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Christmas in Munich, Germany

Night falls on the Viktualienmarkt, an open-air collection of food stalls near Munich’s central Marienplatz.

Photo: Christian Kerber

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.

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