This post focuses on Munich City Centre, the area around Marienplatz, with its two – yes, two! – Town Halls and quaint daily marionette shows. (Why does the blue-and-white knight always win the daily jousting competition and what are the coopers frolicking about?) We visit the main churches, from the Peterskirche (Munich’s oldest church) and the Frauenkirche (her biggest), to others with, variously, a sunny Italian-feel baroque exterior, the dank crypts housing the Wittelsbach tombs and a miniscule, hugely extravagant vanity project. And lastly, there’s the foodie haven, the Viktualienmarkt and the Englischer Garten, the perfect place to take time out.
Originally the site of the city’s salt and corn market, this lovely square is named for the Mariensaüle, the tall column with a statue of the Madonna and child on top, a triumphant catholic monument built in 1638 to mark the end of the Counter-Reformation. Inside the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), built in 1470, rebuilt after World War II, is the Festsaal (Banqueting Hall). It was there, in November 1938 that Goebbels made the speech which unleashed Kristallnacht, or ‘The Night of Broken Glass’, when Jews were attacked all over Germany, their synagogues and businesses destroyed. In Munich alone, 90 people were killed that night.
Crowds gather at the Neues Rathaus or New Town Hall at 11.00 or 5.00 every day to see the mechanical toys on its famous Glockenspiel in action. Atop the tall tower, two stories play out. One is a jousting tournament, commemorating the marriage celebrations of Duke Wilhelm V and his bride Renata of Lorraine. His Bavarian knights, dressed in pale blue and white, always defeat hers, the Knights of Lorraine, or the red team as you might call them. This inauspicious start did not stop them going on to have ten children. A second set of puppets perform the Dance of the Coopers, originally performed to celebrate the end of the plaque in 1517.
Commemorative plaques inside the New Town Hall include one marking the liberation of Munich from National Socialism on April 30th, 1945, another recalling the Munich Olympic Games of 1974 and a set dedicated to the various cities with which Munich is twinned, including Edinburgh, Kiev, Sapporo and Bordeaux.
Around Marienplatz is the oldest part of the city, with a warren of little streets dating from the Middle Ages. Don’t miss the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s central food market, crammed with fresh produce and food stalls. There’ll be more on this in Episode 13, but one highlight to look out for is Weisswurst, a white sausage traditionally eaten only before midday, or as the German saying puts it ‘the sausage should not hear the clocks sound noon.’ It’s also the place for May Day frolics around the Maibaum (maypole) erected here every year.
5 Munich Churches
The oldest church in the city centre is the Peterskirche, known as Alter Peter, or ‘Old Peter’ begun in 1368, although much of it is baroque. Climb it for the best view in Munich, go inside to see frescos of Munich scenes, and listen out for the bells which have rung since medieval days. The oldest is the ‘Old Sinners’ Bell’ – the Arme-Sünder Glocke – which used to ring out for hangings.
The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, is the city’s largest church, originally the royal church where the Wittelsbachs worshipped. Its two towers are topped by onion-shaped domes, a distinctive symbol of Munich and its most famous bishop was Joseph Ratzinger (1977-82), later Pope Benedict XVI. A number of stories from the Frauenkirche are told on the podcast, including an explanation of why the devil stamped his foot at the entrance to the church.
The Michaelskirche was so expensive that Wilhelm V went bankrupt building it in the 1580s. His heart was set on a fitting home for the huge bronze statue of an angel slaying a dragon, representing the triumph of Catholicism over Protestantism. It’s the burial place of King Ludwig II, whose coffin is decorated with a huge golden crown and an inscription to the ‘most wonderful king’. Even today, there are often fresh flowers there.
The Theatinerkirche was built by the Elector Ferdinand Maria in 1662 to mark the birth of his son and heir. Designed by the Italian, Agostino Barelli, its outside is a cheerful baroque design, the crypt is gloomier, and full of Wittelsbach tombs.
The Assamkirche was built as a private chapel by the Assam brothers, Egid and Cosmas. It is tiny, but crammed with opulent décor, a riot of colours covering every inch of space. If you like excess, you’ll love it.
the englischer garten
This stunning park was landscaped originally in 1789, in the style of an ‘English Garden’, although its designer was American! It’s one of Europe’s largest city centre parks, a 5km strip along the River Isar and highlights to look out for include the Chinese Tower, a 5 storey pagoda with a viewing tower, surrounded by a beer garden with room for 7000 guests, and the Japanese Tea House. This tranquil little haven, built on an island, was presented to Munich in 1972 as a sign of peace and traditional tea ceremonies are held there. The story of Unity Mitford, who shot herself in the Englischer Garten in 1939, is told on the podcast.