Sunday, 17 July 2016

"Teutonic Chronicles" 3: München, Dachau, Tegernsee, Leipzig







Oh, Britain! Foolish post-Brexit nation, to throw away unlimited access to this!

Such thoughts filled my head everywhere I went in Munich, apologising to every German I met for my nation's folly. Most either commented "bedauerlich" (regrettable/distressing), or jovially laughed over a beer about how much we'd messed up. Still, it's a humbling thing to potter around Germany for 3 months and see the kind of life we as a country have explicitly chosen to make it harder for ourselves to access. 


[...which makes it even funnier, incidentally, that the first thing I saw in Munich was one of those old-fashioned tour buses reading "BIBBY'S OF INGLETON" on the side, and underneath in smaller print "Cruisin' Around". This bizarre lovechild vehicle of Alan Bennett and Frank Sinatra was clearly ferrying Yorkshiremen and -women around Bavaria, but for it to be the first thing I saw in this city! I know nothing about Bibby's of Ingleton, and suspect I shall leave it that way - it can stay an exotic unknown, like Timbuktu or Fiji or one of the moons of Jupiter].

Anyway: just about the only downsides I can think of regarding Munich are a) it's blooming hard to find free Wi-Fi, though that could of course be I'm not looking for it properly, and b) the otherwise-excellent high number of cyclists means it's occasionally dangerous to be a pedestrian, because they don't exactly stick to the cycling lanes. It's like the government is trying to encourage people to take up biking for exercise reasons and has gone to the extreme length of organising cyclist-pedestrian incidents to make pedestrians aware of how risky it is to go by foot).

Apart from that, it is a charming city. On our first day Ben and I wandered all over the map - we reckon we totted up about 6 and a half hours of solid walking, most of it outdoors - on that first day, ticking off various touristy things and generally immersing ourselves in the atmosphere (though it didn't *feel* rushed). From our hostel it wasn't all that far into the Altstadt (the Old Town), where one is so surrounded by old churches you almost become inured to it. These ranged from some that are more elaborate - the Asamkirche and Michaelskirche are splendid - to those which are no less impressive, but nonetheless a touch more sparse (such as the Frauenkirche, the city's impressive, skyline-dominating cathedral; we returned there the following night to hear an organ concert featuring some of Bach's works). And then there is the Rathaus (or Town Hall); town halls seem to be much more of a thing in Germany, or at least they used to be; Munich's is very grand indeed, and we wandered through it, feeling sure we were trespassing as we clumsily tramped through its hallowed library and stopped by a drinking fountain right outside the Oberbürgermeister's (mayor's) office (this is like eating your lunch outside Sadiq Khan's door in City Hall; I'm *sure* we weren't meant to be there). Somehow or other we found our way up to the top of the Rathaus tower, which gives a stunning view over the city in all directions, to the mountains of the German Alps in the south, and to vast expanses of green (German cities usually have more green spaces than our own). Needless to say, it was also a day of sampling Bavaria's various delights, from pretzels to local beers. 

Also highly recommended is a trip to the Viktualienmarkt, one of Munich's old markets, where all manner of delightful lunches can be obtained. Still further off you reach the River Isar, and the impressive, plush Maximilianstrasse which crosses it, right the way to the formidable-looking Maximilianeum. This is two things: the home of the Landtag (the state parliament of Bavaria - because Munich is the capital of the state) but also an elite institution for gifted Bavarian students. And the occasional Oxford student. The former is probably more responsible for its security, though, and why we weren't allowed entrance (though we had the last laugh). That evening we met up with Oscar, a fellow Oxford student from Queen's who is currently at the Maximilianeum, and after a burger-heavy dinner he invited us to come have a look round the Maximilianeum. Eager at the chance to stick it to the bureaucratic officials who denied us entrance, we duly complied (thus inflicting yet another hefty walk on our poor feet, but boy was it worth it). Inside, you see, you can quite easily get from the institution-for-students bit (which is itself quite lovely) into the actual State Parliament of Bavaria. So we wandered around at about 11pm at night, taking photos of the various rooms in which vital decisions are made. You also get access to a stunning balcony that looks out over the city, and provides the most glorious night-time views. Hard to get into, but worth infiltrating if your motives are as blandly touristy as ours were.

Gosh. Phew. All of that was more or less Day 1 in Munich. The second day took a sombre turn when, with Oscar in impromptu tow, we boarded a train for Dachau - the little village outside Munich which was in turn home to a concentration camp, the very first opened by the Nazis in 1933 and remaining in use until it was liberated by the Americans in 1945 (who then incarcerated SS officials there until c.1960). There aren't really appropriate words for visiting a concentration camp, for walking through the gate that says "Arbeit macht Frei" and seeing it for oneself. I had been to one before, Sachsenhausen just outside Berlin, but Dachau had an even more powerful effect on me. Weirdly, the thing that struck me most, perhaps - obvious though it might seem - were the trees. They're the same trees. You can watch video footage (and there's a cinema in the complex, so we did) of Dachau in the 1940s, and you can see prisoners being lined up in neat rows alongside the equally neatly-arranged trees. And they're the same ones. Trees against which someone leaned when they could feel their back breaking under the strain of the labour, trees against which people may have been shot as they fled... are still there, still here in the present, swaying in the breeze as they reach up into a beautifully blue Bavarian sky. You wonder, if the trees could talk, what they'd tell us about what they saw. You wonder the same, too, of the walls - charred plaster and dirt, now, maybe, but once used to hem in almost 200,000 people over the years. A good way to judge quite how tiny these cells were was this: would it anger me if I had seen a gorilla in a zoo in such a small, enclosed space? Then how much more a person? These walls, these heartless walls which were knocked into shape over the years by countless knuckles tapping messages from one cell to another, as you slowly worked out that the person in the next-door cell used to be a Social Democrat and a journalist, and the one on the other side was a gypsy doing their best to pick the bones out of a tiny ration of herring in the dark, but taking as long as possible because at least it was something to do... And then there are the various memorials, silent places that are almost too much to bear. Or they would be: of course Dachau is no more silent now than it was then. It positively bustles with tourists making the pilgrimage. And here's the funny thing: I didn't mind. Such situations often make me irritable and misanthropic, but my goodness if that didn't seem like the most petty response in the world right there and then. At least they were here. At least they had chosen to come and see, to remember. If they are taking photos or talking amongst themselves, let them.

The very last thing you see at Dachau is the crematorium, and that really is too much to bear. To walk into a room of vast furnaces, then another where prisoners would wait to "shower", and then to step into a dimly lit room with gaps in the ceiling where the shower-heads should be... I don't believe in ghosts, of course, but our brains do imagine, do they not, the empty rooms we see now echoing with cries of torture or last-minute "I love you"s; it is a good thing, however distressing, to hold on to that, because the truth is it happened and the truth burns but it is better to burn and weep than to remain ignorant and cold. There is no satisfactory way to follow Dachau, really, as everything else seems far more trivial; but then, of course, one thinks to oneself that perhaps the best way to honour those who died is to simply live. To enjoy to the full that experience they were so cruelly denied. And, sometimes, in the midst of this living, to remember.

That afternoon, then, after a snack lunch in Dachau village and saying farewell to Oscar, we headed to the Englischer Garten: Munich's vast, sprawling, immensely green open park. It has streams flowing through it and lakes and a Chinese tower and a Greek monopteros and beer gardens aplenty. It was the perfect place to slowly, slowly unwind and let the gentle sun warm us as we read or thought about what we'd seen. That evening we relaxed further with the organ concert - as reported. The following day saw us go all-out educational, as we braved the duo of the Alte and Neue Pinakotheken. These are two huge art galleries, as impressive and beautiful in their architecture as the works of art they contain, and it was a wonderful experience to traipse our way through almost 750 years' worth of art history across the two of them. Highlights included a new appreciation for Rubens (the guy knows how to paint people falling down from heaven, and his monsters are an utter joy I would have loved at the age of 10); actually seeing one of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", which is of course fantastic; and a number of other glorious works. After a coffee and cake as the afternoon wore on, we duly bent our joyful footsteps towards a football-centric beer garden to watch Germany play France. This game, as it turned out, was not much of a success for Germany, but fun was nonetheless had relatively late into the night among fellow football fans and those brilliant 1-litre German beer mugs.

Friday came round astonishingly quickly - Ben's last full day in Munich - and we chose to spend it outside of the city itself, to get more of a sense of Bavaria as a whole. To this end we popped on a train to Tegernsee, a charming lake nestled among the smaller, more tree-covered cousins of the Alps - the foothills, really - and some gorgeous scenery. This, too, was a pretty relaxed day, from sunbathing to good food and drink to walking the lakeside paths. A perfect coda to this Tourist in Munich experience. To cut a long story short, since I'm aware this is already a load of waffle, Ben headed off pretty successfully on Saturday morning, I spent a few more days in Munich generally being lazy (this time staying in a Jesuit community where I did at least get to attend a nice summer barbecue), and then headed off to Leipzig on Tuesday.

Leipzig is - I think - the only time I breach East Germany on this particular trip, but I've spent more time in the East before now so that doesn't irk me too much. It's another wonderful city, full of all sorts of fascinating bits of history: the most recent, from houses the Stasi used in the 1980s to spy on GDR guests, to much further back: the church in which Bach was the choirmaster, for instance, and not to forget Goethe studying here as a young man and setting key scenes of his Faust in "Auerbach's Keller", a restaurant in the city centre. Leipzig is also another very green city indeed, with huge quantities of forest lying right outside it, and the meeting of two different rivers. I spent this time with family friends Gerlinde and Rainer, who made me feel very at home indeed, and went to great ends to ensure I encountered some Leipzig culture (the main two churches, the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche, are particularly marvellous, and the Zeitgeschichtliche Forum - a sort of history of Germany post-1945 - is another highlight). I should also briefly mention a couple of films I came across whilst in Leipzig, because both were very enjoyable in remarkably different ways and, indeed, remarkably different settings: the one a very tragic German film about Stefan Zweig's exile in America, and his suicide in Brazil, and the other a breezy French comedy set in Provence, though also with rather sensitive underpinnings; the former in an artsy cinema, the latter in a huge sports arena, with the cinemagoers sat in the stands where people normally watch the horse-racing, but instead viewing the film on a vast screen as the sun sets on Leipzig in the background. Beautiful stuff.

'Til the next time!

Links to Parts 1 and 2.

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