Willkommen in München, the northernmost city in Italy as Munich’s inhabitants proudly declare, and I must admit that they’re not far wrong. There’s an air of lightness here, but not because it’s 1700 feet (519 metres) above sea level and close to the mountains. I’m referring to the rhythm of daily life, to the local Gemütlichkeit, which can be translated as “pleasant idleness”, that so characterises Italy in the world’s imagination. I’m sure you know how much green space there is around Munich, and the city centre itself is not short of a park or several. Although in some ways it resembles the countryside of northern Italy’s Alto Adige, Minga (as the locals call Munich) is a truly cosmopolitan city, with one and a half million inhabitants and growing. It seems that everyone wants to move here, that everyone wants to enjoy some Gemütlichkeit.
Begin your journey in a special and somewhat secret Munich, starting at Wiener Platz (Metro U4 / U5 Max-Weber-Platz). Here you’re in the borough of Haidhausen, also known as the French quarter. You’ll feel as if you really are walking along the streets of Montmartre! Make yourself at home – check out the boutiques, cafés and market stalls. Press on to the red church of St. John the Baptist (St. Johannes Kirche), opposite which you’ll discover a slice of Munich that’ll make you think you’re not in Munich any more. Johannis Café, a tavern that is one-of-a-kind. Since 1925 this small café, which hasn’t changed its furniture since 1955, has been an institution for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Artists, students, bankers, prostitutes, pensioners, drug dealers and wealthy people sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the café’s tables. For an hour or two, they strip themselves of their history and simply become patrons of Olaf Schmidt, a true innkeeper who always has a fresh beer and a good word for everyone.
If you’re still thirsty, there’s no reason to have a dry mouth in Munich. Head to Wiener Platz for a refreshing Russn (Weißbier and lemonade) at Hofbräukeller. This was once a storehouse for beer and, to make sure the beer stayed fresh in the summer, horse chestnuts were planted to create the necessary shade. Although it wasn’t a tavern at the time, the brewers started to serve the precious liquid to passing patrons, who sat beneath the trees. Thus began the tradition and culture of the beer garden, so much so that it can’t be called a Biergarten without horse chestnuts.
Some of you may remember the film “Cocoon”, the story of a group of elderly people a stone’s throw from the afterlife, who are rejuvenated after swimming in an Art Nouveau-style pool containing water altered by alien forces. The Müller’sches Volksbad looks a lot like that pool, only it’s more beautiful, bigger and really is Art Nouveau. Situated along the banks of the Isar river, in the same borough, it’s worth taking a look and it’s even better if you have a swimming costume with you. Inside, its two pools and a sauna will have you diving right back to the beginning of the 20th century. It’s so evocative that even Dario Argento filmed some scenes for the film Suspiria here.
Follow in the footsteps of Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus and you’ll be amazed by what Munich has to offer. It looks like he’s back in fashion here and since 2009 huge numbers of pilgrims have come to see his statue in Promenadeplatz. Unfortunately, it’s not him that has grabbed the attention of music lovers, but his contemporary colleague: Michael Jackson. Since the day he died, photos, candles, letters, poems and flowers adorn the pedestal of the monument dedicated to Orlando, transforming it into a mausoleum to the king of pop. Why here? The statue is opposite the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where Michael used to stay after his concerts in Munich. Despite the Germans’ love of following the rules, the city decided to allow this improper appropriation of public soil, leaving Jacko fans free to remember their idol this way. What do Orlande and Michael talk about when the city sleeps? They probably fight over music tastes.
A few metres from the mausoleum, between the Bavarian opera house and Odeonsplatz, you’ll happen across a narrow, unassuming alley, with a unique feature. A golden path winds its way across the cobblestones. No, it’s not the yellow brick road that Dorothy has to follow to find the Wizard of Oz, but the brass cobbles laid by the artist Bruno Wank. They pay tribute to the silent protest of those who, during the third Reich, in order not to have to pass in front of the SS guardhouse towards the square and stretch their arms out, slipped into Viscardigasse, bypassing the obstacle.
If you’re not tired yet, continue your journey and discover a corner of Munich that will transport you thousands of miles away: Westpark, is the most westerly extremity (Metro U6 Westpark).
During the International Garden Expo 83, a wind from the east crossed Munich and transformed one of its parks into a corner of Asia. It was supposed to be a temporary installation, but the public was so fascinated that it decided to make it permanent. Strolling through the Chinese court, with elements along the way symbolising the path of life, pass the Japanese tea house and admire the Thai pagoda hosting a Buddha statue, erected in the middle of the lake. Finally, climb the stairs of the nearby Nepalese pagoda with its beautiful inlays, crafted by three hundred carpenters.
eyes wide, stretch your nostrils and inflate your lungs. Where next? In Rosengarten you’ll be assaulted by a host of colours and smells. In this small park next to the river (enter from Sachsenstraβe-U1 / U2 Kolumbusplatz), unknown even to some locals, more than one thousand roses flower from June to July. The garden invites you to amble, take your time and read a good book. Rosengarten is my source of inspiration.
Want to see Munich from a different perspective? Hop on tram number 19 from the central station in the direction of the city centre. Pass by the stunning neo-baroque Justizpalast palace where the courthouse is located, cut through the pedestrian zone, passing in front of the opera house, and then you’ll find yourself on Maximilianstraβe, the street with the most elegant shops in town. Climb up to the Bavarian Parliament, the Maximilianeum, which looks golden when bathed in the light of sunset, finishing your journey at Max-Weber-Platz, exactly where you started your adventure.
All that’s left for me to do now is to wish you good fun! Viel Spaβ!
di Stefano Merenda