Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Europe 2015: Munich

September 7, 2015
View from the Neues Rathaus
Back in June, we took a two-week vacation to Germany and Italy. We visited Munich, Mittenwald, Berlin, Florence, Tuscany and Rome.

The trip came together pretty quickly. Germany and Italy had been at the top of our list for a while, but we had nothing planned yet for 2015. Our last trip to Europe was in 2011, we'd been stateside for several years, and our passports were getting dusty. So one day in April, we went to a book store and perused the travel section. (To thank the store for the research space, we bought pocket Italian and German phrasebooks.)  A few days later we had flights booked.

Travel time from California to Germany is 11 hours plus layovers. With all the sightseeing and walking (and eating and drinking) we were planning to do, it seemed a shame to arrive all sore and tired from uncomfortable airplanes. So we splurged with our United Airlines frequent flyer miles and upgraded the first leg of the trip, SF to London, to business class. The experience was amazing: after a pre-flight snack in the business lounge at SFO, we boarded the 747-400 at 1 p.m. (Sunday) and climbed the stairs to the upper deck. We were served mimosas even before takeoff. Dinner was delicious, including prosciutto with melon, steak, a cheese platter, Malbec and port. We watched movies, slept a little with our seats reclined all the way back, and relaxed until the equally yummy breakfast. In London we utilized the business class lounge, with lovely private showers and another full breakfast. (All our flights after this were back in economy, so we milked the experience, with all its "free" amenities, for all it was worth.)

We landed in Munich mid-day on Monday and took the train into town. One German custom we noticed immediately when we checked into our hotel was the use of two blankets on two-person beds, one blanket for each person covering half the bed. We dropped off our stuff (a large backpacking pack and a small day pack) and walked toward Old Town. We went through the Marienplatz, the central square housing the New and Old City Halls. We saw the mechanical dancing dolls in the Glockenspiel (you know the show is about to start when hundreds of tourists gather and look up at the same building), and went up to its observation deck for a great view of the city. Other memorable sites there included the Karlsplatz with its big fountain, the Hofgarten (completed in 1617), and the fish market.

We had dinner at Augustiner, run by the brewery of the same name. This was our first taste of Bavarian food: sausage, sauerkraut, asparagus soup, pretzels, and beer. We shared both their weissbier (what we'd call a hefeweizen at home; there that designation is more specific) and dunkel (darker and malty, not that common in American breweries). They were both delicious but we liked their dunkel better.

With our body clocks now off by nine hours, and with only an hour's sleep the night before, we were sound asleep by 8:15 p.m. (After that, we were pretty much adjusted.)

Fountain at Karlsplatz

Breakfast in the hotel was a huge Bavarian buffet. Overall I liked German food more than Steph did, maybe because it was similar to the European-Jewish food I grew up with (which substituted beef for pork). Sausage, salami, bread, cream cheese (frischkäse), sauerkraut, mustard: hard to go wrong. Steph found the cuisine lacking in raw vegetables.

One of the things I love about traveling abroad is learning little bits of foreign languages. I had gotten German and Italian pocket phrasebooks and made a stack of flash cards for each language. I ended up putting a lot more time into German than Italian, which was ironic because the Germans spoke much better English than the Italians. Anyway, I didn't want to be one of those tourists who expects everyone to speak English, and it gave me confidence that I could get around more easily.

After breakfast, we went on an errand to buy a local SIM card. We mostly wanted data, for navigating and looking up restaurants and sights during the day, and also figured a few calling minutes would be nice to make reservations and so forth. The best option I had found in my pre-trip research was the Cross option from Ortel, with 750 MB of data across the whole E.U. for €20, and as it turned out, a shop down the street from our hotel sold it. (We were initially stymied because my phone, which I bought at retail unlocked and expected to use, turned out to be locked – damn AT&T apparently locked it when I switched to them, even without a contract – but fortunately Steph's phone, on a contract with Verizon and presumed to be locked, turned out to be unlocked, so we used hers. It's a nice feature with iPhones that even the CDMA models take SIM cards for GSM networks.) The service was excellent – we had coverage everywhere we went in both countries – and we only ran out of data on the last morning of the trip.

Our main activity on Tuesday was the BMW Welt (World) museum and factory tour. (We've never owned a BMW, we're just fans of both their cars and motorcycles.) In the museum we learned about BMW's history, starting with airplane engines, then motorcycles, and eventually cars. At one point there were dozens of other motorcycle manufacturers in Germany, but they all disappeared. I loved their carbon fiber and glass electric concept car (which the i8 appears to be based on). We learned about their design process, with 10 teams competing with each other for each model.

In the factory, we watched flat steel sheets get pressed into shape for parts, and robots "spot welding" thousands of points on steel frames. Unlike other car manufacturers which ship to dealers to sell speculatively, every car that comes off a BMW plant has already been ordered by someone, with 10,000 possible variations, so (almost) no two cars are exactly alike. We learned about the tradeoffs of steel vs carbon fiber: only half as much carbon fiber is needed for the same strength, but it's 20x more expensive. The factory was there before Munich's residential neighborhoods sprawled out to encompass it, so they had to build vibration dampeners under the plant to minimize disruption.

Their work schedule sounded pretty great: 35 hour work weeks, 3 weeks off in December, a week off in August.

In between the museum and the tour, we walked down the road to the Olympic Park, which hosted the [tragic] 1972 Munich Olympics. Most of the arenas were closed or required payment, so we just walked around the grounds.

For dinner, we went to the English Garden and ate at a restaurant called Hirschau. We wanted to sit outside and enjoy the gardens, but it was cold, so the waitress (who must have thought we were crazy) gave us blankets to wrap around ourselves. We ordered beef tatar and zpechle (mac 'n cheese). We asked the waitress to recommend the best hels beer; she came out with pints of both Lowenbrauer hels and Franciskaner wiesbier hels, and assured us that they were "gut original münchen" beers. (They were good. We liked the Franciskaner better.)

After speaking German with the first waitress, she sent out a colleague who spoke English very well, and had spent a bunch of time in San Francisco (and thought it was "crazy"), so we chatted about home for a little while. (She also corrected my pronunciation of the German ch – I had been misled by the pronunciation guide in my phrasebook, should have watched more YouTube videos.) We said no cake, but were of course brought a platter of cakes anyway, and chose a (not surprisingly) very good one.

Next up: Kloster Andechs!

- Ben

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