presented that you almost feel compelled to enter. The timber chalets have scarlet geranium filled window boxes and many of the walls bear elaborate frescoes. Some are religious of course, in this village of Passion Play fame. Others have scenes from Grimm’s Fairy stories: Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood painted on the walls. Highly appropriate for this fairy tale land.
Local dress is also traditional. Many of the women wear the dirndl skirts. Our guide says that all the Bavarian women have one at home, for festivals.
The semi open air theatre - it's now got a Wembley stadium type roof, stands at the end of the village. You can only take part in the play, which is performed every ten years (postponed to 2022 this year because of Corona virus) if you have lived here for 20 years..
A highlight of today has been the absolutely stunning alpine scenery and Ludwig put Neuschwanstein in the midst of possibly the best views up the mountain, looking across to the lakes and the Alpsee in particular and down to the village of Hohenschwangau, a resort spot with little beaches, on the lake. And yet another castle. You can wait 20 minutes for a shuttle bus that will take you up to view points and a ten minute downhill walk to the castle. Or you can walk up hill for 40 minutes with no views. It’s not really a contest.
There’s another queue, with a fifty minute waiting time if you want the picture postcard view from the Marienbrucke (Mary Bridge). And if you’re travelling solo don’t try and eat in the Hotel Muller restaurant. Despite me being head of the queue the waiter allowed six couples in ahead of me and then told me there were no free tables outside. He offered me the indoor dining room, which was not in use at that time – not set up and no-one in it.
Renowned for its lofty perch and turrets, Neuschwanstein is the castle that Disney used as the model for his Cinderella castle. Perhaps more importantly, it was inspired by Wagner's Parsifal. Ludwig was an admiring patron and friend of Wagner and the relationship resulted in an increased inclination towards romanticism and an amplification of his tendency to identify with medieval heroes. (Wagner however was ejected from Bavaria by the ruling council, the same people who had Ludwig certified -and possibly murdered - it was a constitutional monarchy).
As our guide points out - we are very privileged to tour the castle in groups of ten. It's usually 60. We're also lucky to have tickets. It's booked out for the entire summer.
The style is very different to Linderhof. Here, the rooms are modelled after medieval halls and chapels with vaulted ceilings and huge crown chandeliers. Several of the rooms are themed around Wagner operas Lohengrin (hence the many swans - Neuschwanstein means New Swan on the Rock), Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser and Parsifal of course.
Sadly, there are awful traffic jams on the autobahn as we return to Munich. The whole city seems to have travelled south for the day.
Tomorrow, I set off for Andorra.
Or read more about Germany here.
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