Saturday, 10 March 2012

Travel: Munich ~ Ale and arty

If it's the English Garden in Munich, it has to be beer!

What does Munich spell without its beer gardens? That's what I set out to find in this teeming Bavarian city, known for its foaming and frothing Oktoberfest. The results were astounding. I came upon a poignant love-story that cut a swathe through the famed Blue Rider art movement. I came across a museum that was as individualistic as its proprietor. I came across local Bavarian humour that made me smile.

But, first, here's a glimpse into the essential Bavarian experience. A friend in Munich took me to the Hofbrauhaus, the decades-old haven that distils local culture for tourists in a hurry. We wound our way past the wooden trestle tables with sturdy benc hes to match, where evening crowds jostle and cheer and raise their huge tankards to celebrate the in-house beer.

Beyond the main dining-space, we came across an aged wooden rack, locked onto which were hundreds of initialled beer mugs. These belong to regular customers who `sign in' so often that their roistering friends seek them out whenever their mugs are missing!

Up a winding wooden staircase, we come to roost in a huge wood-beamed dining room, where we feast on a Bavarian speciality -- roast suckling pig, potato dumplings and sauerkraut. Hearty, but heavy on the palate. All around us is an ever-smiling Japanese tourist group, constantly clicking their cameras, until they leave en masse at the dot of 10.30 p.m., to discover Munich by night!

Suddenly, there's a shuffling of lederhosen-clad Bavarian youth and dirndl-skirted blonde beauties on the stage. Long Bavarian horns sound their resonant notes. Dancers whirl through their paces at breakneck speed. Yodelling echoes through the timber in the hall. As the presenter welcomes guests from around the world, even ``one guest from India,'' I soon find myself whirling around the hall, arm in arm with total strangers. That's the spirit that imbues Munich throughout the year.

It spills over into the Viktualienmarkt beyond the central Marienplatz. That's where food from around the world is on sale, including jackfruit from India and Turkish aubergine paste, surrounded by stalls selling hundreds of varieties of cheese and sausa ges. The aroma is irresistible, so I buy myself some wurst (sausage) and mustard on porous rye bread to beat the autumn chill.

It was under the city's favourite clock, from which little figures dart out to chime the hour at Marienplatz, that I met the friend who would help me discover the secret lives of two of my favourite artists, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter, both Munich based at the turn of the last century. Kandinsky is lauded as one of the founders of the Blue Rider artists' group. Munter, his student for long, later became his mistress -- and saved his distinctive work from the Nazis when Kandinsky fled to Russi a, never to return.

Our first foray is into the Lenbachhaus museum, which houses a striking array of Blue Rider paintings. On its walls, Kandinsky and Munter rub shoulders through their work, hers obviously influenced by her mentor's.

Where did they lead their lives? How close was their bonding? To find the answers, we board the train to Murnau, an hour's drive away. Scenes flash by -- blue mountains in the distance, bright fall foliage. I feel my blood pulse harder. It's uncannily as if the paintings I had seen at Lenbachhaus had come to life!

We join others at the recently-restored Munter house. These walls breathe incandescence into Munter and Kandinsky. The ceilings have exquisitely stencilled borders. Painted horses adorn the base of the steps. Even the stolid furniture in Kandinsky's bedroom reflects his strong personality.
The garden outside, which overlooks scenic Murnau, seems to have stepped out of his canvases. The views from the windows are like brushstrokes frozen in time.

On the love trail, we continue our search at a Munter retrospective at the Murnau castle museum. I come across a canvas of a cat she had painted when Kandinsky abandoned her -- and I realise that the emotional break-up had almost deprived Munter of her ability to paint. Tears sear my eyes, even as I will them not to.

Did Kandinsky love her? Did he not? My German friend and I debate the subject over hot chocolate at the Grisebrauhaus cafe in Murnau, where the Blue Rider painters met to crystallise their ideas all night long. Finally, we find our answer. For despite sifting extensively through Kandinsky's work, we can't find a single portrait of Munter -- except for a landscape where she has her back to him!

Off the Munter expedition, I spent hours at the museums of classical and modern art at Munich, taking in Dutch masterpieces and Greek sculpture. But I have to admit I was most charmed by The Centre of Unusual Museums at Isatorplatz, which houses the private collections of Manfred Klauda.

This wealthy private-collector shares his passions through the displays in the compact building. We find pedal-cars from the last century, from carriages to Mercedes models. Then, flasks that inventory the history of the perfume industry from Biedermeier to Baccarat. A roomful of furniture, photographs, clothes and letters that bring alive the memory of Sisi, better known as Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Soon, we come to an exhibition of padlocks, some 2,000 years old, including a hair-raising chastity belt! In the more private domain, we find exquisitely painted chamberpots over two millennia old, cheek by jowl with the bourdalou used by French society ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries (though they resemble sauce-boats at first glance).

What a curious collection, but what a remarkable curiosity towards the unusual in our world! The thought remained with me as I stepped towards the S-bahn or public transport system to return to a more normal world.

Munich is a city that lives many lives. It's up to you to discover what you will beyond the beer gardens, as I did to my daily delight.

What to see in Munich:
The English Garden (the scene of the Oktoberfest)
~ Hofbrauhaus
~ Alte Pinakothek or Museum of Classical Art
~ Nueu Pinakothek or Museum of Modern Art
~ Glyptothek or Museum of Greek and Roman art
~ the Olympic stadium
~ Museum for Volkerkunde or Museum of Folk Art
~ Viktualienmarkt or food bazaar.

(Originally in The Hindu Business Line, 2000)

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