There’s more to Bavaria than beer and lederhosen

By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk

  • Wednesday, April 9, 2008 12:00am
  • Life

By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk

The Bavarian city of Munich, center of southern Germany, is one of the country’s favorite tourist destinations.

It offers a combination of modern flair and traditional charm, all mixed together with a heavy helping of “gemutlichkeit,” the special German term for hearty, happy, healthy togetherness. Traditionally the city, famous for its breweries and beer halls, conjures up images of jolly red-cheeked portly men in lederhosen, downing steins of beer. There is plenty of that to be had, but Munich has plenty more for visitors.

The city has a number of great museums, art treasures, and gems of Gothic and Baroque architecture. It is also the gateway to the Bavarian Alps, drawing winter sports enthusiasts. Munich itself was founded in 1158 on the River Isar, and acquired its name, Munchen (home of the monks) from its first monastery.

It was the monks that started the beer brewing tradition for which the city is now world famous, particularly since it started celebrating an annual beer festival in 1810. Today, close to six million people visit the Oktoberfest every year, and consume more than 5.5 million liters of beer during its two-week run.

During the last two weeks in September, all roads in Munich lead to the Theresienwiese, a giant grass meadow about the size of 20 football fields near the center of the city for Oktoberfest. The field becomes a beer-drinking city, complete with its own post office, police force and fire department. Most importantly, numerous huge tents are erected by the various Bavarian breweries that serve as massive beer halls.

The first keg is tapped in ceremonial style to open the two-week celebration. Apart from the rollicking beer halls where traditional Bavarian bands belt out their old favorites, the festival offers a host of carnival games and fun park rides, as well as stalls selling a range of German delicacies.

• The Hofbrauhaus: Beer has been swilled at this world-famous tavern site in the center of Munich since it became a royal brewery in 1605. Equally famous is the Bavarian jolliness and enthusiasm, known as “gemuchtlikheid,” which has emanated directly from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich along with the beer that flows freely there each day, served by robust rosy-cheeked young women clad in Bavarian dress delivering liter-sized beer steins. The cheerful atmosphere that reigns constantly in the different halls is helped along by the foot-tapping strains of traditional Bavarian “oom-pah” bands and drinking songs. When the beer becomes too much, you can soak it up with a salty pretzel or a German specialty from the menu, such as liver dumplings, potato soup or a variety of delicious sausages.

• Marienplatz: The Marienplatz is the heart of Munich and the site of its most important historic buildings. The square is dominated by the Neo-Gothic Town Hall featuring its famous Glockenspiel, both built in the 19th century. The Glockenspiel delights visitors when it chimes the hours every day at 11 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. with its 43 bells, accompanied by moving clockwork figures that display vignettes from Munich’s history. The Town Hall has a tower that can be accessed by an elevator. The center of the square — which was once a vibrant farmer’s market — features a statue of the Virgin Mary after which Marienplatz was named. Visitors can also explore a toy museum in the Old Town Hall on the square, and the Frauenkirche, Munich’s cathedral, dating from the 15th century.

• Nymphenburg Palace: About five miles from the city center, accessible by tram and bus, is the interesting Schloss Nymphenburg, originally a summer home for the Munich aristocracy. The palace has been expanded, altered and fitted with various eccentricities by succeeding owners over the centuries since building began on it in 1664.

Today, it is a delight for tourists who revel in exploring the villa and grounds. Inside, there are some interesting frescoes in the main hall. An arcaded gallery features a collection of 36 provocative paintings ordered by King Ludwig I showing the most beautiful women of his day. The surrounding park has some surprises too, with some interesting pavilions hidden among the English-style gardens. There are also collections of Ludwig’s elaborate coaches on display, and a porcelain museum.

• Neuschwanstein: The fairytale castle built by King Ludwig II (known as “Mad King Ludwig” until his death in 1886) has become the trademark of the German state of Bavaria, with its Gothic wedding-cake tiers and towers. Day tours to the castle are available from Munich, or self-drive via Garmisch. From the parking lot there is a steep half-mile climb to the castle, but one can ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The interior of the castle is as extravagant as its outer aspect, particularly the king’s apartments, which are decorated entirely with hand-embroidered silk, elaborate wall and ceiling paintings, and carvings. Neuschwanstein served as the model for Walt Disney in the creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at both Disneyland and Disney World. A short distance away, another of Ludwig’s castles, Linderhof, will amaze you with its gardens and architecture.

• Berchtesgarten: The name Berchtesgarten is most closely associated with Adolf Hitler’s country house, but it is in fact a delightful Bavarian alpine village with ancient winding streets and a medieval marketplace. Hitler’s holiday house, the Berghof, is actually at Obersalzberg. Most tourists visit the Kehlsteinhaus or Eagle’s Nest, a remarkable building perched precariously atop the mountain, which was originally commissioned by Martin Bormann as a 50th birthday present for Hitler. The notorious Nazi leader seldom visited it because of his fear of heights. Today, it is the site of an excellent Bavarian restaurant and provides breathtaking views at the end of a stunning winding mountain road.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way: jvaughn@

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