First time I saw this near the English Garden, I thought I was hallucinating. But die-hards surf at half a dozen spots in Munich, and the most popular is the man-made wave at the southern tip of the Garden.
Europe’s biggest park begins on the left bank of the Isar River in Munich, behind the Residenz palace, and stretches out over more than 900 acres. This expanse of lawns, tree groves, pasture, waterways and a lake is one of the world’s largest urban parks, bigger than New York’s Central Park.
The Garden was created for “the people,” as the nobility enjoyed the Hofgarten outside the winter palace. Created in English landscape style, the Garden entertained about 5 million people a year before the virus.
The city has grown up around the Garden, so the Garden now is a vast island of green surrounded by metropolis.
When shadows start to steal over the Garden, the customers become different, according to the police. The police speak jokingly of the “reservation change,” meaning the “cozy” meadow visitor goes home and the party gang arrives. That was especially true during the pandemic, when young people boisterously strained against no-group rules in the club districts.
Surf’s always up
Meanwhile, surfers have been at it since dawn at the Eisbach stream at the southernmost point of the Garden. On a frosty September morning, the surfers were bare-foot, soaked and chilled.
But they challenged the river’s permanent man-made wave, then shivered in line, waiting for a chance to get in the water again.
Surfing started in the Garden during the summer of 1971. That’s also when I first saw young men riding boards tethered to a tree on a bank of the Eisbach.
By now, one expert says, there are about 2,500 surfers in the Munich area, including many women.
Nobody offered a count of how many youngsters, but they can be seen there, too, trying to win the respect of the veterans.
The queues get long, but they seemed to get social, too.
Fifty years after I watched early surfers on a slow branch of the Eisbach, dozens now test their mettle on the wave to the delight of watchers on the banks and the bridge above.
The surf wave is artificial, but the Eisbach surf gets up naturally, too. The Garden is threaded by tributaries of the Isar River and artificial creeks, and after a rain, the water rushes under park bridges.
In the early 1930s, King Ludwig I ordered a Greek Temple built in the park. It’s called Monopteros, which Wikipedia says means a circular colonnade supporting a roof but without any walls.
The king wanted a Greek temple in the Garden, so a 50-foot-high hill was constructed there from bricks covered with earth.
Today, from the hill, you can see back down to central Munich and the distinctive dual onion domes of the Frauenkirche.
During the hated (by some) virus regulations, the wide meadow below – the Great Karl Theodor Meadow or “Mono-Wiese” (mono meadow) – became “hot spots” for clashes among young people and between young people and police.
On my latest trip, all was serene. Of course, it was 9:30 a.m. I was greeted by the melodies of a lone cellist on the hill.
The Chinese Tower, built 1789-1790 and modeled after the Kew Gardens pagoda in London, is one of the park landmarks that has become a popular meeting spot for visitors. Actually, it was destroyed in WWII bombing and rebuilt in the early 1950s.
The Chinese Tower boasts the city’s second largest beer garden, and the IAA didn’t miss the chance to record an interview at the source of a potentially large audience.
Alone in a crowd
Thousands of people crowded Munich’s English Garden on the pretty fall day I took this photo. But on 914 acres, you can find a spot somewhere that feels like yours alone. There can be more than 100,000 people a day here in the summer, but visitors rarely notice because of the size of the park.
The Seehaus might be the most expensive beer garden in Munich. It hosts young and old (about 2,500 at a time), and many or most are tourists.
A promenade splits rows of tables. It’s the place to recover from a brisk jog on the giant park’s innumerable paths or just show off the latest fashion.
The coveted seats are at the tables right on the water’s edge, where you can watch parents and children glide by on pedal boats. The geese and ducks seem oblivious.
Regulars pull the benches right into the water and let their feet dangle in the wet coolness. Nobody swims here; too dirty. Swimming is what the Eisbach is for.
If you tire of the hordes, stroll 20 minutes north to the Mini-Hofbräuhaus. It’s a tiny, peaceful beer garden with its own charm. The Obatzda (soft-cheese dip with paprika) and roast chicken are fine, and a liter of beer costs way less than at the Seehaus, where prices rival those at the Oktoberfest.
The customers are a different breed, too.
At Goethe Institut, we trained our German reading and understanding skills on satirist writer Erich Kästner, who worked in Munich. He was an author, poet and screenwriter, and we discussed his sometimes funny, always insightful stories and poems.
He could skewer a dictatorship and make you laugh. Kästner watched his books burned during the Nazi period and wrote about it.
He is famed for the children’s series “Emil and the Detective” and the autobiographical “When I was a Little Boy.” He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times.
Kästner was living in Munich when he died in 1974. He’s buried in Bogenhausen Cemetery next to St. Georg Church. Ed Metzler created a linoleum cut of Kästner, and I placed it on the grave before a moment of silence.
I walked around the church cemetery twice but couldn’t find Kästner’s grave. Then this little charmer dashed in. She clambered up on the tall gravestone, tidied up and scampered back out as quickly and quietly as she had come. I found Kastner’s grave a few steps away on my next try.