Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mini Grace's Report from Munich

Hello from Germany!

A few weeks ago, my parents, younger brother and I went on a trip to Munich, Germany. While I didn't have access to a kitchen and probably wouldn't have done a blog post there if I did, I did want to share some of our adventures with my readers, and so I brought along a little friend with me.

Say hello to mini Grace! Who unfortunately is always going to be promoting her love of Paris no matter what because I lack the ability to make her a mini Munich t-shirt. She was a fun pocket sized travel companion, and we got to see a lot of interesting stuff!

Munich - known in German as Munchen - is the capital of Bavaria, and was first mentioned in print back in 1158. It's an important city in all chapters of Germany history and has a lot of amazing history that's been carefully preserved, even after large parts of the city were destroyed during World War II. It's also home to Oktoberfest! The city's name loosely means "by the monks", referring to Benedictine monks who ran a monastery on the site of what would become the city. A monk in black robes is featured on the city's coat of arms, and several tours of the city feature guides dressed in similar medieval costumes.

The building above is the Rathaus, or the New City Hall, which features a glockenspiel that generally plays two or three times a day. It depicts a joust held in celebration of the Duke of Bavaria's marriage to a French princess, which is then followed up by several men preforming the "cooper's dance". It was one of the first things we saw when we came to Munich and is right in the city center. Tourists wait around in the plaza to watch the glockenspiel and meet for various tours of the city.

Our hotel was right down the street from the Residenz, one of the main palaces of the Dukes of Bavaria. It's been open to the public as a museum since 1918. It's a huge palace, and you can see most of it on your tours, walking through room after room of fabulous architecture and frescoes. Below, we've got Grace out in front of the building, in a dining and dance hall lined with authentic (and replica) Roman busts that one of the Dukes collected, a portrait hall with the members of the Wittlesbach line lining the walls, and a shot of a cool room where the family displayed their tiny china pots and collectibles on little nooks and shelves going all the way up to the ceiling. It was a very cool way to display your collection!

Large parts of the Residenz were destroyed during bombing raids during World War II. Munich was hit by 71 bombing raids, and while the city was fortunate in that a lot of its older buildings were able to be salvaged or rebuilt (unlike cities like Berlin, which has very little of its pre-war architecture intact), many still bare obvious scars from the war period. The Residenz is especially interesting, as many of the large frescoes in the center of the ceiling of several rooms were destroyed, while the smaller ones lining the walls were preserved. I wanted to ask why that was, but my German is very rudimentary and many of the docents didn't seem to speak English (and weren't very friendly!)

One of the most shocking causalities at the Residenz is the Court of All Saints, which was originally covered in beautiful gold detailing and was so badly damaged during the war, it wasn't reopened to the public until 2003. While many of the rooms have been painstakingly restored to something like their pre-war state, this one has not been. Instead, exposed brick work dominates, making it look impressive but still badly scarred by what happened to it. Comparing it to the pre-war photos of the room is definitely jarring, and today, it serves as a concert hall.

Another casualty of bombing raids during the war was the Paleontological Museum Munich, which housed the holotype of Spinosaurus, also known as the villain from Jurassic Park III. The museum today is housed in a building that used to be the former urban college of arts and crafts, and houses a real Archaeopteryx fossil discovered in 1991. Archaeopteryx is my favorite dinosaur, so I dragged my family all the way down to this tiny little museum just to see it. I've never seen a real one before, just a cast at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven and a few other museums, so this was pretty cool.

The museum itself actually reminded me a lot of the Yale Peabody, which was a favorite place to visit when I was little. It's small, and few of the signs are in English, but it's a cute little museum and definitely worth the visit if you're interested in paleontology like I am. 

One thing that was seriously impressive was how many different fruit stands there were around the city. We stopped by an actual farmer's market on our first day and were surprised to see just how much of everything there was, and how pretty it all looked!

Beautiful flowers, an insane variety of fruits and vegetables and baskets and baskets of lavender. Can't get any better than that! There were smaller stands all over the city too, and they were all a lot of fun to browse or glance at quickly as we headed to our next destination.

While Munich has a lot of respectable, lighter history, it's also a big part of the darkest chapter of German and world history: Munich is the birthplace of Nazi Germany. After World War I, it was a hotbed of political extremism, and was the site of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 - an attempt to overthrow the post war Weimar government that ultimately failed, and led to Hitler's temporary imprisonment, where he wrote his book Mein Kampf. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Munich again became a center for the movement, and was home to several important Nazi political offices and government buildings.

Not far from Munich, the first concentration camp was built at Dachau, and we took a tour to see the site and the museum that has been established there. As the first concentration camp, almost everything that was later done at other camps was tried at Dachau first.

To get there, you need to take the subway and then a bus to the historic site, which has been preserved since the end of the war. Originally, people weren't sure what to do with the various camp sites, but Dachau was almost immediately protected by people who wanted to turn it into a museum or historic site for people to understand and not forget what happened there. Many of the buildings are still original, although the barracks were knocked down, and the two that remain standing are just replicas built of the exact same materials as the originals.

The door was also original, but apparently, someone stole it last year. What kind of psycho steals the door to a concentration camp?

The camp is large, but not every piece of the outer camp complex was preserved. The administration buildings now house the museum and a theater to watch a movie explaining the Holocaust and Dachau's role in it, and around the site are several religious facilities and memorials to those who were imprisoned and killed here. Although Dachau was not a death camp the same way Auschwitz or Treblinka were, people still died and were murdered here. The two crematoriums and small gas chamber are also preserved, as well as a firing range used for executions, and there are several places that mark the spots where the ashes of the dead were buried.

Before I go into my thoughts about what it was like to visit here, I have another story to tell. A few years ago, I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC with my family, and was horrified to discover that many of the school groups there included kids who thought it was totally appropriate to play tag, laugh, and make jokes in the exhibit halls, including in a train car that was used to take people to Treblinka. I was so disgusted and angry, and I was really worried I was going to see the same thing happening here.

Instead, people were quiet and respectful, acting like they were here because they genuinely wanted to learn and remember, not because they were coming for the gruesome spectacle or being forced into it by some teacher. No one was playing tag, no one was taking obnoxious, touristy pictures with the door or the crematorium, and I was very, very relieved. According to our guide, it's required for every German child to visit one of the local camps with their school at around age twelve, and I wish we in the US were that strict about teaching kids about this part of history. I was fortunate to grow up in a community that does educate kids about it, but I know there are others that try to gloss over it, and that's a huge mistake. It was difficult to go, and I had to talk my dad and brother into coming with us because they were worried it would be too upsetting, but I'm glad we did it.

It worked out to be a whole day trip, so by the time we got back, we mostly just wandered around doing some shopping, including popping into a department store and spending a lot of time wandering around the cookware section. It's always fun to get a look at different product lines we don't have in the US.

The next day, we went to Nymphenburg, another palace of the Dukes of Bavaria. It's sometimes known as the Versailles of Germany, and while I've never been to Versailles and definitely thought Nymphenburg was pretty? I also see why we don't know Versailles as the Nymphenburg of France...

That said, it was very pretty. You don't get to visit as many rooms as you do with the Residenz, but that's because the current Duke still lives in part of the palace! Which I thought was pretty cool. It's also got several smaller homes on the spacious property for when various members of the family wanted a home away from their home away from home, and apparently is home to an impressive botanical garden! Which we didn't find out about until after we'd left.

But that was okay, because after that, we went to the zoo! The Munich Zoo might be one of the best zoos I've ever been to if only because unlike every other zoo I've ever been to, most of the animals I like were actually up and around doing things while we were there, instead of just tucked away in a quiet corner of their exhibit napping.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, my dad and brother went to see Allianz Arena, where the Bayern Munich soccer/football team plays. Having no interest in the sport, no matter what you call it, my mom and I went to the Spielzuegmuseum. It's a tiny museum in downtown Munich that gives a good overview of the history of toys in Germany. There's a lot of focus on the Steiff company, famous for their bears, but actually got their start with a plush elephant pin cushion! The founder was also - to my great surprise! - a woman, who was paralyzed on the right side of her body and needed to learn how to use a sewing machine backwards because of it. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, pretty much 90% of the city shuts down on Sunday. Restaurants and museums are open, but most shops and other places to visit are not, which limited our options for what to do while we waited for my dad and brother to get back.

We wanted to go to the new Documentation Center our Dachau tour guide had told us about, but when we got there, we found out that the internet had lied to my dad - they're not open on Sunday. Here's Grace looking sadly into the windows at a picture of Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose, a college aged anti-Nazi resistance group who were centered in Munich.

After we reconnected with my dad and brother, we took the subway to the Olympic Park, the home of several stadiums and facilities build for the 1972 Summer Olympics. It's right near the BMW factory, and is still in use by the public today for concerts, use of the pools and other facilities.

There isn't too much talking about the history of the games itself, but there's a display honoring the Gold Medalists from the games, banners explaining the history of the games in the Opening Ceremonies stadium, and a memorial at the exit to the eleven Israeli athletes and one German police officer who were killed during the Munich massacre. Below, Grace poses with Munich in the distance from the top of the Olympic tower, in the swimming pool facility where American Mark Spitz competed, and the Opening Ceremonies stadium.

On my last day in Germany, I dragged my family two hours out of Munich to Berchtesgaden, a tiny town in the Bavarian Alps that I desperately wanted to visit because it's one of the cities Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division (also known as the guys from Band of Brothers) helped liberate at the end of the war. The town itself is very charming and cute with plenty to do for tourists who aren't as interested in World War II as I am, but I definitely wasn't disappointed.

We went with a tour group up to the Obersalzberg Mountain, which was the location of Hitler's private residence in Berchtesgaden and also home to several other Nazi officials. During the war, the inside of the mountain was tunneled through to create an elaborate system of bunkers to use as a way to continue fighting even after it should have been clear they needed to stop. You can visit some of these tunnels and bunkers today, even though Hitler's home and several of the other larger structures were totally destroyed during a British bombing raid at the end of the war, or by the Germans and Americans after the war to prevent people from using Hitler's house as a sort of weird pilgrimage site.

The entrance to the bunkers now houses a documentation center discussing the rise of the Nazi Party to power, the war and their downfall. The bunkers themselves have been basically stripped bare, but still include period graffiti from the French armored battalion who liberated them!

What's that little building near the top of the mountain, you ask? That, my friends, is why I wanted to come here, and it's called the Eagle's Nest.

There's been some misunderstandings about what the Eagle's Nest actually was during the war, and the truth is, it's not Hitler's private home. The Eagle's Nest was a birthday present to Hitler and was a private tea room, which he actually didn't use very often. Other Nazi Party officials did spend a decent amount of time there, though, and the reason I wanted to visit it is because Easy Company was ordered to take it before the French or anyone else could get there. There's some debate about whether or not they got there first, but I tend to side with them because I've read way too many memoirs and seen too many interviews with the paratroopers to be objective here.

The drive up the mountain is a little harrowing, but you get amazing views of the mountains and cities around the mountain, including Austria! Hitler liked the Obersalzberg so much because he could see Germany and Austria at the same time.

(Yes, Hitler, the most famous German, was actually Austrian.)

To get up to the Eagle's Nest (more officially known as the Kehlsteinhaus), you have to go through a narrow tunnel and take Hitler's private elevator up to the top. 

And then you're there! Unfortunately, I didn't get too many pictures of the interior of the building because it was very crowded and we didn't actually have a lot of time to spend at the Eagle's Nest proper (one of the downsides of going on a tour...), but there's also just not too much to see. Most of the original furniture is gone, and it's now a restaurant, which was a little odd. There's a marble fireplace with chunks chipped out if it by American troops at the end of the war, and after our guide showed us a copy of a personal photograph Major Richard Winters took of the building while he was here, my first priority was running out of the building to recreate it as soon as possible.

And I did! And it was awesome! It was really cool standing down and looking at something that a historical figure I respect so much got to look at and photographed from the same spot, just as it always is. Band of Brothers wasn't filmed on location, but I've managed to convince my family to give the last episode a repeat viewing so we can compare and contrast the real thing with the TV show adaptation. It was an all day trip, but it was totally worth it.

Of course, I couldn't tell you guys about my trip without saying anything about the food. 

I was a little nervous about finding things to eat while we were there, if only because most German food I've had in the US I haven't been very impressed by, but everything we ate was pretty tasty. I've decided I'm especially fond of spatzle, which is basically German macaroni and cheese, but I also really enjoyed having easy access to soft pretzels and how good the croissants were! Croissants in the US are so hit or miss for me - the only ones I genuinely love are at Hen and Heifer, the bakery Grace visited last February - but I literally never had a bad one, no matter where we bought it from. They were light, flaky, and totally delicious, usually coming with a little packet of Nutella and jar of marmalade.

And while I didn't drink any beer - I don't drink - my family definitely enjoyed a lot of local favorites, and we frequented a variety of beer halls and gardens for lunch and dinner. The weather was pretty great while we were there, so it was fun to eat at the biergartens outside.

Unfortunately, as with any vacation, eventually I had to head back home.

I picked up a couple cool souvenirs while we were away, but the most practical one for the blog was this cool little silicone cake mold tray! 

It's not quite as easy to get these cakes out of the pan as they are with my cupcake molds, but they create pretty nice doll sized cakes, and I just couldn't pass up buying these. It comes with two recipes for "petit fours" which I'd like to try making sometime, but for the time being, I just used cake mix to test run the mold, and it came out pretty well!

I had a lot of fun in Munich. It's been a really long time since I've gone on a vacation for more than a few days, and it was hard to say goodbye. According to several polls, Munich is one of the nicest cities in the world to live in, and I definitely see why. The city's beautiful, there's so much to do, and the food is delicious. I'd definitely like to go back someday!

Hopefully you enjoyed taking a look at our pictures!

We definitely had fun taking them!


  1. Fun! I love Munich, and it looks like you had some great site-seeing opportunities there. Did you visit the BMW museum when you were over by the Olympic park?

    1. We didn't! We got over there a little late because my brother and dad's tour of Allianz was in kind of the middle of the afternoon. Is it worth visiting?

    2. It is, which surprised me since I'm not a big auto fan, but the installations were as much about social history and physics and engineering as they were about car worship. Much cooler than I expected.

    3. Oh awesome, that's definitely way cooler than I expected! Guess that's just another reason to want to go back. Thanks for the tip! :D

  2. Love the pics! I love Germany! My mom is from Stuttgart and I got to go in 1996. I would love to go again some day!

    1. That's so cool! I hope you get to go back, I'd definitely like to. Hopefully next time my German will be better so I'll feel less like a nervous tourist, haha. xD