12 September 2009

The neighborhood that tourists forgot

Arthur divides the entertainment section of the Munich chapter into three sections: "for dancing," "for Bohemianism," and "for theatre."

The dance hall, which Arthur recommends "for shy bachelors," was closed, alas--it's now a furniture store. The bar next door, though, offered something for shy bachelors of a type the "girl-watching"-obsessed Mr. Frommer probably didn't have in mind. It's a bondage bar. I'm sure it would have been a cultural experience in all kinds of ways ... but I decided to give it a pass and move on to see what the Bohemians were up to.

These spots were all clustered in the northern part of town, away from the tourist center. The neighborhood is called Schwabing, and Arthur describes it as "the Greenwich Village are a of Munich ... in some respects, it's zanier and more colorful than anything New York offers."

I'll have to research this further, but my hunch is that post-E5D, Schwabing became a bit touristy. It's near the university--always a draw for young travelers--and about a 20 minute walk from the town center. And if Arthur sent the tourists there, they probably went.

Now, though, Schwabing is that rarest of finds: the place that was likely more touristy in Arthur's day, relative to other parts of the city, than it is today. I walked for blocks and blocks, on side streets and the main drag, and didn't hear English spoken once. There were bistros and hip record stores, guys on skateboards, teenagers doing parkour stunts in a plaza by the U-bahn station, and a cluster of old men playing chess on a massive board, with three-foot-high pieces, in an agreeably overgrown park. No t-shirt stores. No guitarists mangling pop songs in hopes of a few tips. It was utterly beguiling.

On Occam Strasse, I searched for restaurants Arthur recommends, and found none. But the street and the neighborhood were just as he'd promised: quiet, funky, hip, Greenwich Village-like.

I sat on a bench in a lush pocket park and pondered how it is that Schwabing retained--or reclaimed--its charm since the 1960s, avoiding being overrun with tourists and the attendant kitsch. I think I figured it out.

One word, a word that is major tourist bait: Oktoberfest.

Maybe you've heard of it. Little festival involving beer and drinking songs and men in lederhosen and women in drindls and beer and pretzels and schnitzel. And beer. As mentioned in the last post, this is why people come to Munich: for beer with a history chaser.

We'll be missing it by a few days, but the shops are filled with t-shirts and beer steins; the beer gardens and roller coasters (!) are being set up a few blocks from our hostel; the air is filled with the buzz of frantic preparation. They get six to seven million tourists every year for this thing. It's huge.

My theory is that Oktoberfest has permanently shifted Munich's tourism center of gravity to the areas around the train station and just to the south.

Oktoberfest started in 1818, so I know it was going on in the 1950s, but Arthur doesn't mention it. My guess (which I'll have to fact-check) is that it just wasn't a touristy thing back then. Probably only locals, or at least only Germans. At some point in the last 45-plus years, though, foreigners started deciding that passing out in gutters was a fun thing to do in one's leisure time, and Oktoberfest became what it is today: Germany by way of Disney by way of Vegas.

Tourists now stick to the south part of town, where there's plenty of beer to keep them occupied. Schwabing remains, or has become again, a placid-but-funky neighborhood.

So thank you, Arthur, for leading me away from the crowds. That's exactly the sort of unexpected delight that I hoped to find by using your outdated information.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You know the drill: keep it civil and on-topic, don't spam, don't run with scissors, floss. For posts older than three weeks, comments will be moderated before publication.