Know­ing my af­fec­tion for well-mani­cured ur­ban land­scapes, my son gave me a bit of ad­vice as he saw me off on a fast train from Zur­ich to Munich this past sum­mer. “Be sure to check out what’s at the south end of the Englischer Gart­en,” he said. “You’ll be sur­prised.”

“What is it?” I asked, im­ag­in­ing a neoclassical tem­ple, a Turk­ish tent, or may­be an Eng­lish maze.

Nope, he re­plied, it wasn’t one of those di­vert­ing fol­lies that so of­ten ap­pear amid the roll­ing lawns and bosk­y glades of 19th-cen­tu­ry Eu­ro­pe­an parks.

“A grot­to! Is it a grot­to?” I asked, im­ag­in­ing a moss­y, shell-en­crust­ed cave where rivu­lets of wa­ter pud­dle around a lime­stone wa­ter-nymph in a shal­low foun­tain.

“Not ex­act­ly a grot­to. Some­thing like that. Only bet­ter,” he said, grin­ning at my fan­ta­sies. So off I went, his mys­teri­ous tip slum­ber­ing at the back of my mind.

Munich is fa­mous for Ok­to­ber­fest, of course, when visi­tors (5.6 mil­lion in 2016) crowd the city’s beer halls or set­tle un­der rus­tling cano­pies of chest­nut leaves as they down huge mugs of local brews served by staff decked out in dirndls or le­der­ho­sen. Tra­di­tion, tour­ism and har­vest fest col­lude every au­tumn to pro­mote the Ba­var­ian cap­i­tal as a world-class par­ty town. But for cul­ture vul­tures like me there’s much more to Munich than ac­cor­di­on schmaltz and col­le­giate hang­overs.

Dur­ing my four-day vis­it I ex­plored the city’s his­tor­ic and cul­tur­al cen­ter, rely­ing on its ex­pan­sive sub­way sys­tem to con­nect me with mu­seums, church­es, plazas and even the oc­ca­sion­al beer gar­den.

Only my en­coun­ter with the ghost of Hit­ler, not far from the Englischer Gart­en, un­nerved me.

I’d booked a room at a mod­est ho­tel near Sendlinger Tor, a met­ro hub a­bout half a mile from the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train sta­tion. Although Sendlinger plaza was be­ing reno­vated, the under­ground trains ran with­out in­ter­rup­tion and near­by walk­ing streets were thronged with shop­pers. Af­ter set­tling in, I set off to see the civ­ic ameni­ties.

With its neo-gothic tur­rets, towers and stat­ue-filled nich­es, Munich’s flow­er-be­decked city hall at near­by Marienplatz is a 24-hour tour­ist mag­net. While it looks con­vinc­ing­ly old, the build­ing is ac­tu­al­ly the “New Town Hall,” a 19th-cen­tu­ry con­fec­tion com­plete with a campy but popu­lar Glockenspiel that chimes twice daily (three times in sum­mer) as life-size me­chan­i­cal fig­ures in medi­eval out­fits (trum­pet­ers, jest­ers, knights on horse­back) cir­cle a roy­al cou­ple.

A few blocks far­ther on, the open-air stalls of the Viktualien­markt over­flow with sou­venirs, fresh flow­ers and pro­duce, aro­mat­ic cheese, sa­vor­y saus­ages and myr­i­ad mush­rooms. At lunch­time the mar­ket’s shady pic­nic ta­bles turn into an in­for­mal beer gar­den.

En route I nipped into the Asamkirche, an ec­cen­tric ba­roque church that is an­oth­er must-see Munich land­mark. Com­pleted in 1746, it is an over-the-top ex­pres­sion of Roman Catholic de­vo­tion that daz­zles re­gard­less of one’s per­son­al faith — or lack there­of.

Sculptor Egid Quirin Asam and his broth­er Cos­mas, a paint­er, built it as a pri­vate chap­el. Liv­ing next door, they spared no ex­pense on bling. The church’s nar­row, two-sto­ry nave is a shim­mer­ing jewel box of gild­ed statu­ary, twist­ed col­umns, flir­ta­tious an­gels, ghoul­ish skel­etons, emaci­at­ed mar­tyrs, woozy ceil­ing mu­rals and swoon­ing drap­er­y en­hanced by the­at­ri­cal light­ing. Ap­par­ent­ly con­vinced that God is in the de­tails, the Asam bro­thers im­ag­ined their de­i­ty as a Faberge bi­joux.

Art of all sorts

Munich is no­to­ri­ous a­mong art his­tor­ians as the place where Nazi ap­pa­rat­chiks, on Hit­ler’s or­ders, con­fis­cated mod­ern­ist art from Ger­man mu­seums and dis­played it with de­roga­tory la­bels in an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled “Entartete Kunst” or “De­gen­er­ate Art.” More than 2 mil­lion peo­ple came to see the 1937 show. Much of that art was later burned or sold a­broad to raise mon­ey for the Reich, while the per­se­cuted ar­tists died, fled the coun­try or dis­ap­peared into in­ter­nal ex­ile.

Still, one of the world’s great col­lec­tions of that art — in­clud­ing master­pieces by Franz Marc, Was­si­ly Kan­din­sky, Alexej Jaw­len­sky and oth­er expressionists — is at the Lenbachhaus Museum in Munich. Its pres­er­va­tion is due in large part to Ga­bri­ele Munter (1877-1962), a fel­low paint­er who hid her friends’ work in her home at Mur­nau out­side Munich through­out World War II. Upon her death Munter be­queath­ed more than 80 paint­ings and 330 draw­ings to Lenbachhaus.

It was the paint­ings of Munter and her friends in the 1911 Der Blaue Reit­er (The Blue Rider) group that first moved me to think a­bout art se­ri­ous­ly many years ago, so I wan­dered for a day at Lenbachhaus, a taw­ny gold man­sion at the edge of Munich’s cul­tur­al dis­trict. Re­cent­ly reno­vated, with a love­ly new gar­den res­tau­rant, the mu­se­um is an ele­gant set­ting for the spir­it­u­al in­ves­ti­gat­ions that the ar­tists es­sayed be­tween World War I and World War II. Re­visit­ing their lyrical art, and trag­ic lives, was for me a mel­an­choly mo­ment fraught with sor­row — and im­prob­a­ble hope.

Af­ter Lenbachhaus, I was al­most re­lieved to find that the Alte Pi­na­ko­thek, Munich’s over­stuffed re­pos­i­to­ry of Old Mas­ters, was un­der res­to­ra­tion un­til 2018. Whew! No need to hike through a Louvre’s worth of master­pieces. The top pic­tures were all gath­ered on a sin­gle floor. There, in a few hours, I ad­mired a­gain Du­rer’s great self-por­trait of 1500 when, at a mere 28 years, he en­vi­sioned him­self as a proto-Christ fig­ure, ripe with sen­su­al­i­ty and soul­ful in­ten­si­ty.

Then on to G.B. Tiepolo’s mag­nifi­cent 1753 “Ad­o­ra­tion of the Magi,” Bou­cher’s styl­ish 1756 por­trait of Louis XV’s of­fi­cial mis­tress Mme de Pom­pa­dour (yep, there re­al­ly were “of­fi­cial mis­tress­es” in those days), and a cou­ple of Ma­don­nas-with-baby-Je­sus by Ra­pha­el and Leonardo da Vinci. Plus three gal­le­ries full of spec­tac­u­lar Ru­bens paint­ings and oil sketch­es in­clud­ing his buoy­ant 1609 self-por­trait with his bride Is­a­bel­la Brant. Ah, to be young, suc­cess­ful, and in love — as they were that sun­ny day.

But time was press­ing, so I made quick work of the splen­did Greco-Roman sculp­ture col­lec­tion at the near­by Glypto­tek and head­ed for the Pi­na­ko­thek der Modern (Modern Art Museum). Be­sides a big airy ro­tun­da and car col­lec­tion, the Modern is chock full of paint­ings by An­selm Kie­fer, Pi­cas­so, I­tal­ian Fu­tur­ists and oth­er 20th-cen­tu­ry tal­ents.

The high point, though, is a gleam­ing white pod that looks like a sci-fi space­ship on stilts. Stand­ing on the mu­se­um’s front lawn, the pod is a 1968 pro­to­type for a “fu­ture house” de­signed by Finn­ish art­ist Mat­ti Suuronen, and an odd re­mind­er of what we once im­ag­ined the fu­ture would bring.

Hit­ler and the Surf­ers

Ger­ma­ny’s third larg­est city, Munich is now a thriv­ing cen­ter of busi­ness, manu­fac­tur­ing, cul­ture and sport — home to BMW, Sie­mens and Bayern Munich, the coun­try’s top soc­cer team. But, like the rest of the coun­try, it has a con­flicted his­to­ry.

A Nazi strong­hold be­fore World War II, Munich was a head­quar­ters for Hit­ler, and the Da­chau con­cen­tra­tion camp was just 10 miles out­side of town. Some 90 percent of the city’s his­tor­ic cen­ter was de­stroyed dur­ing the war.

But a few build­ings sur­vived, a­mong them the Haus der Kunst (House of Art), which had been camou­flaged by net­ting.

Lo­cat­ed at the southern end of the Englischer Gart­en, Munich’s ex­pan­sive cen­tral park, the Haus der Kunst is an intimidatingly aus­tere lime­stone-and-con­crete struc­ture. Built on Hit­ler’s or­ders, it was to be a show­case of tra­di­tion­al Ger­man art — land­scapes, genre scenes, pa­tri­ot­ic sculp­ture — hence its ori­gi­nal name, Haus der Deutsche Kunst. For sev­er­al years af­ter it op­ened in 1937, the Fuhr­er him­self bought hun­dreds of paint­ings and sculp­tures at its annu­al ex­hi­bi­tions.

When A­mer­i­can troops ar­rived in A­pril 1945, they com­man­deered the build­ing as an of­fic­ers’ club, in­stall­ing a res­tau­rant, dance hall, shops and even a basket­ball court. The fol­low­ing year its name was short­ened to Haus der Kunst. For the next half-cen­tu­ry, it housed ev­er­y­thing from fash­ion shows and book fairs to ma­jor ex­hib­its of Pi­cas­so, Frank Lloyd Wright and oth­er mod­ern­ists whom the Nazis sure­ly would have con­demned as de­gen­er­ates.

Still, the build­ing can’t seem to shake off its past. Now used for film screen­ings and tem­po­rary art ex­hib­its, the place feels der­e­lict and more than a little creepy. Ev­er­y­thing a­bout it seems dis­tort­ed — steps too shal­low, por­ti­co odd­ly com­pressed, doors ex­ces­sive­ly tall, cei­lings too high, lob­by un­nec­es­sar­i­ly vast, bar strange­ly dark and gloom­y. May­be it was the ghost of Hit­ler that scared me to the ter­race out back for a quick lunch be­fore ven­tur­ing into the ex­hi­bi­tions — in­clud­ing an ex­cel­lent ac­count of the build­ing’s check­ered his­to­ry.

It was rain­ing when I em­erged, but I found shel­ter with a couple of dozen oth­ers in the Temple of Di­an­a, a pret­ty pa­vil­ion in the near­by Hofgarten.

As we wait­ed for the driz­zle to sub­side, an i­tin­er­ant vi­o­lin­ist ser­enad­ed us with ro­man­tic clas­sics.

Then, as the sun re­turned, I strolled back down Prinzregentenstreet to­ward the Englischer Gart­en, where a crowd was snap­ping pic­tures from a little stone bridge. Peer­ing over the bal­us­trade I was aston­ished to see a lithe guy in a wet suit rid­ing a surf­board in tur­bu­lent waves wor­thy of a Mal­i­bu beach.

So, this was my son’s sur­prise: surf­ers rid­ing waves in the Eisbach (ice brook), a manmade chan­nel of the Isar River that cuts through Munich.

Ap­par­ent­ly the Eisbach is one of the world’s most popu­lar riv­er-surf­ing spots. There, guys (yes, ex­clu­sive­ly guys when I was there) queue up day and night year-round to test their skills against the roil­ing wa­ter.

Who knew?

Cheered by the mu­sic and their bra­va­do, I shook off Hit­ler’s ghost and head­ed for a beer gar­den.


Mary Abbe is a form­er Star Tribune arts re­port­er.