York Membery visits the capital of Bavaria and explores the historic heart of this twenty-first century metropolis – and its annual beer festival.
It is hard to believe, looking down on Munich from the top of St Peter’s, the city’s oldest parish church, that the city spread-eagled below lay in ruins in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Having clambered up the 297 steps to the top of the church tower, one is struck just as much by the historic landmarks – be it the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) or the neo-gothic splendour of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) – as by the Mediterranean-style terracotta tiles and the closeness of the Alps to the south.
The city was founded in 1158 by Benedictine monks who were drawn to the site on the River Isar by its rich farmland and its closeness to Italy. Indeed, the city’s name derives from the medieval German for monks (Munichen). Less than a century later (in 1240) the city passed into the control of the House of Wittelsbach whose kings ruled Bavaria until 1918, when Ludwig III was forced to abdicate following German’s defeat in the First World War.
Long a centre of the salt trade, Munich was hit hard by an outbreak of plague in 1349 but recovered. By the end of the nineteenth certury it was a flourish commercial and industrial centre. In 1913 it became the base for the new motorcar company, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW). The company’s headquarters are still located in the city.
Thanks to decades of building by a succession of Wittelsbachs, in particular King Ludwig I (r.1825-48), the city also boasts a string of handsome public buildings and wide Italian-style boulevards, such as Maximilianstrasse, and a thriving cultural scene.