Munich is the heart of golden Bavaria, where the beer flows in litre sized steins, Sunday lunch is sausage and sauerkraut, and men really do don the traditional high waisted, above the knee lederhosen.
Its old city charm gracefully survives amidst fast paced European living. Her tall pastel buildings stand with poise amongst a sprawl of shopping streets. Pedestrianised and linear, Kaufinger Strasse is easy to navigate, and still has enough shoe stores to keep any shopper satisfied. Its uber-efficient transport network and modest pollution levels helped it to rank as the world’s most liveable city in 2007. And in the midst of this modern metropolis looms the grand old Glockenspiel, as ever, clocking up the city’s years.
I had visited Munich briefly in 2000, and spent most of my time exercising a new found freedom in the most eccentric clothes shops I had ever seen. Unfortunately, the city’s celebrated beer tradition was largely wasted on me. At 18, I would have far preferred sipping Bacardi Breezers to the litres of bitter beer I was presented with.
But now, coming from booming Berlin, I felt a fondness for Munich’s relatively diminutive dimensions. Its history seemed simpler, easier to imagine, while wandering through its paved streets, past palaces, cathedrals and beer halls that managed to evade the destruction of world war.
Easy Palace hostel has the sort of suspicious name that makes you dread arriving. We had booked two dorm beds there a few months in advance, and weren’t feeling too optimistic after the abhorrent A&O hostel in Berlin.
The receptionist located our booking swiftly and ran through the basics. “The kitchen is on the fifth floor, the same one as you’re on, and wifi is free, you can pick it up on this floor. Safety lockers are in the dorms”. She reached into a box beside a sign that read, “If you can’t sleep, get your earplugs here”, and handed us each a fluorescent pair.
Our dorm walls had been recently painted with coordinating purple and green paintwork, with a table and chairs in the centre. The bunk beds looked like they were straight out of an Ikea box: pale pine frames, with a larger than single size mattress and crisp white duvets. There was even an ensuite bathroom for the dorm’s eight occupants.
A few stacks of flyers were on display in the lobby. A bold red and orange one caught my eye. The words “NEW MUNICH free tour“. This tour is on us!” were printed across the top.
At 11:45 the next morning we met Aaron, our tour guide, in the centre of Marienplatz. The turnout was a bit feeble, but Aaron nevertheless began the tour with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, performing the animated introduction that he had clearly done many times before. He apologised for being a little unwell, but promised in his perkiest American voice that he was going to do his best to make this the greatest tour ever.
We stood at the foot of the Glockenspiel, in perfect view, waiting for its daily 12 o’ clock performance. 12 o’ clock came, but there was no sign of activity. A faulty mechanism perhaps? Its failure to chime on time that day was due to the habitual tardiness of the man who had to run up the clock’s stairs to press the button. He eventually made it to the top a few minutes after 12, huffing and puffing, I imagined. The square was filled with apprehensive tourists, who gasped predictably when the dance of the little figurines in the clock’s chamber finally began.
He led us through the city’s oldest parts, which retain the most charm. We paused at Munich Cathedral, the Royal Residence, and Hofbrauhaus, while Aaron filled in the history. Despite his obvious love for all things German – its cities, its language, its beer – his rehearsed commentary and painful punch lines made us long for Berlin’s Brian, who had so fluidly made the city come alive.
Aaron’s love for German beer, we later discovered, was part of his problem performing that day. By night, he led New Munich’s infamous pub crawl, and the previous night had been particularly raucous.
He had been running the pub crawl since arriving from Detroit a little over a year ago, and it was starting to take a toll on his health. A few steins of beer in true pub crawl spirit, several times a week, had had severe effects on his liver. In his late twenties, he was already suffering from gout. The only way of relieving the symptoms of alcohol induced gout is to avoid it. But it seemed that Aaron had been sucked deep into Munich’s beer drinking subculture, and wasn’t keen on turning back.
Beer consumption has long been an issue in the city. Breweries were, for centuries, run largely by nuns and monks, many of whom took on this duty with a little too much gusto. When Lent came around each year, many monks found the idea of forsaking the pleasure of beer unthinkable. “Liquid nourishment doesn’t break your fast” became the favoured justification. It became necessary to pass a law prohibiting nuns from drinking more than four pints of beer each day.
Germany only started producing beer on a mass scale because the wine crop failed between 1400 and 1700. The cooler climate of these years has been dubbed the Little Ice Age, and reportedly affected agriculture all over Europe.
That night, we pitched up for the infamous pub crawl, lured by Aaron’s promise of drinks specials and a free beer on arrival. But Munich’s pre-October Fest lull had sunk in, and despite the large crowd drawn in the previous night, we stood waiting with Aaron, his Irish colleague and an eager American girl, feeling rather disappointed.
Quarter past eight came and the crawl was called off. Feeling slightly sheepish for promising us a big night out, Aaron darted off to the convenience store across the road and returned with three large bottles of Germany’s cheapest beer for the three drinkers he’d led astray. We thanked him and jumped on the next tram with Allanah, the American girl. She was taking a six week holiday through Europe before starting a new job in Seattle, in paediatric pharmacy. The tram stopped just before Augustiner Keller beer garden, and we all got off.
We had spent the previous evening at Augustiner Grossgaststatte, a quaint beer hall owned by the same brewery, and now entered a mammoth outdoor area stacked with patio tables, equipped for 700 beer swilling enthusiasts. Their banter often bellows beyond the garden’s walls, but that night, it wasn’t a tenth full.
Apart from boasting some particularly fine beer, Augustiner is Munich’s largest brewery and donates 50% of its profits to charity. The origins of the brewery date to 1328, when it was run from within an Augustinian monastery. Five hundred years later, it was so renowned for the fine quality of its beer that the prince declared it exempt from taxes.
Iain went inside to order the drinks, while Allanah and I made a stop at the ladies’. Desperate for the toilet, Allanah took the first stall in the row and I, without thinking, took the second. Groans of release resounded from the stall beside me. “Oh yeah! That feels gooood!” Allanah shouted at the top of her voice.
We joined Iain at a table, where a nearby Busabout tour group received a beer induction of sorts. “Thees one”, a keen male Australian explained, “ees a very smooth beeya, but it’ll heet ya fahst. No skullin’ thees one boys”.
I took a sip of my hefe wiezen: a cloudy, unfiltered wheat based beer. Augustiner’s brew was as delicious as the several others I had sampled, but equally bloating. As a result, the beer halls and restaurants tend to serve it in half litre, rather than litre measures.
Iain and Allanah drank Augustiner’s helles, a lager-like beer, in litre sized stein mugs. Allanah gasped when she saw the size of the beer that Iain had brought her. She had only wanted a half litre, but the brewery wouldn’t break custom by serving helles in anything but a litre stein.
The evening air was pleasantly warm as we chatted, appreciating the unusually calm atmosphere in the garden. Allanah planned to visit France next, she explained, but her time was very limited. “I wanna do Paris, and then I was thinking ‘bout going to nice”. It took a few seconds for my brain to register what she meant. I grimaced. Surely not, I thought. But yes, she had in fact been referring to Nice, the city on the French Riviera.
At that point, Iain returned from the men’s toilet, a round outdoor building, lined with a circular urinal that could accommodate at least 20 simultaneously urinating men. “You’ve got to see this urinal”, he exclaimed, laughing.
We drank up, and followed him to the urinal on our way out, where he poked his head in to check that the coast was clear. It was quite unique, I suppose, but not as strange as the individual urinals with a goal post and target soccer ball above each drain, which I had been shown a few days before. Apparently, some men require an incentive to avoid splashing.
We snuck out of the building, leaving Iain inside. Allanah, shouting “I won’t look” through shrill giggles, preceded to re-enter the men’s and do just that. Iain awkwardly turned toward a more private area of the urinal, and emerged within seconds, a look of disbelief pasted on his face. The brewery’s standardised full litre now seemed a bit a rash, judging by our drunk companion.
We made our way by foot to Augustiner Grossgaststatte to enjoy one last litre, while Allanah chatted away at rampant speed. We started talking about travelling and the value of learning a few words in the language of every country that you visit. Iain and I admitted to having the least knowledge of German, compared to the languages of other countries we’d passed through. Most Germans spoke excellent English, we’d found, so the awkwardness of attempting German often seemed patronising.
Allanah made a confession. “I only know two words”, she giggled. “Danke schon and W.C..” She articulated the two letters slowly – “W.C.” – as if afraid to mispronounce them, foreign as they were to her supposedly native tongue.
While walking to the beer hall, we came across two Australian guys who’d lost their Busabout group, somewhere between there and the beer garden. They’d been “on tooa” for two weeks, one of them told me, and had somehow “done” most of the countries that Iain and I had managed to briefly visit over two months. I asked him about his route. “Aaw, I was in Berleen yesterday and I’m goin’ to Vienna tamorrow”, he answered eagerly. “You’re only spending one day in Munich?” I asked, somewhat surprised. I thought perhaps the beer culture may have tempted him to linger a while. “Oh ye, I’m really fast”, he assured me confidently.
We continued walking, while the Australians tried to remember where the tour guide had said they were going next. “If they’re not heeya, we’ll just have to wait at the hostehl for the ahfter paahty”, fast traveller said. His companion just shrugged and kept walking. “I gotta hook up with my buddy – he’s the bus driver – he’s an Aussie”, fast guy explained. “He’s been drivin’ the bus since I got on two weeks ago, an’ we been drinkin’ the same piss every nooyt since then”.
The beer hall was full to the brim with drinkers: groups of middle aged men, young couples, families with their grown up children, and tourists, all lined up on long wooden benches. The Aussies searched the crowd: lost sheep in a beer hall. The strange part is that they weren’t “on tooa” at all: Busabout is a transport company used by independent travellers along certain routes through Europe. Even being escorted to a lively venue serving beer by the litre wasn’t adequate, it seemed, and they disappeared, back to the “hostehl”, where the party could be predicted.
A last beer and we said goodbye to Allanah, who gave us both a sudden hug. We went through the motions of exchanging email addresses, under the usual pretence that contact would be made again.
Strolling through the Englischer Garten the next day, we noticed a crowd forming at a bridge over the park’s river. A row of wetsuit clad surfers were lined up on the river bank, waiting their turn to ride the single wave that had formed where the water rushed over an obstacle of some sort. One by one they leapt onto the water, twisting and turning on the six metre length of wave, determined to make their ride last as long as possible. People cheered and clapped when they rode a wave well. I thought it a bit sad though, that these keen surfers should share this lone inland wave, when their passion for the sport was so apparent.
The park is one of Europe’s largest, and its beautiful green grounds are lovely to stroll in. We crossed onto a large expanse of lawn from the path, noticing clusters of people relaxing in the sunshine, many beside bicycles. Their tanned skin was visible from quite a distance. A few metres later, we stopped dead in our tracks. Every one of them, mostly men, were stark naked, basking in the sunlight. On their backs, on their sides, legs splayed or crossed, they read and chatted the afternoon away. We watched, amazed, as one of them stood up beside his bicycle and began packing away his belongings. At the last minute, he slipped on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and cycled away. We quickly realised that our shock was no excuse for staring, and attempted a subtle meander across the lawn, away from the sight of them.
After an eisbein dinner at Hofbrauhaus, we said auf wiedersehen to the indulgences of Germany. I pondered the age old German stereotypes, and despite racking my brain, couldn’t recall the confirmation of any – positive or negative. The Glockenspiel had been late (again), as were two of our trains, and the hostel staff in Berlin had only a very poor concept of work or efficiency. But more memorably, our reception by people on the street had been warmer than in any other country, since Ireland. We never had to stare at a map for long before being asked where we were headed, and the heartfelt hospitality we experienced has made me intent on returning. And then there’s the beer, of course.
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