26 August 2014

Munich - July 2014

During the three and a half hour train journey from Heidelberg to Munich my mind kept wandering back to my first Munich visit twenty years ago. I was filled with anticipation. Would the sites look just as they appeared in my memory? Resurrecting images imprinted in my mind from that first, incredibly interesting trip, it was the glockenspiel that first popped up. I remembered standing on tippy toes in a thick crowd to watch this world famous clock doing its spiel. Next, hazy images of the green onion domed towers of the Frauenkirche came up. More clearly, I could picture the bustle around the Chinese Tower in the English Tea Garden. It was the 4th of July and a van load of people rode around singing American patriotic songs. After scarfing down a slice of pizza I remembered strolling down to the Eisbach and resting on the shady bank, along with lots of others seeking shelter from a punishing sun. Across the bank was Munich's clothing optional beach, and nudists were sprawled on blankets, completely indifferent to the world around them. A young German man next to me made conversation. He was most impressed that I came from Santa Barbara and wondered if we spent all our free time lying on the beach. A copper skinned, attractive Egyptian woman joined in on our conversation. What a pleasant afternoon it had been. What an unforgettable four day visit it had turned out to be.
Twenty years ago. When I was single and lived on a tight budget.
I couldn't afford to stay in a Munich hotel then, so I camped at the Thalkirchen Campgrounds. And it was sheer luck that had made this possible. Without a tent and sleeping bag they didn't want to give me a site. I tried to convince them I'd be fine sleeping on my sheet in the open air. But in Germany rules could not be broken. Then, fate intervened, teaching me that when you traveled low to the ground amazing things happened. This was when you were more likely to encounter kind strangers who touched your life in unforgettable ways. It was such a stranger, a German Namibian, who appeared out of the blue (actually, he worked at that campground) and loaned me a tent and camping equipment, making it be possible for me to enjoy a few days in Munich.

Now, twenty years later, as we rode the U-Bahn to our apartment, I hoped it would be as luxurious as the website description. And it was - gleaming tiles, granite surfaces, a stylish bathroom, comfortable bed. In a word - contemporary.

Adding to our joy was the discovery that the neighborhood was as trendy as you could hope for. It was a Saturday afternoon when we arrived. Summer at its best, and the streets were bustling. I felt immensely happy to be here. All around us there were lots of lively cafés, international restaurants, bars, bakeries, supermarkets, and wine shops. Finding it impossible to ignore the irresistible cakes on display at one of the busy cafés, we grabbed an outside table and placed our order.

Strong cappuccino and moist, dark chocolate cake filled with fresh blackberries, combined with oodles of summer ambience - how could you not fall madly in love with this city? Sharing such a divine experience in the company of locals who were hanging out, having a good time with friends/partners/family should definitely be number one in a rule book on how to enjoy a visit to Munich.

Armed with Rick Steves' guidebook, we wandered over to Marienplatz to start his "walking tour". A festive atmosphere pervaded the city. Throngs of people - tourists and locals - were out and about. At Marienplatz we stood in front of the extremely ornate neo- gothic New Townhouse - one of the very few buildings that survived the bombing of WWII. It was almost 5:00 and the glockenspiel was about to "joust". A huge crowd practically smothered us. However, it was definitely worth it. We watched all four parts of the spiel - a wedding procession, the joust, cooper's dance, and finally a rooster crowing.
Looking around at the other grand buildings of the square, it was hard to imagine that they were all rebuilt after 1945. Unlike other German cities, in Munich bombed buildings were rebuilt to resemble the originals.

Right at the top of the New Townhouse is the Munchner  Kindl -a mini monk with outstretched arms, with a book in one hand. This is the symbol of Munich.

Discovering Munich is such a treat because there are so many beautiful surprises awaiting you. As we strolled through the pedestrian heart we arrived at the Viktualienmarkt. This is a daily market with many produce stands as well as other specialty foods like cheeses, olives, baked goods, wines, etc.

Wandering along bustling pedestrianized Sendlingerstrasse you come across an eye catching baroque building. It's the Assam Church, built by the Assam brothers who were architects. They built this as an advertisement for their skills.
 We had researched vegetarian restaurants before our Munich arrival and made reservations at Prinz Myschkin. According to one website this was Germany's top vegetarian restaurant. Cookies Cream in Berlin was number 2. After our unbelievably great experience at Cookies Cream, we had super high expectations for Prinz Myshkin. But, almost as soon as we were seated I suspected it wouldn't match the quality of the trio of Berlin vegetarian restaurants we had sampled. First of all, it was huge and so was the menu. The menu, while interesting with quite an international range, was the same year round, which meant a lack of emphasis on seasonal stuff. But the interior certainly was elegant, with a contemporary ambience, heightened by art pieces with bold colors. The dishes we sampled were disappointing after Berlin's vegetarian cuisine scene which featured immense creativity and skillful seasoning and presentation. Oh well! Most interesting to me was to observe how the locals lingered over their meals and seemed to thoroughly enjoy hanging out with their companions. Long after all the tables were cleared, the restaurant was still practically full. People sipped digestives or espresso and engaged in chatter as if they were in their living rooms. What a contrast to our restaurant meals which tend to be hurried.

From our apartment it was just a few minutes walk to the Isar River. From the bridge, looking back in the direction of our apartment, you see the towers of a nearby church and lots of green shrubbery and low trees lining the banks. Along the bank on the opposite side there are green spaces and a cycle lane that follows the river for many miles. Quite amazing to be in a major city, but escape to peaceful nature so easily. To enter the Altstadt from here we walked past the Deutsche Museum which is on an island in the river. Then we came to the Isartor, one of four old gates through which you enter the old town. Quite charming. I really loved the human scale of Munich.

We spent a pleasant Sunday at Munich's top 3 art museums - the Alte Pinakothek, the Neue Pinakothek, and the Pinakothek der Moderne. The Alte Pinakthek was undergoing renovations so much of it was closed. The first painting we saw was  Hieronymous Bosch's Last Judgement (1506 - 1508) which set the stage for a dream-like day. Like when you go to a movie and the opening scenes are so intoxicating you sit back and prepare for a most entertaining 90 minutes. Gazing at Last Judgement it  was impossible to believe that this rather contemporary, abstract piece was from medieval times. I realize this is not a good photo, but the point was to preserve this very special moment. We journeyed through Europe's great art from the 14th to the 20th centuries, and became familiar with the works of famous German artists. Starting with the Old Masters we followed the transition from medieval to modern art. Afterwards A good selection of works by the expressionists, Max Beckman and Paul Klee, boosted my art education. There was a special exhibit of works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner which I appreciated being exposed to.

At each museum, after dutifully taking in the works of Dutch, Flemish, and German artists, we were always rewarded at the end by a few "crowd pleasers" - the French Impressionists, van Gogh, the Surrealists, Picasso, Kandinsky, etc.

The famous Hofbrauhaus with its huge beer halls was ridiculously loud and crowded. We wandered around looking for a suitable spot out of the 5000 seats with every intention to do what every tourist in Munich was supposed to do. But when we realized the smallest sized beer we could get was a liter, we had the perfect excuse to escape the rowdiness and seek out a more peaceful beer garden. Leaving the Hofbrauhaus we entered the Platzl, Munich's medieval heart. This whole area was flattened in the 2nd World War. I reminded myself of that fact as we walked past the bustling cafés and restaurants.

We ended up having our beer at the Viktualienmarkt. Local breweries take turns to sell here, at this market, and a board advertises which ones are available. Didn't make any difference to us. All the Bavarian beer I'd had was fantastic, and so was this.

I climbed up the 306 steps to the spire of St. Peter's Church and was rewarded by terrific views of Munich. It was interesting to see the Bavarian Alps which were surprisingly so close to the city.

The Residenz was the Wittelsbachs downtown palace.
Outside the grand buildings there are beautiful formal gardens which you enter through an arcade. Along the walls of the arcade are murals which tell the history of Bavaria from 1155 to 1688. I spent quite an entertaining morning examining these murals and then wandering around the gardens.

I didn't go inside the Residenz which houses a pretty good museum. Just looking at the grand building and grounds from the outside was quite impressive. What did not come as a surprise to me was that this palace was modeled after the Medici's Pitti Palace in Florence (so was the palace at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris).
We spent our last hours in Munich at the English Tea Gardens. My experience this time, though utterly pleasant, was very different to 20 years ago. This time I saw a different part of the Eisbach where youngsters were honing their surfing skills. The area around the Chinese Tower was pretty sedate. We found a bench in the shade with a great view of the lake. A perfect place - peaceful and lovely - to catch up on some reading ... Then, a while later we wandered up to the Seehaus restaurant for dinner. The setting was quite special with lake views and the greenery of the park. The menu was special too. I had chanterelle dumplings in a white sauce and Daryl had a plate of grilled vegetables. Bavarian beer went down perfectly with this fine meal. The sun was low in the sky and it was time to say good-bye to Munich. We had to board a night flight to London.

18 August 2014

Heidelberg - July 2014

Every morning for the two weeks I was in Germany, I'd wake up and think, "I like this country. A lot". I loved the attention devoted to dedicated cycle lanes separated from both automobile traffic and pedestrians. I loved seeing the honor system at work, especially with public transportation. There are no barriers and no turnstiles, but everyone has a ticket because they understand that the honor system can only work in an honest culture. Clean cities, excellent mass transit, a high tolerance of the English language, decent beer, blankets provided at beer gardens in case it got chilly, and a fine food scene (in Berlin, world class cuisine). So, of course, we had a very satisfying two weeks in Germany.

After the seductive buzz of Berlin, we found ourselves blinking in disbelief at the "can this be real?" beauty of Heidelberg. Just take a look at that picture. 

A high speed ICE train allowed us to experience one of the great marvels of the 20th century (still making its way to California, hopefully before another century passes) and deposited us in Heidelberg on a blistering July Sunday afternoon. Our apartment was a quick walk from the train station, in the Bergheim neighborhood, which had a relatively peaceful, suburban air about it. We quickly unpacked and then headed straight for the old town (Altstadt). What a pleasant walk it turned out to be. One that will stay in my mind for a long time. The River Neckar bisects the city and flanking its banks are attractive buildings. Framed by green mountains, with a fairy tale castle looming over the city, Heidelberg is blessed with a serious "wow" factor! As we meandered through buildings and parks parallel to the river, I said to Daryl I could easily imagine spending a month of summer vacation here. In fact, an academic quarter of Sabbatical would be even better. The prospect of a full week in this city thrilled me.

In Heidelberg we had quite a change of pace from Berlin. Daryl was here to do some heavy duty math with his colleagues at the university, and I saw this as an opportunity to catch up with my reading and writing. So we very quickly settled into a routine for the week. After breakfast Daryl dashed off to the university and I stayed at home. When I needed a break I either strolled over to a nearby café or hopped on a tram or bus to the Old Town. In the late afternoon I did some food shopping and then made simple meals which we ate as soon as Daryl returned. After dinner there were still several hours of daylight and we took advantage of this by going on long, long walks exploring the many interesting and beautiful parts of this city. We ended the day at a beer garden where we sampled the local brews and experienced German night life in midsummer.

Our apartment was on the 3rd floor of the middle apartment building with balconies. The owner's tasteful sense of style made this spacious apartment quite a satisfying base. Thank goodness! It rained for much of the week while we were there, so being stuck indoors was not a problem for me at all. I relished the time to read and write, without the pressure to be a tourist. A travel card allowed me to hop on a tram or bus whenever I felt like going out into the world. I made a daily trip to the food market, a most entertaining place, so that we could have healthy vegetarian meals.

This medieval castle inhabited by the Wittelbach dynasty for over 400 hundred years is Heidelberg's most famous landmark - Heidelberger Schloss - and the main reason tourists come to the city. It sits above the Old Town and is visible from everywhere. I took a funicular up here and enjoyed walking around the ruins, and the very lovely gardens, dodging droves of tourists, many from Asia. The world's biggest wine barrel resides in a cellar here. I sampled some wine - semi sweet and refreshing, served with an ice cube - that is still produced here.

Wandering along the two kilometer pedestrianized stretch of road into the Altstadt is the traditional way to get to know Heidleberg. On the Sunday that we arrived the place was flooded with tourists. Cafes and bars were chock-a-block and the squares were very active. At Universitiplatz there was an African market on. Numerous booths carried African clothes, musical instruments, and crafts. Drumming and music added to the festive air. All over the Old Town the city throbbed - but in a considerably scaled down way to Berlin. It was great fun to take in the fairy tale like architecture of the city and study dinner menus. As the light faded, so did the crowds. This came as a surprise to me. In Berlin, the opposite happened.

The main square - Marktplatz - toward the end of the Old Town, is a perfect place to enjoy a drink. It's at the foot of the castle and surrounded by attractive buidlings like the townhouse.. There's a pretty fountain in the middle with a statue of the Madonna. The numerous outdoor cafés create a pleasant summer buzz. We had nightcaps - Schnapps for me - here on our last evening.
After surveying the limited restaurant options for us on the day we arrived, we found a Middle Eastern place called Falafel. A platter for two had a yummy combination of dips, veggies, and falafel. We pigged out on this satisfying meal right in front of the stunning 12th century Peterskirche, the oldest church in Heidelberg.

During our week in Heidelberg we had most of our dinners at home. This gave us the opportunity to sample the goodies at the food markets and bakeries. Loaves of hearty, healthy bread studded with seeds feature prominently in bakeries. And bakeries were ubiquitous. A few excellent ones were around the corner from our apartment. This meant fresh breakfast pastries were a little too easily accessible!
I was delighted to see chanterelle mushrooms at the grocery store quite inexpensively priced. Back home in Santa Barbara, due to a few drought years, we have been deprived of these wild mushrooms. So I gave myself full permission to overdo it, i.e. buy chanterelles daily!
The food stores were well stocked for vegetarian customers. There were lots of soy products like schnitzel and sausages, so it was pretty easy to prepare simple dinners. Adding a salad and green vegetables to sautéed chanterelles and a soy "meat", with wholegrain bread and dry Riesling made for reasonable meals. Since we didn't have much in the way of seasonings, and we were aiming for quick meals, we were fine with the blandness. In other words NOBODY complained. Nobody dared complain! But, hey, the local Riesling - crisp, a little dry, with just the perfect level of fruitiness - made up for any shortcomings.
Every evening after dinner, we took long walks along the river. A large green space on the north side was quite the social hub of the city. We strolled across the soft grass, sniffing the sweet, moist air, enjoying its mildness, and mingled with locals engaged in various summer activities. People throwing frisbees, sunbathing, picnicking, kids playing in the water-park, and of course, a strategically situated beer garden so that parents could relax with a drink while their kids played on nearby equipment.

One evening we hiked up the Philosopher's Walk. The sky was a friendly blue and the air temperature at 7:00 PM was perfect. The trail started out in a very upscale neighborhood (Neuenheim), then continued along the slopes of a mountain. Higher and higher we trekked and the city views stunned us in direct proportion. Along the way we saw a little garden with colorful flowers. Sitting here, in this peaceful refuge, surrounded by sweet scents and brightness, with splendid views of a beautiful river, a stunning bridge, attractive architecture, and the majestic castle, wouldn't you expect great philosophic ideas to emanate?
We could have continued on the trail all the way to the top of the mountain, but we turned onto the very windy trail that took us down to the Old Bridge. From the bridge we descended on the steps down to the river. Back on the north side, but near the Old Bridge, the views in front of us were the prettiest yet of the city.
There was such an air of romance right at that moment. At 9:00 PM it was still light, people were up and about either standing on the Old Bridge taking photos, or strolling hand in hand along the river, or just chatting and laughing. The air was still ... and sweet. We wandered over to the beer garden in the park beside the river and smugly drank some well deserved Heidelberg beer. How many miles had we just walked?

Earlier in the week when I went to a wine shop for a decent local  Riesling, I learned about pear schnapps. Schnapps is a local digestif and comes in a few different fruit flavors, pear being the most traditional. I loved it. I loved that it was dry, yet the pear flavor was distinctive. What a perfect nightcap to end each wonderful day of that week!

And coincidentally, what a perfect metaphor for the ending of this blog.