The sky over Munich is the dull silver of old coins and hung with fat, theatrical clouds. Church bells sound in the air, their peals muted by snowfall. The crowds of yesterday have vanished from the central square, the Marienplatz. Only a few vendors remain in the shuttered Christkindlesmarkt, packing up their wares.
In households across the city, Müncheners are enacting holiday rituals familiar throughout the Christian world. Shiny paper is being shredded. Ribbons are unfurled. A fowl of some kind is trussed for the oven. And someone is surely sulking on a corner of a sofa, face an image of sour disappointment lighted red and green by merry winking bulbs.
I, on the other hand, feel oddly elated. The beautiful city seems empty. I am an ocean and a continent away from home. The light melancholy that is an unwelcome but reliable gift of the season has loosed its customary hold. The day feels wide open. I will visit a beautiful Baroque church not out of piety but for the aesthetic joy that is an article of my own faith. I will take a bracing long walk along the broad avenues of Munich and through the English Garden, working up an appetite for a rich Christmas supper with a friend.
Most of my family is far away, it is true. But then most of my family, like those of many Americans, is scattered. They would be distant from me even if I were celebrating Christmas at home. Thus the urge to spend the holiday in a part of the world where so many of its familiar customs originated, while impulsive, was not altogether escapist; it came to me while on an earlier reporting trip to the largest Christmas store in the world.
That particular place, 90 miles north of Detroit in a region known as Little Bavaria, sprawls across an area physically the size of several football fields and psychically as big as the North Pole. Arrayed with Teutonic precision along the aisles of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (orthography theirs) is the full range of products cranked out by the industrial holiday machine. On my visit I counted 150 different styles of nutcracker. I saw ornaments that said “Merry Christmas” in 70 languages. I saw 1,700 varieties of Precious Moments cherubs, each with the same woeful teardrop eyes. I saw 500 types of Nativity sets, from 70 nations, and Christmas balls in 6,000 designs (including one that featured a tractor driven by a pig). And scores of lawn Santas and shiny ceramic gingerbread houses and…well, somewhere between the glitter snow globes and the flameproof trees in post-nuclear colors, I found an exit and fled.
Sooner or later most of us realize that the magnetic center of the holiday force field is only partly composed of Hallmark moments. Deep at its core is a more tedious compulsion, the will to rake through the emotional trash of shared experience. Why not let it all go? I thought as the laptop whirred and the Expedia screen popped open. Why not skate across the surface of someone else’s sentimental landscape? Let others do the garlanding, prepare the festivity, adorn the tree, and stew the mulled wine. Let them cook the goose.
So I booked a trip to the most obviously holiday-centric place I could think of, a southern Bavarian city that may be the last European center whose citizens can be said to have a native costume. Munich approaches Christmas with particular earnest, its fabled seasonal markets being one obvious proof. There are plenty of others. Tucked in the cavernous basement of the Bavarian National Museum are scores of crèches amassed by a local collector whose trove of Nativity scenes is larger than any I have encountered, including the one at the Certosa di San Martino, in Naples, where the art of crèche-building attained a kind of weird, ecstatic apogee in the 18th century.
Not only but particularly at Christmas, Müncheners go about in traditional loden coats and lederhosen. They wear caps with boar bristles valuable enough to be listed in testamentary codicils. The effect of walking around in a place where people are gotten up in this fashion is that it can occasionally seem as if the pages of the city’s municipal calendar stopped turning at some unspecified time in the past.
Was it the 1950’s? It can seem so at moments when snow renders the city a black-and-white snapshot. But there are also times when, as you walk the narrow alleys and thread your way between ancient structures huddled close at the rooflines, the city of the Middle Ages asserts itself. Turning a corner onto a dark lane, the only sound your own quickening footfall, it is easy to conjure the world as it was in the days when night fell like a blinding shroud.
In the Munich of now—as of then—families pull Christmas trees on sleds through the streets. Merrymakers cluster at fir-garlanded sheds set up inside the courtyard of the Baroque Residenz palace. Vendors from the countryside flock to the city to sell weisswurst made from closely guarded family recipes. In the palace courtyard one pre-Christmas evening, I joined a small crowd watching a mechanical reindeer speak. A deep bass voice issued from between yellowed wooden teeth as the reindeer’s antlered head moved from side to side. Whatever he was saying was lost on me and yet I stood in the dusk with the others, listening as if to an oracle, mesmerized.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The Munich I am describing is a place of well-worn cliché, a city one New York Times correspondent characterized as being “as cool as polka music on cassette.” This is Munich the drowsy, the rich, the southern, the Catholic, the altogether self-satisfied. It is the Munich of Bayern Munich, the powerful and dominant soccer club; of BMW and Siemens; of industries (mostly tech these days) whose working ranks are drawn from a young and highly educated population (an estimated 90,000 students study at the city’s technical schools and universities).
There is another Munich, of course, the recently hip one. This city favors rave clubs with Communist themes and statues of Lenin, techno bars, and designs by the Pritzker Prize–winning starchitects Herzog & de Meuron, who have been mightily praised for, among other things, transforming a series of interconnected 19th-century buildings into a glossy shopping complex. They are also celebrated for the massive Allianz Arena on the city’s outskirts, a building some admirers describe as a poetic cloud bank but which reminds me of a Naugahyde ottoman my parents bought during a groovy 1960’s decorating phase.
The building boom of the past decade in Munich was bright, but brief. Wealth receded in the global financial crisis, and Germans from the north quickly resumed their condescending stance toward the bumpkins from Bavaria. Still, in 2007, the editors of the cosmopolitan digest Monocle anointed Munich the most amenable city in the world in which to live.
Like the Müncheners themselves, the Monoclers tend to be cultural conservatives. And, although the latter based their conclusions on objective criteria like access to fine dining, clean streets, efficient public transport, and generous green spaces, the values they were tacitly endorsing have defined Munich at least since Heinrich the Lion chose this village on the Isar River for his seat in 1158.
“In no other major German city,” as the German writer Winfried Nerdinger once observed in an indispensable architectural guide to the city, “was the urban image so consciously, constantly and systematically polished.”
After Allied bombs reduced half of the structural substance of Munich to rubble, the locals decided to rebuild it exactly as it was. It is not necessarily obvious to the average visitor strolling through the serenely antiquated squares and cobblestoned courtyards or stopping to watch the famous kitsch Glockenspiel toll its 43 bells, but a great deal of what one sees in Munich was constructed after 1945.
A late-20th-century ring road frames the historic center like a subtle barricade, enclosing structures like the Alte Pinakothek, which is one of the premier treasure houses of art in Europe, the Glyptothek, and the royal Residenz. The hundreds of marbled, gilded, and ornately plastered rooms in this Wittelsbach family seat were tragically pulverized in the Second World War and then miraculously resurrected in replica.
The inroads of contemporary architecture register only feebly on a visitor to Munich; what strikes one instead are the subtle cumulative effects of a town that has consistently resisted the new. It is true that the city is home to industrial designers Constantin Grcic and Clemens Weisshaar, and also true that it is occasionally touted as the next Berlin. There are hipster bars serving cocktails made from tarragon and artisanal vermouth and there are flagships for Gucci and Valentino and Prada. “Take a walk along the Maximilianstrasse,” Christian Hemmerle, young scion of a jeweler family that has catered to the Munich gentry since the days of Ludwig II, told me. “We are one of only two or three non-chain shops left on the street.”
Yet despite the incursions of the global luxury goods machine, I found in the side streets of Munich more traditional merchants than in any other city I know of comparable size. Hatters. Glove makers. Lederhosen specialists. There are boutiques that offer little besides clothes made from boiled wool. Tucked in the lee of the massive Hofbräuhaus is a hole-in-the-wall shop specializing in horn buttons and pewter charms. Just steps from the central square stands a store selling a thousand varieties of felt.
I found all these things in Munich, but the greater pleasure was the city’s underappreciated cultural institutions, which, during the busy run-up to Christmas week, I had more or less to myself.
Guards were my sole company on the morning of a visit to the celebrated Glyptothek, a Neoclassical temple built in the 19th century to house a collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The best known of these is the Barberini Faun, of course, a kind of proto-gay icon depicting a naked youth asleep on a panther skin. Whether or not it was made for a Dionysian cult or installed by Hadrian in his villa or coveted by a homosexual pope, there is no disputing the allure of the faun (a satyr, really), with his muscular, splayed legs, faintly dopey look of inebriation, and an eroticism so lush it seems too bad that he is just stone.
One gallery at the Glyptothek is filled with Roman portrait heads: a second-century matron with an Amy Winehouse beehive; a time-raddled Old Man; a plump-faced Nero looking less the barbaric ogre than an early version of the Beach Boy Brian Wilson. After days spent in a city overtaken by Nativity madness, it was not unpleasant to spend some time in the marmoreal company of these early pagans and briefly to contemplate the existence of the world before Christ.
Still, I had gone to Munich with, despite myself, some wish to revive the joy and excitement of the Christian holiday, and this I did at the Christmas markets that spring up like instant villages; in the Odeonsplatz, where vendors haul in fresh-cut fir trees every morning; and at restaurants that offer seasonal menus replete with midwinter fare like nut-fed boar.
On Christmas morning, I found a kind of unexpected bedazzlement in the tiny Asamkirche (officially the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk), a Baroque jewel redolent of pine boughs and frankincense. Little about the façade of the Asamkirche can prepare a visitor for what lies beyond its portals—a puzzle-box interior super-populated with gilded saints and skulls and hectic putti, with Madonnas and agonized Saviors and with memento mori like the twin skeletons with bony outstretched fingers holding the scales of judgment by a thread.
From there I headed to the English Garden, which I had visited the day before, walking its paths of chestnut and oak with a Munich friend, an expatriate Singaporean whom I had met two years earlier on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Though not the largest seasonal market in Munich, the one we happened upon by the giant pagoda folly called the Chinese Tower was the merriest and most magical. Parents supervised their children on a carousel, vendors sold homemade pfefferkuchen, and a carpenter explained to customers that the cutting boards he sold were planed from trees legally culled from these very woods. The light that evening was blue, but only the light.
I did not know yet that, after we parted, I would dine on excellent roast goose at the Spatenhaus an der Oper; return to my featherbed at the hotel for a sleep an infant would envy; and awake to find Munich muffled in snow, the air reverberating with church bells sounding the Angelus.
Yet I felt an uncommon lightness. I was not alone, not lonely, and was for once without the premonitory dread of holiday letdown, that lingering childhood sadness that follows expectations pitched too high. My friend and I stopped to buy mulled wine from a booth at the base of the Chinese Tower. Then the two of us—a lapsed Christian and a lapsed Buddhist, raised on opposite ends of the planet—clinked together our plastic glasses, toasting the wonderful improbability of almost everything.
There are direct flights to Munich from 10 U.S. airports.
Bayerischer Hof A former palace and the grande dame of the city. 2-6 Promenadeplatz; 800/223-6800 or 49-89/21200; bayerischerhof.de; doubles from $578.
Mandarin Oriental Centrally located gem with recently renovated rooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant. 1 Neutürmstrasse; 800/526-6566 or 49-89/290-980; mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $503.
Sofitel Munich Bayerpost Boutique hotel set in a former post office. 12 Bayerstrasse; 800/763-4835 or 49-89/599-480; sofitel.com; doubles from $261.
Buffet-kull Locals line up for the generous portions of brasserie food. 4 Marienstrasse; 49-89/221-509; dinner for two $98.
Café at the Museum Villa Stuck Surprisingly good soups and sandwiches, prepared by lauded restaurant Zimmes & Zores. 60 Prinzregentenstrasse; 49-89/4555-5166; lunch for two $37.
Schumann’s Bar The city’s best upscale hipster scene. 6-7 Odeonsplatz; 49-89/229-060.
Spatenhaus an der Oper 12 Residenzstrasse; 49-89/290-7060; dinner for two $118.
Zum Alten Markt Reservations are essential at this tiny spot, which serves classics like suckling pig. 3 Dreifaltigkeitsplatz; 49-89/299-995; dinner for two $87 (cash only).
Bayerischer Kunstgewerbe-Verein Store & Gallery Beautiful handmade jewelry, glassware, sculpture, and furniture. 6-8 Pacellistrasse; 49-89/290-1470; kunsthandwerk-bkv.de.
Christmas markets Visit muenchen.de for locations.
Hemmerle Internationally renowned jeweler that also makes objects in iron and rock crystal. 14 Maximilianstrasse; 49-89/242-2600; hemmerle.com.
Johanna Daimer One-of-a-kind shop with art and furnishings made of 100 percent wool felt.23 Adlzreiterstrasse; 49-89/776-984; daimer-filze.de.
See and Do
Alte Pinakothek 27 Barer Str.; 49-89/2380-5216; pinakothek.de.
Bavarian National Museum 3 Prinzregentenstrasse; 49-89/211-2401; bayerisches-nationalmuseum.de.
Church of St. Johann Nepomuk 62 Sendlingerstrasse.
English Garden For information visit schloesser.bayern.de.
Glyptothek Königsplatz; 49-89/286-100; antike-am-koenigsplatz.mwn.de/glyptothek.