Category Archives: Mary’s Travel Blogs

Germany 5: Munich, Part 1 – The Old City, including the Amazing Rathaus

In Munich, I had one of the best surprises of our entire trip. There were many sights and landmarks in Germany that I knew in advance I would like to see (most of which I did), but when we emerged from Munich’s subway system into Marienplatz I experienced a moment of sheer delight that was totally unexpected. As I said on Facebook at the time, it was the closest I’ve come to a spontaneous scream since the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was August 26, and we had arrived at Munich’s massive hauptbahnhof (train station) from Bayreuth mid-afternoon, then rolled (dragged) our suitcases two (long) blocks to our hotel. The Mirabell, at the corner of Goethestrasse and Landwerstrasse, turns out to be located in an area with a lot of Turkish restaurants and shops. After settling into our room, we wandered around the neighbourhood a bit, then decided to take the subway to Marienplatz, the central square in the historical section of Munich. (Munich’s wondrous transit system includes the S-Bahn on the surface, the U-Bahn underground, and a host of connecting trams and buses, most of which meet either at or under the Hauptbahnhof. Everything we wanted to see in Munich was easily accessible from our hotel.)

At the Marienplatz stop, we got off the train and took the escalator up to street level, thinking we would emerge into a plaza with some nice old Bavarian buildings surrounding it. Instead, this was the gasp-inducing sight that greeted us:

Neues Rathaus, Munich

Marienplatz has been the central square of Munich since 1158, and the massive Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has been its prime attraction since 1874. (Parts of the building were damaged in the air raids of 1944 and were rebuilt following the war.) We took dozens of photos of this remarkable neo-Gothic building (of which I will spare you 99%), and when we went back the following day we waited in the square to witness the chiming of the hour from the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. To the great delight of tourists like us, this attraction features figurines that emerge from the central tower three times a day, enacting stories from Bavarian history,

Here’s a short sample of what the glockenspiel looks like in action. The top section depicts a 16th century joust that was held to honour the marriage of a Bavarian duke to a member of the House of Lorraine. The lower section shows coopers “danc[ing] through the streets to ‘bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions’” during a plague in the early 1500s. In 2022, we can easily relate to the need for such distractions.

In addition to the New City Hall, Marienplatz is the site of the Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), the Marian column (the pillar you can see in the top photo in front of the Rathaus, with the gold statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of it), and many shops and restaurants. Nearby sights include the Frauenkirche and Peterskirche, neither of which we had time to tour.

The day after our arrival, we took a tram rather than the subway to the Old City. As we walked from the tram stop back to Marienplatz, we came across the Asamkirche, which I’d seen mentioned in my travel guide, and went in to have a look. This late-Baroque style church was built for the private use and “salvation” of its designers, two brothers – a sculptor and a painter. Wikipedia reports (albeit in a statement with no citation) that “Due to public pressure, the brothers were forced to make the church accessible to the public.” I did wonder what sins might have led the brothers to believe that they needed to create such opulent facilities in order to save their souls, but I’ve been unable to find the answer to that question.

Also near Marienplatz is Munich’s Viktualienmarkt where since the 1800s, large crowds of tourists and Münchners have gathered to eat sausages and pretzels and other tempting treats prepared by local vendors, to drink beer and listen to live music, and to purchase fresh meats, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, as well as plants, honey, herbs and spices and a lot of other things.

Germany 4: Bayreuth, Part 2 – The New Palace and the Margravial Opera House

Both of the two amazing Baroque structures we saw in Bayreuth were built at the behest of the Margrave Friederich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1711-1763) and his wife, the Margravine Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 – 1758). Partly due to their extravagant home-decor decisions and partly because of their mid-18th century contributions to opera in Bayreuth, their tenure had a permanent influence on the region.

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a “margrave” is “a military governor of a German province, particularly a border province,” although this seems to be an archaic definition, or “a member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess.” Britannica adds that it is a “ranking in modern times immediately below a duke and above a count, or earl.” I hope that helps.

When his father died, Friederich was unprepared to assume his role as margrave because his father had failed to explain to him what his responsibilities might be. Friederich’s wife, the beloved sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, seems to have intervened to help where she could, simultaneously advancing her own agenda, and between the two of them they managed to build properties of historical interest and significance, support the arts and sciences (he established a regional university and an academy of art), and in general to enhance the reputation of the region (no doubt at the expense of thousands of less fortunate souls who could have put the money to better use).

Das Neues Schloss (The New Palace)

The old palace in Bayreuth burned down in 1753, and this provided an opportunity for Friederich and the Margravine to design and construct the building we toured on our second full day in Bayreuth. Das Neues Schloss, as it is called in German, was constructed to incorporate five existing buildings, which must have presented untold headaches to the architect. (How he executed his assignment – which he had to do on a shoestring on top of everything else because the Margravian couple had already overspent their building budgets on the Bayreuth Opera House and another residence – is engagingly described on German Wikipedia.)

The first floor of this enormous, horseshoe-shaped residence apparently features a comprehensive collection of faience (pottery decorated with coloured glass) and an exhibition entitled “The Margravine’s Bayreuth,” but we did not have an opportunity to see either of these exhibits due to the time of day. We were, however, able to stroll (almost alone) for an extended period through the second floor of the palace, where a significant portion of the baroque excesses that formed the original furnishings and decor have been either preserved or reproduced.

Some of the highlights of the residence’s long series of interconnected rooms include the rococo “Palm Room” and the “Hall of Fractured Mirrors.”

In addition to the wall designs, parqueted floors, decorated ceilings and accoutrements, I was taken with a decidedly undecorative bas relief on the main floor near the entrance to the residence, which has an interesting story attached to it. I think this is how it went:

Either “our” margrave or a previous one had a jester in his employ of whom he was very fond. The jester, a dwarf, was not popular among others in the court due to his barbed wit, and of course he was also the target of animosity because of his physical appearance. Ill-wishers (it is thought) arranged matters so that the jester’s small horse was tripped by a stone and fell, tossing the jester into the street and killing him. The margrave was so sad at this offensive act that he had a plaque made to commemorate the deed.

Bas relief depicting the demise of a favoured jester

The back of the new palace opens onto the long park we’d walked through that morning after visiting the Richard Wagner house.

Given its size and splendour, it is difficult to absorb the fact that the Margrave and Margravine’s visions for their New Palace had to be seriously curtailed because of their previous spending excesses. It is hard to imagine what the place would have looked like if they’d had unlimited resources.

The Margravial Opera House

After leaving the palace, we wandered further through Bayreuth’s lovely Alt Stadt (Old City) before going to find dinner. We had not intended to do any more sight-seeing involving admission fees that day, but when we came upon the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus), a UNESCO site, we learned that you can’t get even a peek inside the actual facility unless you are on a tour or attending a concert. There would be one more tour that afternoon, they said, but it was in German. The attendant offered us a reduced rate since we are German-deficient, and we decided to go for it. We were very glad we did.

Lovely fountain across the street from the Margravial Opera House

Described in the site’s brochure as “one of the most important remaining examples of baroque theatre architecture,” the Margravial Opera House was built in honour of the 1748 wedding of the Margravine’s daughter, Sophie, to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemburg. Wilhemine was very interested in music and she composed, performed, and played several instruments herself. She was also keen to build interest in opera in general and to let the world know how cultured things were in the Bavarian city that was her home: at one point she brought a whole Italian opera troupe to Bayreuth. In the weeks-long celebration of he opening of the opera house and Sophie’s wedding, there were Italian operas, French plays, and banquets.

The opera house in Bayreuth was designed by one of the leading opera theatre architects of the era, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, and Bibiena’s son Carlo supervised construction and then worked at the facility for more than ten years.

To call the decor of the loge theatre “extravagant” would be to seriously understate the matter. There is no way to describe it. As our guide told us various facts in German, we sat in our seats, our heads back, staring open-mouthed at our surroundings. Every square inch of every wall and every bit of ceiling is decorated with wisps of gold and ribbons and cupids and paintings of people and every single bit of the design is probably where it is for a reason. It is a true sight to behold.

The lowered stage curtain is the illustration of an early opera set and gives some sense of what the place must look like when the lights go down.

The Margravial Opera House was extensively restored between 2013 and 2018 (mostly cleaned and brightened, as there was little actual damage) with a goal of preserving its unique beauty well into the future – not to mention its representation of an era where such excess was even thinkable.

The music was a lovely touch.

Germany 3: Bayreuth, Part 1 – The town, and the Wagner Museum

Quiet Charm and Culture

On our first evening in Bayreuth, we walked from our hotel down into the old part of town for dinner. En route, we passed Wahnfried House, where the Wagner Museum is located, and Neues Schloss (New Palace), both of which we would tour two days later. The streets were quiet, wide and cobbled, and even where people had gathered, they seemed to have done so on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. When we took a bus through the downtown area on our way to the concert at the Festspielhaus the following day, we noticed that the central part of Bayreuth looks much more urban than does the older area, but it’s still open and spacious, with a small-town feel.

The population of Bayreuth is 73,000. The town operates, I am guessing, like other single-focus tourism centres like Stratford, Ontario and Park City, Utah, upon which thousands of people from all around the world descend for several weeks each year to enjoy an annual festival ­– filling up all of the hotels and B&Bs, shopping, dining and asking stupid questions (“Why does this bus go this way when I want to go that way?” “Is a German dumpling like an English dumpling?”) then leaving the place in a state of relative peace and quiet for the remainder of the year. Festival attendees must drive the locals in these places nuts, but I’m sure we’re also essential to their municipal bottom lines.

We chose to eat at a popular restaurant named Manns Bräu. The outdoor patio was totally packed, so we sat inside, where we shared a table with a couple who’d come from a town near Cologne to hear the entire Ring Cycle, which started two days later and ran for four nights. They’d been coming to Bayreuth for decades.

Thanks to the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we were able to share our passion for Wagner’s music and our dismay at his antisemitism: all of this over sauerbraten mit sauerblau und Kloß (yes, a lot of sauer there, and a lot of calories), bratwurst, apfelsaft (apple juice) and beer (“What is the German word for lager?”) Sharing tables with strangers is a lovely custom.

On our second day in Bayreuth we attended the Tannhäuser opera that I have written about already, which was quite enough activity for one day. On our third, we toured three of Bayreuth’s cultural offerings, each of which was impressive and totally distinctive.

Haus Wahnfried and the Richard Wagner Museum

As I mentioned in my Tannhäuser post, after considering several options, Richard and Cosima Wagner decided on Bayreuth as the location for Wagner’s opera theatre and their own home, the latter of which they named Haus Wahnfried. (Wikipedia tells us that the name is a compound of the German words for delusion or madness [Wahn] and peace, freedom [Fried]. The inscription over the door provides a bit of explanation: “Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) Built between 1872 and 1874, the home is now a museum featuring not only some of the original furnishings, tableware, etc. set out in their original locations so you get a feel of what it must have been like to live there, but also displays of Cosima’s diaries and letters, and Richard’s writing implements and musical scores. Part of the house was destroyed by bombs during World War II but has been restored. Some of the artifacts within the house were also destroyed (including Wagner’s writing desk) but Richard and Cosima’s daughter-in-law Winifred managed to put most of the furniture and art in safe locations in advance of the air attack.

The basement of Haus Wahnfried has been renovated to include technological displays that offer insights into how Richard Wagner created his music, and how the score is transformed into sound.

There is also a separate home that Cosima (a widow by then) had built for her son Siegfried and his wife Winifred; Winifred lived there until she died in 1980. Siegfried and especially Winifred were fierce supporters of the Third Reich in all of its ugly manifestations, and this home was for an extended period a favourite place for Adolf Hitler to take a break from his efforts to conquer and transform Europe. A failed artist, he apparently loved to hang out here with the Wagner family and with Bayreuth musicians. Displays in this house explore the relationship between the Wagner-run Festspielhaus and the National Socialists. Throughout our visit to Germany I was impressed with the way the country has acknowledged and confronted the demons in its past.

The dining table at Siegfried House where Adolf Hitler often ate. Just looking at it gave me the creeps.

A third building on the site is new and very modern. It houses a separate museum less focused on Wagner himself and more on his operas and on “Wagnerism” in general. There we saw costumes, props and miniatures of sets from various productions of Wagner operas at Bayreuth. There was also a fascinating collection of the kind of bizarre objects that have appeared all over the world since Wagner died, either in acknowledgement of Wagner’s extraordinary talent or in an attempt to profit from association with his fame. There is also a cinema in the building.

Out back of the villa itself is the smooth polished piece of marble (outsized, of course) that marks the site of Richard’s and Cosima’s graves (he died in Venice in 1883, she at Bayreuth in 1930.) Nearby are those of several of Wagner’s favourite dogs. The secluded area which is the location of these graves opens up onto an extensive civic park, formerly part of the new palace of the Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (see next blog post), which gives visitors a sense that the Wagner property is much bigger and more pastoral than it is.

(This post is getting a bit long and I still have two significant sites in Bayreuth to write about so stand by for Part 2. 🙂