Bavaria beckons: Don't wait for the Oktoberfest to enjoy the charms of Munich and nearby sights
August 31, 2012
WIESBADEN, Germany - For those of us fortunate enough to have attended the University of Maryland when it still had a campus in Munich, the experience left a lifelong impression.
Besides the matchless educational opportunity -- a small school where students quickly got to know one another as well as the professors -- the setting was truly unique. Situated in the Bavarian capital, the campus and academic curriculum offered easy access to a wealth of culture (with numerous field study classes to the opera, museums and historical landmarks) and some of Europe's most famous tourist and recreation areas.
Those days are long gone -- a time when many more Americans served with the U.S. forces in Germany -- but the city continues to attract international visitors year-round. While millions come from far and wide to squeeze onto the Theresienwiese for the annual Oktoberfest -- this year running from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7 -- Munich is best visited at any other time of the year.
With beer gardens large and small situated throughout the city; the Isar River offering miles of bike trails and park areas along its banks; the site of the 1972 Olympics which regularly features festivals, concerts, markets and other events; and a host of museums, shopping opportunities and more -- Munich is hard to resist.
Camping on the Isar
Like Bern, the capital of Switzerland, Munich features the ideal camping spot on an inviting river. Situated in a wooded area on the southern edge of the city, the Campingplatz München-Thalkirchen offers instant access to great running and biking trails both toward and away from the city, a short walk to one of Germany's best zoos -- the Tierpark Hellabrunn -- and a U-bahn station nearby for getting around in the city. Several typical Munich beer gardens featuring ribs, radishes, Obatzta (a Bavarian cheese specialty) and big mugs of the local brew are also within walking distance -- the Flaucher and Waldwirtschaft Grosshesselohe (which features live music).
Camping is relatively cheap -- we spent about 30 Euro a night for a family of four. Getting around was equally inexpensive -- a three-day public transportation pass for up to five travelers cost 23.70 Euro (tickets available at the front desk of the campgrounds). While the camp gets crowded in early August and during the Oktoberfest, there is almost always room for tents as long as the camp is open.
Munich has many attractions, with its famed museums high on the list. The Alte and Neue Pinakotheken are two among a range of world-class museums showcasing old and new master artists. Younger visitors will most likely prefer the Deutsche Museum, which like the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia, features all things scientific and technical.
Shoppers will want to spend some time in the heart of the city wandering up the Kaufinger Strasse pedestrian zone, stopping for coffee and cake at the Viktualien Markt or heading over to Schwabing to browse past a host of boutiques, cafes and eateries.
From Schwabing, stroll into the 900-acre Englischer Garten where Munich's residents go to celebrate special occasions, relax after a hard day of work or school, and generally unwind. Don't be surprised to see some of the older inhabitants still shedding all of their clothes for a quick dip in the coolly refreshing waters that run through the park. Inline skaters, bikers, Frisbee throwers and slack line practitioners all have plenty of space to enjoy themselves in the sprawling city park.
While there are several beer gardens situated throughout the park, the most well-known among tourists is the Chinese Pagoda area where lederhosen-clad musicians play oompah music from the wooden tower while all around them visitors enjoy giant pretzels, grilled fish and a range of liquid refreshments.
From Munich one can also easily explore other nearby sights.
Those who have never been exposed to the incomprehensible cruelty of the Nazi regime can get a firsthand look with a visit to the Dachau concentration camp. Dachau is a short ride away on the S-bahn.
Or head south on the train for an excursion boat ride on the the Starnberger See. Feed the swans and bring along a German history book to read about King Ludwig's demise in the lake's mountain stream-fed waters.
The Deutsche Bahn offers a special Bavarian Ticket which costs under 40 Euro providing up to five people one day of train transportation. That means that from Munich a family of four can easily hop on the train and head south to the Starnberger See or Garmisch-Partenkirchen for a day of hiking in the Alps.
From the Munich Hauptbahnhof we caught the regional express to Garmisch, walked about a half an hour to the base of the ski jump, site of the 1936 Winter Olympics, and then enjoyed a couple of runs down the summer bobsled run before hopping on the Eckbauer cable car. The Eckbauerbahn, two-person passenger cars that continuously travel up the mountain, provide an ideal vantage for photos of the surrounding peaks and valley below.
Once at the top, stop for a quick bite at the lodge, and then follow signs back down the other side of the mountain into the Partnachklamm (gorge). Even if you've seen pictures of the gorge, there's nothing quite like taking off the shoes to cool one's feet off in the freezing cold stream above the gorge (fed by the melting Zugspitze glacier) before hiking into the narrow chasm alongside the gushing water.
Once used as a means to transport freshly cut logs from the mountains down into the valley, today the Partnachklamm serves as one of the area's most popular tourist attractions. Visitors who decide to spend more time in Garmisch may also wish to visit the Hollental Gorge set high over the nearby village of Grainau.
The University of Maryland Munich Campus may be just another footnote in the history of the U.S. Forces in Europe, but its memory lives on -- and Munich continues to beckon all who seek a truly memorable vacation spot.
For more information on visiting Munich stop by your local library for reference materials or visit www.muenchen-tourist.de/englisch/index_e.htm. If Munich's Oktoberfest is one of your must-visits during your European tour, ask at Outdoor Recreation or the USO about upcoming trips. Garmisch's Edelweiss Lodge and Resort also offers a wealth of information about accommodations, tours and recreational opportunities. Visit http://www.edelweisslodgeandresort.com for details.