Munich greeted us with a downpour for five straight days. A frothing Isar River’s murky rage ripped trees out by the roots, swallowed concrete stairways and forced closure of foot and bike paths along its banks.
The city warned that the river passed two warning levels. The weatherman said Munich received more rain in two days than it normally received in an August month. A gray, soggy filter descended on everything, from riding the tram …
to queuing for a museum (appropriately, sea god Poseidon watched over the line to get inside the Residenz in-town palace).
Even without nature’s help, a traditional skyline can change right before your eyes.
Construction gave Munich a different look.
Construction has improved the look, too. Scaffolding didn’t seem to change the popularity of the new town hall.
And now, the new town hall looks the way architects must have envisioned at the beginning of the 19th Century.
The Maximilianeum, home of the Bavarian state Parliament, seemed to weather construction just fine, too, although construction must have altered work routines for many employees. The Renaissance architecture remained impressive, although these days accompanied by fences, gates and other security features.
But the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) was dramatically different.
Last time I was a German student in Munich, I often forgot that most stores would be closed after 8 p.m. and on Sunday. I hiked 20 minutes to the station for meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods, snacks or household supplies. The station had everything. It was like a little city.
Today, the guts of the main train station is bare-bones. In train-company plans, the city is promised a new, fully modern station connected to a 17-story retail/office high-rise. But that’s a decade away.
The huge track hall is still sending and receiving trains. But the station is a shadow of its old self.
Looking down from the town hall tower, construction of the Zweite Stammbahn (second main trunk train line) seems like an urban scar. It’s a 5-mile tunnel being dug east-west east through the heart of the city, sometimes more than 130 feet down, beneath existing railway shafts and tunnels, heating pipes and power cables.
The goal is to relieve growing commuter pressure on the frail 50-year-old existing line, the highest density train line in Europe, and to provide a bypass in case of accident or equipment failure on the main line.
Late last year, it was announced that completion of the second trunk, estimated for 2028, would be delayed nine years and the cost would double to more than $7 billion. That, and a roughly two year delay in revealing it, created an enormous uproar involving city, state and federal agencies and the national train company, Deutsche Bahn.
One concern was for 950,000 daily train users who would have to wait 15-20 years in all for the benefits. Another was the impact the delay could have on the city’s plans for a carbon-neutral future.
One of the first changes I noticed on arriving at the main train station was the dark, construction-ringed six-story Karstadt department store across the street. What used to be a flagship outlet of one the most profitable enterprises in the country is closed for five years for bankruptcy-driven renovation.
When I was in school here, I used to go from the train station to the historic store via underground stairs and passage. Then I’d go up the escalators to Household and buy a small, quiet fan for nights in hotel rooms that never had air conditioning.
Plans are to replace the ‘70s-era store, second largest in Germany, with a three-part building by the end of 2026. A renewed but smaller Kaufhof will survive, although thousands of the chain’s employees have lost their jobs.
The rest of the buildings will be shops, restaurants and offices. The overwhelming impression of the new edifice is to be elegance with glass facades, terraces, courtyards and greenery, even on roofs that overlook the city and give a view to the Alps.
During our last week in town, another force of nature struck — the week-long Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (International Automobile Exhibition), which attracted 400,000 attendees two years ago. Focused on gaining attention, the IAA popped up in front of popular sites across Munich, such as the new town hall. And wary police watched for demonstrators.
The IAA wanted to show, here at the Königsplatz (King’s Square), that auto makers constituted a sustainable, concerned industry. “Last Generation” and other protestors — who don’t believe that even electric cars can be part of the solution to climate warming — called that “greenwashing.”
Small blockades followed. Protestors crowed that police couldn’t stop them. Police, which put 4,500 officers on the streets, kept traffic and people moving. It was a draw.
In 2015, like millions around the globe, I watched the Munich train station on TV night after night. In nine days, 67,000 broke, bone-tired Middle Eastern refugees reached the station, packed in train cars.
Four thousand volunteers greeted them day and night with water, clothes, food, hand-painted signs, gifts — and applause. Who will ever forget those two policemen who wheeled in a blue refrigerator so refugees from Hungary and Italy could have cool water?
But the area is changing and so are the people. The pedestrian zone around the train station is being extended, and by 2030, most cars and trucks will be rerouted around the train station. The goal is to leave more space for pedestrians and fewer hurdles such as crossing busy tram tracks as part of a “Flaniermeile” or boulevard for browsing, shopping or just strolling.
Forgive me, if I’m a bit skeptical, at least in the short run. The train-station quarter has for generations been “a place of arrival,” as one tenant put it. Mainly Turks, then Arabs, Syrians and Iraqis started here. Many opened stores and restaurants boasting authentic foreign culture.
Just like at home, immigrants include all kinds of people. But right now, the Bahnhof area features more poverty, prostitution and drug problems than anywhere in the city.
Nationwide, immigrants are important. About 2 million jobs are going begging in Germany, and the country needs about 400,000 skilled workers. The federal parliament has trimmed requirements so qualified immigrants can become Germans more quickly.
It seems difficult to begrudge asylum to newcomers who are fleeing violence. But resentment of newcomers, whom many Germans fear could take jobs or “pollute” national culture, lies close to the surface and makes easy slogans for far-right activists and their political parties.
Next: Tourist track