Munich a Miss

It’s a sad conclusion to reach that the highlights of a world-famous city were a bejeweled skeleton  and a glockenspiel, but that’s how we felt about Munich.  Alas, the city we encountered fell so far short of fond childhood remembrances I couldn’t wait to get back on the train.

Emerging from the U-Bahn in time to catch most of the noon performance of the glockenspiel in the Rathaus (town hall) tower on the town square, we snagged a café table as the crowd dispersed and planted ourselves in chairs directly in front of the clock tower.  Thankfully, before the 1 p.m. performance, the waitstaff put up the café umbrellas, which helped displace the incoming crowds from implanting themselves in our laps.  Meanwhile, a traditional Bavarian oomp-pah band, complete with lederhosen and dirndl skirts, entertained the crowds between performances.  We tucked into lunch, sipped good German beer, and enjoyed the 1 p.m. performance of the clock’s dancing figurines while the people packed into the town square baked like anchovies on a pizza.

Traditional Bavarian Band

Munich Rathaus (town hall)

Gothic gargoyles on the Rathaus tower

Fierce gargoyle on the Rathaus tower

Another look at the world-famous glockenspiel dancing figurines. The netting is to protect the statues from pigeon droppings.

Glockenspiel performances and an ooompah band.  Corny as it was, I had hoped they were the beginning of a wonderful day in Munich, which I’d been touting to Michael for the last several months as a “must-see” stop on our way to Budapest.  What we found was a city center packed with tourists pushing and shoving their way into every tourist attraction within sight as they flipped through their guide books, looking for the next place to go.  Tour groups abounded, traveling in rolling waves akin to fish bait balls. At least fish have a fifth sense that allows them to divert direction or part in the middle if they come upon an immovable object, such as another person.  These tourist groups just bowled on through the crowds.  More than once I felt like the last ten pin standing.

We sought refuge in St. Peter’s, Munich’s oldest church, off the main square to have a gander at the jeweled skeleton of the martyred St. Munditia, allegedly the patron saint of spinsters.

The bejeweled St. Munditia

Below a portion of the sumptuous interior of St. Peter’s Church. The church predates the foundation of Munich in 1158, but the current interior was redone in the baroque style in the 17th century.

The highlight of the bus tour was the Nymphenburg Palace and extensive gardens in western Munich where the tour bus stopped again for the requisite photo op and to allow tourists to hop-on or hop-off.  The elegant palace, commissioned in 1664 by a Bavarian prince, is centered in a loose horse shoe array of pavilions, stables, and an orangerie.
Baroque mansions built by lesser royalty extend the arms of the palace
complex, encircling a man-made lake complete with swans and lily pads.

Nymphenberg Palace

We now regret not taking the opportunity to disembark and take a tour of the palace or at least walk around the famous gardens, but at the time we had just plain had it with the tour, the crowds, the heat and Munich in general and wanted – literally – off the bus. Munich had lost its appeal somewhere between the jeweled skeleton and the palace, and nothing – not even a cold beer at a café – could induce us to stay another minute in the city center.

We departed the next morning for Budapest without returning to the city center for another attempt at sightseeing.  I felt tremendously unsettled by the stopover because I held Munich with such great fondness from my one and only earlier visit as a child, and the previous 24 hours had been a disappointment to say the least.  I guess when you’re eight, the life-sized glockenspiel figurines are all you need to engender a sense of
wonder about a city.

Conclusion:  Munich has a lot to offer, but you should visit Munich in the off-season if you want to avoid the crowds, and if you take a city bus tour, don’t go with the Gray Line hop-on, hop-off outfit.  You’re better off with a good guidebook, map, and a multi-day pass for Munich’s excellent public transportation.

Travel Notes

Because we planned to stay in Munich just one day and night with an early second day departure,  we chose a hotel close to the main train station rather than the “old city” center.  Hotels are also  much cheaper near the station than in the Alstadt, or old city.  For those who want to remain near the train station, I can recommend where we stayed, Best Western-Cristal, 1 ½ blocks from the station.  The neighborhood has zero ambience and amenities but seemed safe enough.  As it turned out, the only two true restaurants – not counting kebab take-out counters and dubious Asian “cuisine” all-you-can-eat buffets – were (surprisingly) in our hotel and the Courtyard Marriott across the street.  We chose the latter
restaurant for its outside garden and Mediterranean menu, not realizing it was part of the hotel, and had an absolutely delightful, well-prepared meal.  Of course, there is no shortage of good restaurants and cafés in the center of Munich as well.

Munich has an excellent public transportation system and it’s easy to use.  Remember that if you hold a Eurail Pass, that will serve as a “ticket”
on the S-Bahn trains (not to be confused with U-Bahn trains) as the Deutsche Bahn national train system owns the S-Bahn as well.  There are also single and multiple day passes one can purchase to use on all forms of public transport.

Artists in Netherlands

(Van Gogh’s painting of an almond tree in bloom.)

Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Escher.  All notable Dutch artists whose talent was recognized in their lifetime (to varying degrees) and whose influence and fame continue to this day.  How is it that a country as small as the Netherlands has managed to produce so many talented artists of such a wide range of productivity and styles?

That is a question I am not prepared to answer or even speculate upon intelligently.  I do know that my two favorite painters happened to be Dutch (Van Gogh and Vermeer), and after seeing the works of several others while in Holland, notably Escher and numerous others from the Haarlem and Utrecht “schools”, I am suitably impressed.

But first, a word of warning.  Since this is foremost a travel blog, and I am nowhere near being an art “critic”, I do not pretend to have any great insight or commentary on the work of any of the artists I mention in this posting.  In other words, the opinions expressed are my own, perhaps uninformed, but to paraphrase Popeye, “I yam what I yam and like what I like.”  I will strive to relate my own experiences and impressions of a few museums and collected works – nothing more.  For any of you more knowledgeable art connoisseurs who would like to comment on what follows, be my guest.  I’d love some input as well as insight.  But these are my impressions, no more.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

First off, let me point out that 99.9% of us have been mispronouncing this great artist’s last name. It is not “van go” (as in doe, female deer) but “fan  gkocchk” (or something close to that).  After all, he was Dutch and his name was – naturally – pronounced correctly in that language.  (For those of you new to this blog and/or Dutch, read my earlier posting, “Dutch is a Pirate Language.”)

So it was no surprise that when the “fan gkocchk”  museum was pointed out to us on our bus tour of Amsterdam several moons ago, it took a while to register that the guide was referring to the Van Gogh Museum.  (It was at that point that our English version of the tour conked out on us, hence the brief interlude of Dutch – and confusion – as to what we were craning our necks at out the window.)

Once this rather comical translation mishap was straightened out and we actually got to the Van Gogh Museum, we found the experience worth our while.  Moderately-sized for a museum dedicated to one artist, the VGM  has an excellent collection of Van Gogh’s work.  What was startling to remember is that this artist only painted for about ten years before ending his life at age thirty-seven, and to witness the changes in his work from his early attempts and style to the blazing colors and strokes of his final months was amazing. Even more stunning than Van Gogh’s range of styles was his productivity:  in all, he is estimated to have painted over 900 canvases and 1,100 drawings. Of this body of work, he sold only one painting during his short lifetime.

I was particularly intrigued with his paintings of almond blossoms and other spring-blooming trees that reflect the influence of Japanese art on his style for a short period of time.  Another revelation was that at one time Van Gogh had seriously contemplated following his father into the ministry.  Trying to juxtapose those earlier intentions with his last years in Paris and Arles was a tad disorienting but gave this complexartist an even greater depth than I had realized before.

No display of Van Gogh’s work is complete without some of the colorful,  even splashy canvases from his last 2-3 years.  Sadly, most of his best known canvases are housed in other collections, but there were a couple of sunflowers and wheat fields, and the famous purple irises round out this eclectic collection/display.

Definitely a “must-see” for any lover of Van Gogh’s work.

Vermeer’s Delft

At the other end of the productivity spectrum is Johann Vermeer (1632-1675) who was known in his lifetime as a talented but painstakingly
slow artist.  According to the Vermeer Center in the artist’s home town of  Delft, he produced (an estimated) 40 or so canvases, of which only 35 have survived to this day. Although Vermeer was locally appreciated and sought after during his day, he did not receive world-wide accolades until well into the 19th century and has remained popular ever since. He is now most famous for his painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, thanks to the novel and movie of the same title.

What makes Vermeer such an incredible artist is his use and conveyance of light in his paintings. The light, usually coming from the left, is both suffuse yet also seems to spotlight the subject.  Many of his portraits, such as the Girl With a Pearl Earring seem incandescent with light.

If you like Vermeer I highly recommend a trip to the Vermeer Center in Delft.  This is not a museum that displays any of his original work.
Instead, there is a gallery of large, quality photographs of each of his
surviving paintings.  The value of seeing each reproduction sequentially is to trace his emerging style and use of light, as well as be able to get an appreciation of how much of his work reflected everyday life in medieval Delft.

I had had my reservations about paying to see just photographs, but in the end I felt I had learned and understood so much more about Vermeer and his work.  The center also has a brief video on his life and times,  exhibits that show contemporary artifacts of Delft, and a reproduction of his studio.  Most interesting was the series of exhibits that detailed his use of light in every aspect from its shading and coloring of human skin to how it both illuminates and reflects from still objects.

The town of Delft itself is delightful.  Ribboned with small canals and traversed by cobbled streets and bridges, Delft is a charming and pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The main canal in Delft with the flea market on either side.

Delft Town Hall of the Market Square

Houses on a side canal

The House of Escher 

The Escher Museum in den Haag (“The Hague” to the non-Dutch) is housed in one of the former palaces of the Dutch Royal Family.  The high-ceilinged rooms, with their crystal chandeliers spectacularly shaped into carnival masks, guitars, skulls and more, are a beautiful showcase of Escher’s evolving art.

Like most people, I was familiar primarily with Escher’s tessellations.  I emerged from the museum with a greater knowledge of the man and the breadth and depth of his work.  It is impressive.

After viewing the museum, I highly recommend a brief respite at the Hotel des Indes a few yards to the right as you exit the museum.  High tea is served daily in the domed lobby of this elegant hotel, complete with silver service and a timer for proper steeping of the tea leaves.  (You can also  have just plain old “low” tea and/or “spirits” and bar snacks if you prefer.)

The Escher Museum in one of the former Dutch royal palaces.

Hotel des Indes