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Celebrating 850 years of Munich

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The Brückenfest was just one of several festivities. Photo: DPA
17:18 CEST+02:00
With Munich is celebrating its 850th anniversary this summer, Ben Knight heads to Bavaria to find how a city of bourgeois affluence and magical beer is marking a special birthday.

A walk round Munich's city centre in the summer has a carefree feel to it in any year. Everything seems cleaner and more comfortable than in other German cities, and everyone seems to be on holiday.

The well-known Marienplatz square is filled with sandals, shorts and glasses with flip-up shade attachments, as tourists mill about looking for a wooden knick-knack to take home. And, and there's always the multicultural delight of hearing people from all over the world munching roasted almonds and over-priced sausages while they wait for the Rathaus Glockenspiel to start. It all makes the middle of Munich sometimes feel like a theme park, where the theme is buying handcrafted ornaments and eating like a portly Bavarian farmer.

This summer, though, Munich has become extra festive, with no less than 380 events being staged to celebrate the city's 850th birthday. All the way into September, there will be a string of open-air concerts, historical tours, and exhibitions.

You'd probably expect such commemorative cultural occasions based on the city's traditions. But there are also a host of forward-looking events, like engineering competitions to find new ways to save energy, sports tournaments (including an electric wheelchair hockey competition starting August 30) and the unveiling of the “EuroMunich” mosaic, an artwork designed by young people from all over Europe.

The highlights for August include a free concert by the Munich Symphony Orchestra on the August 20. They will be playing the catchy tunes from Mendelssohn Bartholdy's “Midsummer Night's Dream.” On September 13, meanwhile, a Bavarian riding organization will stage a mock hunt in traditional costume, as well as a parade of historical horse-drawn carriages, through the Schloßpark near Oberschleißheim on the outskirts of the city.

The motto for the city's birthday is “Building Bridges,” which in Munich is more than just a politically correct platitude, since it was a bridge that founded Munich. The officially recognized founder of Munich was Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion), Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, who in 1158 built a bridge over the Isar River in order to collect tolls from the salt merchants crossing his duchy.

Of course, a revisionist pedant might point out that Heinrich also destroyed a bridge, one nearby owned by a bishop, so that his would be the most lucrative. Heinrich also went on to routinely sabotage the attempts of the bishop, who just happened to be his uncle, to rebuild his bridge, ensuring that his monopoly remained intact. Without the lion duke's self-centred single-mindedness Munich would almost certainly not have attained the market rights Kaiser Friedrich bestowed on the town on June 14, 1158 – the date has become Munich's official birthday.

Apart from the kaleidoscope of parties, Bavaria's leading metropolis is also getting a few permanent birthday presents. The previously mentioned Glockenspiel built into the façade of the town hall is being retuned, the Karl Valentin museum – a bizarre commemoration of Germany's funniest Dadaist – is being overhauled, and some of Munich's musicians are putting together a benefit CD for the city's homeless magazine BISS.

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The biggest of these birthday delights is the reopening of Cuvilliés Theatre, one of the world's oldest rococo theatres. It has been renovated in time for the anniversary to be inaugurated with a new production of Mozart's “Idomeneo.” This opera, a production of which caused a ruckus in Berlin last year by portraying Mohammed on stage, was written in Munich and first performed in this theatre in 1781. In September, the theatre will open its new season with a new play called “Idomeneus,” which modernizes the themes Mozart played on.

But possibly the most interesting new attraction for visitors to Munich this summer is a new permanent exhibition at the Stadtmuseum, telling the story of the city in unprecedented detail, with over 400 exhibits divided into five different eras. Apparently the Bavarians no longer want to excuse tourist ignorance about city's glorious history.

So if you were thinking about spending a few days in Munich ahead of the excess and madness of Oktoberfest, now is the time to go. You'll be surrounded by the kind of baroque comforts rare in a big city, and the birthday festivals will give you a chance to see some real Munich residents decked out in their Dirndls and Lederhosen to celebrate their town.

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