A litre of beer and many Wursts later...

Munich: city of BMW-driving, Weissbier-quaffing, sausage guzzlers - or is there more to it? Jeremy Atiyah investigates

Is Munich just a city of Goths wishing they had been Latins? A BMW-driving people who strip naked in public parks and guzzle their way through 50 kilos of pork and 150 litres of beer per head per annum?

Before I visited, I knew it as the city which devoted itself entirely to beer-drinking every autumn, in the annual Oktoberfest. Well, yes. But the trouble was that all those supposedly beery hedonists also sat on benches in the Versailles-like garden of Schloss Nymphenburg (the old summer palace on the edge of town) having urbane discussions about Leibnitz and listening to Baroque music. To judge by the name, Bavaria (ie Barbary) may be a land of ill-educated peasants, but what about their famously clean, compact capital city of pedestrians and cyclists? Their easy access to the Alps? Their wealth and their superb art collections?

In short, what on earth was Munich really about? Intrigued by the contradictions, I set out to investigate.

The town centre, when I first got there, seemed typically bourgeois and German. The strictly pedestrian precinct of Marienplatz contained a gothic town hall - its statues, pinnacles and towers faded to the colour of old driftwood - and an array of spanking new fashion and department stores. Perfumed shoppers shuffled silently to and fro.

Nearby, I climbed up the tower of St Peter's church for a panoramic view: the utter provinciality of Munich reflected off its shining new red roofs. There were historic buildings out there all right, but the only thing that looked old was the Liebfrauendom church, its two massive domed towers vaguely evoking another Germany, a dark, forested, pre-Renaissance land. In the distance, beyond the silver, spidery, tent-like structure of the 1972 Olympic stadium, a ripple of snowy mountains announced the Alps and the border with Austria.

On ground level again, signs of that Germanic obsession with food and drink were all around. Strolling past the local delicatessen-butchers, under large signs announcing Eigene Schlachtung ("Our own slaughter"), I saw elegant window displays of pig-parts, including hearts, heads, tongues and trotters. Redoubtable ladies in hats were purchasing the classiest varieties of Wurst.

As for the Viktualenmarkt off Marienplatz, I found it packed at 10.30am with hundreds of people under horse-chestnut trees consuming beer and sausage. For a pre-noon snack, it seemed, two fat, white Weisswurst, a pretzel and a dollop of sweet mustard were a mandatory routine for all Bavarians - in anything from red-checked blazers to leather trousers. I joined in the general snacking with a bottle of Weissbier, a cloudy, sweetish brew made of wheat instead of hops.

My fellow drinkers looked entirely at ease with the notion of belonging to a peasanty, sausage-eating culture, but this has not always been so. Just north of Marienplatz, the mighty Residenz - the former royal palace of the rulers of Bavaria - is one giant tribute to Latin culture. Starting in the 16th century, emulous Bavarian kings sweated for 300 years on the fear of being left behind by Renaissance, rococo or neoclassical styles.

After lunch, from the cool halls, marble floors and classical figures near the entrance of the Residenz I made my way through to rococo rooms upstairs - extravaganzas splattered with gilt leaf and coloured stone - as far as Max I's tiny private chapel, comprising seamless inlays of coloured marble and lapis lazuli of scandalous opulence.

Seventeenth-century shades of BMWs and red-checked blazers? The ultimate was yet to come. The Altes Residenztheater at the back of the palace was the most ostentatious little room I had ever seen, a rococo riot built by the Belgian dwarf, Cuvillies, in which every column was the torso of a Bacchic youth, every balustrade a creeping tendril. Forget about performance art - this theatre was so intimate that people only came to watch each other. It was not exactly the court of Louis XIV, but how the Bavarians wished it had been.

But the German adulation of Latin culture is a commonplace. Less well known is the oddity of some of their other heroes. Great militarists? Gothic conquerors? Car manufacturers perhaps? Actually, no. In the eyes of Muncheners, the greatest Bavarian remains their 19th-century king, the foppish Ludwig II, whose interests in life boiled down to opera and fairy tales. Hating his own capital, Ludwig II built no monuments in Munich at all - his contribution to posterity was the fantastic castle of Neusch- wanstein in the mountains beyond.

Emotional, solitary, foreboding: these old Germanic concepts couldn't help cropping up. From a sunny, leafy street, I ducked into a dark, shrine- like museum devoted to the another Bavarian hero, one Princess Sisi, a tragic, anorexic 19th-century princess who has never been forgotten by her people. Photos of this Princess Di figure, miserably married to the Emperor of Austria, showed her with dark hair, a tight mouth and firm brows. I saw her parasol, her nightshirt, her mantel, even her travel medicine box containing Cocainspritze and Opium mit ther. In 1898 she was pointlessly stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in a case of mistaken identity.

It turns out that nobody appreciates the poignancy of pointlessness more than the purposeful Germans. In the Isartor, one of the original gates of the old city wall, I came across another little shrine-museum, this time full of grinning locals. The Valentin museum, which has ironic opening hours (10.01am to 5.29pm), commemorates the life of Valentin, Munich's equivalent to Charlie Chaplin, a joker with a Pinocchio nose. While I was inside, a grey-bearded artist in the courtyard was pointlessly arranging and rearranging bollards.

Thank God for Germany's degenerate side. Up in the north of the city, in the once Bohemian area known as Schwabing, I dropped in on the Alter Simpl, a wood-panelled cafe of high intellectual decadence where Thomas Mann dreamt up the physically enfeebled heroes of his novels, and where the satirical magazine Simplicissimus was launched. Sipping a beer under a nicotine-stained plaster ceiling, I admired two ancient locals at the bar who might have been character models for Death in Venice.

As for the royals, it wasn't only Ludwig II who had had decadent tendencies. His grandfather Ludwig I had an entire room in the Schloss Nymphenburg filled with paintings of his favourite women. The result, which I visited on a sunny Sunday afternoon, was the Schonheitengalerie, or gallery of beauties, a crowd of 160-year-old, life-like Jane Austen babes with curled or plaited hair. No vulgar blondes these, though some wore saucy transparent sleeves and low-cut frocks. Of all the pictures, the girl with the hottest lips was none other than Lola Montez - the English girl, masquerading as a Spaniard, whose scandalous relationship with the king helped to precipitate his abdication in 1848.

Which was all very well, but did the past's decadence reflect the whole truth about modern Munich? I decided to forgo one of the world's greatest art collections, in the Alte Pinakothek, in favour of a visit to a thoroughly up-to-date establishment, the Deutsches Museum - a celebration of German science, technology and industry.

This was something else. Scattered over countless halls and floors were rooms devoted to specialist subjects such as mining, ore dressing, machine tools and electrical engineering. Engines seemed to stimulate people in this country. "Yes, but you see the crankshaft was going this way and the pistons did not react under the power of the steam until the driveshaft..." Peering into a contraption with cogs, pistons, pipes and shafts spiralling out in all directions, I overheard two men urgently discussing the steam engine. "No, no, no. You see the crankshaft..."

The aeronautic section was even more appealing. German technology had lagged in this department: the fuselage of one of their earliest planes, the Messerschmitt ME163, looked as short and dumpy as a constipated bumble bee. But before there was time to gloat, I came across the German perspective on car construction, a catalogue of success that we never learnt in school: in 1879, the first two-stroke petrol engine was invented by Mr Benz; in 1883 the first car engine was patented by Mr Daimler; in 1897, the first diesel engine was presented by (yes) Mr Diesel.

All in all, the Deutsches Museum had been awesome. But had I yet seen the best of Munich? That evening I stepped into the famous Hofbrauhaus, or "Court Brewhouse", for a drop of Munchener beer.

It was like stepping into a very noisy cathedral. Massive columns supported a cool, vaulted ceiling. The leathery-shorts-and-feathery-hat brigade were represented by a few moustachioed gentlemen; 2,000 more roaring drinkers lined benches that stretched away into the distance. The oompah band, trumpeting and yodelling, played tunes of tear-jerking innocence. I squeezed on to a bench, shouted for Wurst and a litre of beer, and was soon rollicking arm-in-arm with a stubbly Austrian on one side and a grande dame from Frankfurt on the other. Forget Baroque, forget Ludwig II, forget even Daimler-Benz. At that moment, Munich's gift, the most cheerful pub in the world, felt good enough for me.

FACT FILE

Getting there

The author flew courtesy of Lufthansa (Tel: 0345 737737), who fly six times daily between Heathrow and Munich, twice daily from Birmingham and three times daily from Manchester. Fares from London start from pounds 129 return, plus taxes.

If you are willing to put up with the discomfort of a 22 hour bus ride, you can also get to Munich and back on Eurolines (Tel: 0990 808080) for just pounds 94.

Getting around

The U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems (for underground and surface trains respectively) are extensive. From the airport to the town centre costs DM13.40 (about pounds 4.50).

On foot or by bicycle is by far the best way to see Munich. Bikes can be rented from an agency at the railway station; they are also available from many of the outer S-Bahn stations.

Places to stay

The author was a guest of the Vierjahreszeiten Kempinski (reservations: Tel: 0800 868588) one of Germany's leading hotels. During the beer festival twin rooms cost pounds 169 and doubles pounds 203. The winter rate from Nov 1 is pounds 100 for all rooms.

Budget accommodation is also available in pensions and youth hostels; call the tourist board (below) for details. Book early during the Oktoberfest.

More information

The helpful German tourist board in the UK is on 0171 4930080. In Munich itself, there are information offices in the train station, the airport and also at Rindermarkt in Pettenbeckstrasse.

Of the various Germany guidebooks available, the best is the Cadogan Guide (Cadogan Books, pounds 15.99) which is an insightful and unusual pleasure to read, despite being a 1994 edition.

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