“Munich Shines” – this quotation is taken from a novel by Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann from early in the twentieth century. This local author’s words have been used by the tourist board and also appear on a gold medal presented to special visitors to the city. I could see exactly what he meant as I strolled the city streets this summer, the weather glorious.
The Bavarian air is crisp and the sunshine dazzling as it falls on a city surrounded by mountains and plains, with little pollution or disturbance to the atmosphere. The sky has a crystalline brilliance. It’s an amazing place to visit, not least because a series of local monarchs worked to a plan that saw over a thousand buildings commissioned over time, calling for wide boulevards and generous open spaces to be created, including the largest city park in Europe, the English Garden. The result is a well organised set of axes with beautiful public and private buildings forming golden blocks of stone radiating from the centre.
Also, the wide axial avenues allow more sunlight to play on the low buildings, which generates that special luminescence that narrower streets and avenues would not afford. Thus, it captures and lets light in, every scrap of it. The shadows come late and are often short.
Getting around is simple for the art galleries and museums are in a block near the centre and can be seen, understood and visited with ease. There are almost too many to choose from so we started with the simple charm of the Lenbachhaus, based within an Italian style villa from the nineteenth century. The most famous pictures in the collection are probably those by the Blue Rider Group, especially Blue Horse 1 by Franz Marc. This is indeed a fine painting but we preferred the expressionist and colourist work of Munter and Kandinsky in the new extension, a fiendishly cleverly designed golden box by the UK architect Norman Foster. (Thus, we flew from Stansted Airport, another of his designs to inspect his newest one).
This just-opened extension lends energy and interest to an otherwise fairly ordinary mansion. It houses fine modern art – including a fascinating and perplexing installation by the shamanistic artist Joseph Beuys. That work comprises felt, fat, ladders and blackboards, all testament to his alchemical struggle to categorise and understand the human condition and the urge to create order from chaos. The crowds were concentrating hard in those rooms of seeming disorder, eager to understand his secret language and personal code of ideas. Seen in three dimensions it is far more moving and human than any pictures could suggest. It seems freshly executed too, as if only recently completed, with sharp edges and vivid paint that seems to still be drying. As such, the artist seems very present in this work.
Bavarian cuisine is famed for its hearty nature and generous portions rather than its finesse, so it’s not typically the haunt of gastronomes. We were informed that locals feel short changed if plenty of meat does not appear on the plate and even starters can be the equivalent of what we would see as a main course in England. But it’s definitely worth trying. The local delicacy is the famous white sausage. This is eaten exclusively before midday and must not be asked for after that time for they will not serve it in the afternoons. We were told to remove the skin and take it with sweet brown mustard and a glass of beer. As such, it was something to enjoy once or twice but not every day. However, the cakes are exceptional…
A distant relation took us into the deep countryside to the south of the city where we saw ancient village churches with remarkable lime wood carving of saints and sinners. These medieval works were of exceptional quality and filled with enormous emotional power, even those in modest little chapels and private sanctuaries, buried in the countryside.
Bavaria was a place that embraced the Baroque more than almost anywhere else – an attempt to instil “shock and awe” in the churchgoer as the antidote to the ever encroaching Protestantism and its simpler forms of worship and greater reliance on the beauty of the Bible itself than the beauty of its buildings. It was certainly overwhelming in many urban locations, but the coats of arms of the local aristocrats and their effigies often spoke more of power than of reverence so politics was mixed up in religion, slightly cancelling out the religious and spiritual feelings that may have been intended.
With a declining workforce and an aging population, young people from other countries are arriving to provide new ideas and labour and it was perhaps this much needed mix of people that charmed me the most on my visit there, seeing new cultures bringing their cuisine and their customs to a province that was once fiercely autonomous and geographically aloof. In the future, I hope the city shines still more brightly as a result of this vital new source of energy.