I have a leisurely morning of packing and breakfasting before I leave for the train station to catch a train to Munich. This is the last leg of my trip which follows the journey of the Vermeers at the end of the Second World War. The trip to Munich is only a 1.5 hour direct trip by train, so I arrive in the early afternoon at the Hauptbahnhof. Munich is a large bustling city brimming with historical and cultural buildings, the likes of which I will only have a short time to explore. Once again I play ‘Let’s try and orient myself out of the train station game’ which is one of the most frustrating elements of travel since few streets are marked at the station’s exists. I finally ask a few people for directions and find my hotel which is just around the corner. The Europaisch Hotel a newish building, retaining the name of the original which stood in the same spot but was destroyed during the war. As I settle into my room, the weather degrades into showers. By the time I set out for an afternoon visit to a museum, it’s a steady rain. Pulling my jacket hood closer over my head, I hunker down into a fast pace. I am walking north towards Kunstareal area which houses many museums and other cultural institutions. Among these buildings is the Müncher Haus der Kulturalinstitute, a neoclassical structure linked to the Vermeers. This building was once called the Führerbau which was Hitler’s headquarters in Munich. After the Allies took Munich (June 1945), the Führerbau was appropriated by the Monuments Men to be used as a collecting point for all the art uncovered in that area of Germany.
Craig Hugh Smyth, a Monuments Man with experience working at Washington DC’s National Gallery, was charged with remediating the damaged building in less than two weeks. This meant scrounging up the supplies, equipment and people to prepare the site for what would be thousands of pieces of art looted by the German ERR. This collecting point became the ad hoc art museum triage centre where artworks would be accepted, assessed, catalogued and then stored for the interim. Within two weeks of setting up, trucks bearing thousands artworks began to arrive from the Altaussee salt mine 150 km away. Many of these priceless masterpieces were wrapped in German sheepskin coats –improvised packing material discovered in another mine by one of the key Monuments Men, George Stout.
I wander around Königsplatz, squinting in the rain, looking for the former collecting point. My google earth map is vague and I can’t find it. I walk into what looks like a music school to try and get advice by locals. No one seems to be available, so I return outside. Twenty paces along, I glance behind me and realize that it’s familiar. Disguised underneath some construction material, I recognize the white neoclassical façade of the Führerbau. Here is where the Vermeers and other famous works were stored.
I continue on with my soggy journey to the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum famous for its collection of medieval to Baroque masterworks. The oversized 19th-century building has the tallest doors I’ve ever seen and I have to throw my weight fully when gaining entrance.
Once inside, I discover many of the museum’s galleries have been closed for renovations. This is part of rolling 3 year closures needed to update the lighting and windows in order to save energy. Once the largest and most technically modern of museums, it’s become a costly elephant. Even museums are having to face their carbon footprint. As a result, the floor plan is broken up and confusing with some works missing. I see Dürer’s famous Jesus-inspired self-portrait and some great Hieronymus Bosch spooky landscapes. Most notable are the Flemish, Dutch and early German altarpieces, many are large while all have that incredible details. Gold embroidery, shining metals and even eyelashes are all described with magnified skill. These bright paintings look as if they were created just yesterday. Sadly the Valasquez works are missing.
After being museumed out, I go explore Munich’s city monuments. By the grandeur of the buildings, Munich was the seat of a very powerful city state in the 19th century. The Rathaus (city hall) fills an entire city block and has an elaborate façade and tower complete with an intricate glockenspiele and mechanical figurines.
The Frauenkirch’s tall two-towered church is rivalled only by the massive Munich Residenz which is stuffed with even more museums. I realize I would need at least week to begin to explore this interesting city, so I must satisfy myself by just touring its streets and the nearby Viktualien Markt (market). I stop and eat at an American-Thai inspired restaurant – happy to order a vegetarian dish to counter all the meat I have eaten. By then, evening is falling, so I turn back towards my hotel. As expected I get lost and then found, navigating my way through the angling streets. Tomorrow I will be going to the most famous castle in the world – Neuschwanstein.