After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).
On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.
“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).
The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.
Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.
Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.
At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…
I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.
Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.
Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead. You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.
Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall. Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.
I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.
I was out to lunch with several German lawyers speaking English in a Vietnamese restaurant. I wanted to know if this is something they did or if it was something written up in the guidebooks for tourists.
“No. We don’t ever go to a spa,” replied Stefan with a bemused look on his face.
“Why is that?” I asked. “I thought you Germans were famous for soaking in hot mineral baths to achieve maximum wellness?”
“Because spas are for old people. If you go to one, you will lower the average age of the people there by at least ten years.”
The others laughed and took the conversation in another direction.
Two weeks later we had nothing on the calendar for the weekend, the weather was cold and gray, and I was ready for some adventure.
“Hey!” I said to my wife. “I know what we can do. Let’s go to a German spa for the weekend. I’ll find one on the Internet. Pack your swimsuit.”
When I read this on a website, I knew I had to check it out:
“Revitalize yourself in the warm waters of the springs of Bad Griesbach. The medicinal properties of the water drawn from the depths of the earth in the Rott Valley can be beneficial to you and your wellbeing. The therapeutic thermal mineral water is brought up from a depth of 1,522 meters.”
I didn’t know my wellbeing was different than me. Maybe my wellbeing is something I carry around in my pocket.
We hopped the train out of the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station in Munich, and into the heart of rural Bavaria. After a couple of hours we arrived at the small spa town of Bad Griesbach. We checked into the hotel and headed for the restaurant for some chow. A polite mâitre’d hotel showed us to our table in the center of the restaurant.
After I ordered my meal I started to observe my surroundings. The restaurant was pleasant enough, in an old Bavarian mountain style. The waiters and waitresses were young, energetic, and attentive. But there was something a little odd about the place to me, and I have never even seen Cocoon.
It was made apparent to me when the next diner walked in. She was a spry little woman, expertly and expensively dressed, with large diamonds on her ears. She was using a walker. Her face was extremely wrinkled and her hair glowed silver. I think she must have been 100 years old. Wellness, indeed.
As I looked around I noticed that at five decades I was the youngest person in the room (I can say that because I am ten days younger than my wife). The restaurant was full of senior citizens, and most looked to be in their 80s and 90s. Maybe there is something in the water here…
After an uneventful meal watching the other diners take multiple trips to the desert bar (why not when you’re that age, I will surely do the same if I am lucky enough to live that long), we retired early. We had a big day planned for tomorrow, with lots of soaking and lounging to accomplish.
The next day was cold and gray again. Germany in March is dull. I donned my swimsuit, a fluffy white robe, and goofy bath slippers and searched for the Thermatorium (or whatever they called it in German).
The place was fairly empty at 10am and I had my choice of the best seats in the house. Maybe the elders were sleeping in, or perhaps had died during the night (although I hadn’t heard any ambulance sirens).
I tried the heated whirlpool spa first. I didn’t notice any mineral smell to this water, unlike in Thermopolis, Wyoming. After soaking for a while I jumped into the large indoor pool. This pool had a nice feature I hadn’t seen before. At certain times during the hour a current was generated and you could float around the perimeter of the pool without paddling.
I next tried the sun room. After being in a Northern European winter for three months, I desperately craved some sunshine. The sun room was small and the walls were decorated like a Tuscan villa. There was sand on the floor, and it was warmed somehow, just like you were on the beach in the Mediterranean in summer. It was dark in there, which I found strange, but I stretched my towel on the warm sand anyway and sat down. After a couple of minutes, the room became steadily lighter. The light increased, getting brighter by the minute, until at some point the lights were shining as bright as the noon day sun. It was like being transported to the tropics. I felt warm and relaxed as I dug my toes into the sand.
The progressive lighting process then reversed as if it was now late afternoon and then the sun was setting. This continued until the room was almost dark again. Bummer. I liked it better in the light.
Back in the main room I saw a guy go outside. He walked to a spa that I could see from the window, took off his robe, and got in. He was out there for quite a while and then came back in. I should try that spa. I like the feeling of soaking in hot water with just my head exposed when the air is cold. It was about 35 degrees out.
I put my room on, went outside, and ran in my flippy-floppy slippers to the spa. I threw off my robe, climbed in, and sat down.
It was then that I realized that this spa was unheated. $%#@&$%*&(!!!
From there I went straight to the sauna warm up. There were several sauna rooms of different kinds and temperatures. I picked a dry sauna that wasn’t too hot (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit) and went in. It was empty so I had the place to myself. I rapidly warmed up and started sweating.
I was daydreaming in a sauna-induced stupor when I noticed a shape outside my sauna door. The door was made of semi-opaque glass so I could see through it, but not clearly. The shape was a person in a white robe. The person took off the robe and hung it up on a hook across the small foyer.
The person was a woman, and it was not the 100 year old walker woman from the restaurant. This woman was young, fit, and attractive. She was also naked.
She looked through the door to my sauna, and then opened the door enough to stick her head in. She looked at me and smiled, retracted her head, and closed the door. I heard the door to the sauna next to mine open and close.
That was a close call. That would have been awkward!
I left my sauna to sit in a cool plunge pool in the sauna foyer. As I cooled off, I heard a group of people come in behind me. I could only see their reflections in a tall narrow mirror hung on the wall across from the plunge pool.
There were eight of them – four attractive Teutonic model couples in their late 20s or early 30s. They were all tall and blond. I think it was Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer, and some of their friends, but I could’t see clearly in the mirror reflection and I thought it would be rude to get up and change my position in the plunge pool to see them better.
They were chatting in friendly tones as they nonchalantly took off their robes and hung them up. They stood around for a few minutes continuing their conversation before sauntering off to one of the saunas.
From my eavesdropping station in the plunge pool I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. But I could see enough in the mirror to determine that they were all naked, and my presence had increased the average age of the people in the room.
I went to the men’s locker room. A naked old man with a huge beer belly was drying his hair. It was all hanging out.
“Gruss Gott” said the old man. This is what polite Bavarians say instead of hello.
“Gruss Gott” I replied. I took off my swim suit and slowly got dressed.
Note: The narrator apologizes for the non-descriptive nature of the images accompanying this post. Due to the subject matter involved, it was not possible to take photographs.
Despite the cold weather and rain, we made our way up the narrow main street in the village to the bus stop for the trip up to Mad Ludwig’s Castle. The crush of tourists had not shown up yet; they were still having breakfast in Munich, Salzburg, and Innsbruck, and their bus drivers were beginning to idle their engines on the huge touring buses. The bus ride was short, zig-zagging up the mountain, but I wouldn’t have wanted to walk up that incline for very long. The bus stopped at Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge), a bridge across a steep and deep valley that overlooks a waterfall and the castle. It is a great spot for taking photos of the castle and viewing the surrounding valley and Alpine lakes. Unfortunately for our photos, today is grey and dark.
We walked down the path through the forest to the castle. In the front courtyard, groups of tourists were already standing in a crowd waiting their turn to get in for their tour. I had read that there were very few finished rooms to tour inside this castle, and it wasn’t worth the wait. It took 17 years to build the castle for Ludwig, and by the time it was (almost) finished in 1888, he was considered insane by the other leaders and deposed. He only lived in the castle for a few months. It is a magnificent ideal of a castle though, built from white stone, with towers everywhere. We had a walk around the two courtyards, and then headed back to the village via horse wagon with a group of Japanese ladies. The youngest woman, about 18 or so, was fully equipped with all of the gadgets and baubles of the young Japanese rich, including not one but two cell phones, cameras, music players, designer purse, and fake nails an inch long.
Ludwig lived most of his life in Hohenschwangau Castle. It looks like a small castle from the outside, but really is more of a country mansion/hunting lodge built on the hill overlooking the Alpsee (another Alpine lake). We had a tour of the king and queen’s rooms by an English speaking boy who told the story of Ludwig’s life. The guy explained how there was a heater in each room, fed with wood or coal by servants in the hallway so the servant didn’t have to go in the room and disturb the royalty. The living rooms had fantastic views across the surrounding mountains, lakes, and valleys.
We left the crowded village and drove to the neighboring town of Fussen for lunch. After some more Italian food (there are a lot of pizzerias in this part of Germany, because of the proximity to Italy?), we briefly wandered the pedestrian area of Fussen. Peter wanted to visit the local skate shop. The proprietor had recently been in Canada, and even had been to Portland to skateboard at the semi-famous skate part under the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland.
With the exception of the cashier at the Burger King on the Autobahn on the first day of our trip, everyone we have come into contact here has spoken English. Even at a gas station in a small village near the Austrian border, an old woman running the cash register spoke a little English. Unlike the snooty French, who don’t want to speak French to you, in Germany everyone instantly speaks English to us. On a couple of occasions, someone has asked me if I speak English. That question made me feel pretty good, that I wasn’t so obviously American. Although every other time, it’s not “Gutan Tag”, but “Hello, how are you?”
The drive through the Alps was very beautiful, despite the cold and dreary weather. We were looking for another alpine slide in a small village off the highway. We found the place, nestled at the bottom of two mountains. There were many ski runs on the mountain. Just then the sun came out for our ride up the chairlift. This luge is the longest in the area, at almost a mile long. We had a great and fast ride down. I had to keep breaking or I would have flown off the track and crashed in the meadow.
No matter where you drive in the world, in the summer there is road construction. On our drive from Innsbruck to Salzburg, we must have hit a dozen construction sites. At each one, the lanes narrowed to barely the width of the car. This delayed us, so that by the time we got to the hotel in the old part of Salzburg, we had to rush dinner to get to the theater in time for our show. The show was our attempt at being exposed to some musical culture while in Salzburg, a city famous for Mozart. This show was a little less cultured, consisting of several singers and a piano player playing music from “the Sound of Music” interspersed with video clips of the real Maria von Trapp telling her life story, plus Austrian folk songs, and famous opera parts. A little too “touristy” for my taste, and I am not an opera fan by any means. Plus I was tired from the mountain and autobahn driving.
Tomorrow we’ll do some more walking around Salzburg, before driving to Vienna.
Today we are all tired from the large amounts of walking we have done the past two days and the disrupted sleep patterns. We get started at mid-morning and head for the museum district. This is our day of culture in Munich. Our first stop is the Alte Pinokothek (the Old Art Museum). The name is correct, there is a lot of old art in here. I found it rather boring, but at least we only stayed 45 minutes. Next door was the Neue Pinokothek (the New Art Museum), which we skipped in the interests of time and excitement level. Across the street was the Pinokothek Modern (the Modern Art Museum). This was a little more interesting. This museum had 20th century art, including one or two Picassos, and sections on automobile design (Porsches of course), and product and furniture design. Some of the artwork was good (in my opinion), some was absolutely weird, and one painting in particular I thought I could have done in five minutes. It was a large painting of the color red, with a lighter red near the top, and a darker red near the bottom. I don’t remember what the title was, but “Red” probably was descriptive and appropriate.
We rested our aching feet at an Italian café overlooking the Odeon Platz, a big plaza near the Opera House. Over spaghetti and salad, we watched the Muncheners (if that is the right word…) walk and ride by. Very entertaining. The Muncheners dress differently than we do in the US. More formal and dressy, with a certain style, especially in their footwear. No flip-flops, and certainly not as many athletic shoes. After windowing shopping at the Ferrari and Rolls-Royce car dealer, we entered the Residenz for our next tour.
The Residenz was the city palace of the King of Bavaria. It occupies a large area of central Munich. We toured the reception and private rooms of the palace. There were displays explaining the history of Bavaria at the time of Napoleon. We also toured the Treasury, which exhibited the king’s crown, the queen’s necklace, the royal silverware, the royal feather duster, the royal jock strap (OK, the last thing was not really there, but something Peter made up after seeing all of the other stuff. Overall, the palace and the treasury were not as good or as interesting as similar places in London.
We continued our exploration of every shop in the central Munich area, including another visit into the Dallmayr delicatessen, where we bought some chocolate truffles. That didn’t stop us from buying more chocolate truffles in a chocolate shop a little while later. As some of us have said, you can never have too much of that stuff.
We ended our day with a traditional American dinner at the Hard Rock Café. Burgers and Caesar salads are a welcome respite to us hard touring Americans. No wurst, sauerkraut, and pretzels tonight. These restaurants all look and sound the same, no matter what city you are in, but we like them.
Time to leave Munich in the morning for the drive into the Bavarian Alps…