Freitag, 10. Mai 2019

Cheers for Charles, lederhosen for Archie and boogying for a united Europe. Oh what a panto!

Here's what I missed....



 And here's what I saw: The Typical Bavarian on his soap box.  I'd just saved myself 50 cents by using the Hofbräuhaus' free loos, so I drop it into the chap's cap.  



'Measse vuimois,' says Prince Charles in faultless Bavarian. Then, switching to English, he adds: 'I had one of these as a boy.'

Der ewige Thronfolger – the eternal heir, as he’s known in Germany – has just been presented with a lederhosen by Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria. Just one teeny-weeny problem – it's about 30 sizes too small.

Suddenly, TV newsfeed of Charles and Camilla races from Residenz to Hofbräuhaus. The commentator reveals that the lederhosen is for the Prince's three-day old grandchild. What with proud parents Harry and Meghan parading the Wunderkind around Buckingham Palace and the announcement that Number Seven in line to throne's called Archie, it's been a right royal day.

Determined to catch up with Charles on his day trip to Munich, I'd stuffed a Union Jack into my bag and alerted Tourism Management students that afternoon class would be finishing a couple minutes earlier – just in case anybody wishes to come along too. I'm not too sure they do. 'You're really going?' one undergrad asks disbelievingly.

If I leave uni at 3:15, I can just about make it to the Hofbräuhaus in time to cheerily wave my flag at the royal couple. Perhaps they'll even autograph it. Done deal.

What a disappointment then to arrive at the beer house to see large numbers of Polizisten in bullet-proof vests already packing away security cordon and climbing back into their vans. I'd missed the Royals by just seven minutes.

It turns out that the Windsors are already on their way to the headquarters of Siemens. It's fast approaching 4 pm, rush hour time in Munich. Surely I can beat their convoy of limousines by jumping onto public transport?

It helps if you can actually read a U-Bahn plan. I end up taking the right underground line but in the wrong direction. By the time I reach Siemens it's just turning 5 pm. But it's the wrong Siemens. Eyeing me distastefully, staff at the welcome desk have an unwelcome message: 'Sie san do foisch.'

No wonder I'm wrong – everyone milling around me is dressed in suits. Me, just in shorts and sandals. For a split second it looks like the receptionist is about to reach below her desk. Presumably to hit a panic button and summon security guards to guide me off the premises. Any moment I'm expecting swarms of officials in dayglo vests to surround me, picking up commands on their ear-pieces and shouting fever-pitch commentaries down their mobiles. Instead, the reception girl calmly walks me out into the foyer and directs me down the street to Siemens Forum.

This time I think twice about entering. Stopping the first group of dirndl-dressed employees to come out of the building, I discover that Charles and Camilla took off 45 minutes ago. In the short time it's taken me to ride several stops on the subway, the royal party has made it across town at peak traffic time, toured Siemens Forum and checked into their penthouse suite at the Bayrischer Hof. 'Herzlichen Beileid' says one of the Siemens secretaries as I turn to go.

'Herzlichen Beileid?' Isn't that what you normally say in hushed tones to the bereaved? Perhaps I really should be mourning. After chasing Charles around Munich all afternoon I’ve twice missed him almost within a hair's breadth.

Heading back into the town centre, I stop off at the Residenz. That's where the royal couple walked the red carpet just a few hours earlier. Asking around, I learn that Charles passed right under the statue of König Maximilian Joseph. Squinting up through the sunshine, I spot two pigeons doing a jig on Max's ears, before snapping their beaks and flying off, leaving a trail of bird paint dripping down His Royal Highness' majestic forehead.
                                         
Ah well, let's face it. That's probably about as close as I'm going to get to any royalty today. 

Luckily the day's not completely over. Today, it turns out, is Europe Day. The Bavarian Staatskanzlei, or Department of State, is staging a series of shows at the Marienplatz. Peppered all around the main Platz are little huts with stalls encouraging Münchners to vote at the forthcoming Europawahl. Truth told, I'd spared these elections precious little thought. Not unlike most other Brits who clearly regard the whole thing as a bad dream. But spotting a photo booth offering free selfies with a EU star-studded backdrop immediately converts me to the cause. Next moment I’m being photographed in front of a banner proclaiming ‘Diesmal wähle ich!’ – this time I’m voting. 

Can't beat 'em, join ‘em. Count me in.

                                            
Meanwhile Ecco DiLorenzo Smart & Soul are playing a soulful mix of seventies, Chic-style disco. Just the right thing. Earlier, during harmonies from the Deutsch-Französischer Chor, I'd been laying back, luxuriating in one of the cosy deckchairs. But, as soon as I hear the opening chords to 'Le Freak', I leap up and join a handful of other revellers bopping up and down near the stage. Waving arms and legs around almost hypnotically, more Kate Bush than Beyoncé, we must appear quite comical to the rest of the audience, all superglued to their deckchairs. The sun's still shining as, just before 8 pm, the band breaks into its farewell offering – 'At the Carwash'.

At the Carwash? Yes, I know the Germans love their autos and all that, but it seems a funny choice of song title. Aren't they supposed to be encouraging everyone to abandon polishing their dreams on wheels on 26 May and get along to the polling booths instead?

But maybe that's not the point. What strikes me, boogying and bumping to Rose Royce, is that I'm surrounded by a mass of merrymakers of all ages and mixed European backgrounds – grooving together as one. Solid supporters of a United Europe. And just luurving the moment.

Heaven knows what the Herren from The Bavarian Staatskanzlei make of our trance-like motions, but I hope they approve of our symbolic show of solidarity on the dance floor. Prince Charles certainly would.

Montag, 18. März 2019

Green at heart, Munich parties with free Guinness and Eurovision legend


Marching for Melta - Tim and fellow teachers


Of the 530,000 foreigners living in Munich, the largest single majority is made up of Turkish men (around 40,500). That’s followed by Greeks (ca. 26,000) and Croatians (approx. 24,000).

You need to scroll much further down the list to find the number of Brits – some 6,000 – in the city. And still further to find the Irish contingent. And yet, when it comes to celebrating National Day in their adopted home of Munich, nobody seems to do it better than the Irish. As for the Brits and St George’s Day, perhaps less said the better. Most Brits would probably struggle to pin even an approximate date on the dragon fighter’s big day. April? May? June? Whatever.

But 17 March, St Patrick’s Day, woaaaah! 

I’ve joined in the celebrations this year at the invitation of the Munich English language teachers’ organisation, Melta, of which I’ve been a member ever since arriving in Munich twenty years ago. Once again, the organisation is joining the mass procession which marches a mile down the Bavarian capital’s most prestigious street. This year it’s a particularly special occasion as they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. 

Oddly enough, for as long as I can remember I've made up all manner of silly excuses for not being able to go. Things like 'Oh dear, nothing green to wear.' and 'Wait, do I really like Guinness..?' But this year it's different. I decide it’s time to finally get my act together. That means registering attendance online the day before and ensuring there’s a train connection that will land me in the centre of Munich pünktlich and with plenty Pufferzeit to spare before the midday march-off. Living out in the Hallertau, the trip needs planning with almost military precision. 

The planning pays off and everything goes perfectly. First of all, the train’s exactly on time. That’s no Selbstverständlichkeit, when you’re reliant on Deutsche Bahn for getting you from A to B. And then the weather. After a week of blustery wind and showers the sky has suddenly turned navy blue, it’s 21 degrees and sonnig. As we set off down the car-free Ludwigstrasse, I’m handed a fistful of tokens for free Guinness at the after-parade party. Oh, and a green felt top hat. Do the Irish really wear these daft things? Someone’s also given me a small flag to wave. It seems we’re not just promoting our teachers' organisation but also Ireland’s most popular dairy produce.


Although Melta has officially been part of the parade for around eight years some members can remember when the event originated in the mid-90s. According to Randy, back then it was just a small procession and the marchers literally had to plead with police to hold back the traffic and let them pass through (‘Wir wollen hier unbedingt durch!’). No fear of getting waylaid by traffic these days, of course. With a record 1,500 marchers representing 62 clubs and organisations, Munich has become the biggest mainland European celebrator of St Patrick’s Day outside Ireland. 

Ninety minutes later and we cross the finishing line at Odeonsplatz, best known as backdrop to Hitler’s failed beer hall putsch in 1923. But wait, I’m suddenly left holding the banner on my own. Where is everybody? All the females, at least, have disappeared into thin air. 


Close to finishing line - and my free Guinness.


It turns out they’ve raced off to secure ring-side places to see Johnny Logan. For me, however, the lure of Freibier is far greater. I spend the next half hour queuing to claim my free Guinness from the Deutsch-Irische Freundschaft tent. By the time I finally reach the venue just around the corner, the legendary Irish crooner’s already launching into ‘Hold me now’. I quite liked the song first time round. But, thirty years on, the title almost has a ring of desperation about it. More plea than proposal. And judging by the expressions on some of my neighbours’ faces, I suspect the audience reaction is ‘No thanks.’

Yes, some of us remember Logan as a cutesy twenty-something year old, Hugh Grant hair mop flopped over forehead. Today’s beer-bellied, long white-haired Logan looks more like he’d rather jettison his whiter-than-white image, jump onto a Harley Davidson and speed off in a cloud of dust. Savouring another sip of Guinness, I close my eyes and prefer to picture Logan performing in his heyday. I imagine him fighting off hordes of hysterical girls swarming the stage. Opening my eyes again, I can’t help noticing an elderly man propping himself up against a high round table. Resting his belly on the bar-stand, he drains the remains of his Guinness and says ‘Ja, ja, jaaah!’ It always strikes me as odd how, when spoken like that in German, such a positive word can actually sound so negative. 

Logan, meanwhile, is joined on stage by a full band. Grabbing hold of guitar, he starts strumming more traditional Irish tunes. Such as ‘Irish Soul’ and ‘The Wild Rover‘. 

Wait though, what’s he saying? 

‘I won the Eurovision Song Contest three times.’ 

No Johnny. I’ve just been googling you and you only won it twice. Lucky no else is fact-checking.

How bizarre though. I could swear ‘The Wild Rover‘ was a dye-in-the-wool Irish song. But it turns out that everyone around here knows it as ‘An der Nordseeküste’. And so, here we stand in the shadow of an Italian Renaissance-style palace, shunkeling to an ageing Gaelic pop star belting out a Prussian sailor’s song.

Only an Irish man could pull that off.

Logan sings Hold me Now. More plea than proposition. 


Early evening, and, in keeping with proceedings, central Munich turns green too. Emerald-hued lights are beamed up and down major landmarks, including the Olympia Tower, Hard Rock Café and Molley Malone’s. But, this time, sadly not the Allianz Arena. World renowned for its innovative stadium-facade lighting, the arena is bathed in blood red. Having rolled out the red carpet all weekend to the Irish, Munich calls it a day when it comes to König Fußball. FC Bayern are playing Mainz 05.  

I’m no great football fan, but FC Bayern's 6-0 victory feels like a most befitting end to an all-round perfect day. And a great warm-up for next year when Munich celebrates its 25th Paddy Party.

Mittwoch, 13. März 2019

Time to say 'Ich bin Deutscher'

Lucky link – Britain and Bavaria



‘I solemnly declare that I will respect and observe the Basic Law and the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that I will refrain from any activity which might cause it harm.’ 


In less than ninety seconds it’s taken to render the third and final verse of Deutschland über alles, and swear this oath of citizenship, I’ve suddenly become German. Climbing onto the rostrum, a photographer from the Mittelboar snaps me receiving my Einbürgerungszertifikat from the County Commissioner. Listening to each one called up almost feels like voting time at the Eurovision Song Contest – Croatia, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, Bosnia-Herzegovina....

No points for any one today though. In fact, only one single nationality seems to interest the local press. Clicking his camera from different angles, the reporter asks for my take on the Brexit vote. I hesitate, wondering whether it’s wise to answer at all. How much time has he got? Stepping down from the podium, I pass two other Brits. It’s their turn too to take the oath only a fortnight before Britain bows out of Europe.

Na, Glück gehabt,’ – hey, that was lucky – quips the Commissioner a little later, as we mingle and mix over Kaffee and Gebäck. Was he too referring to the ‘B’ word? 

Standing for the all-pervading Catholic state party of Bavaria, our local member of parliament appears to personify the quintessential German politician: stern, solemn and straight-faced to a tea. Yet, face-to-face, just inches away from the Freistaat flag, I can’t help noticing a tiny twinkle in his eye.

Sonntag, 20. Januar 2019

Brit in Lederhosen - Sneak Peek



Have you heard about the digital consultant who's taking three months off work to drive around Europe in a VW transporter? The plan is to spell out the words “Stop Brexit.” Or the Welsh man who stands sentry every day outside the Houses of Parliament, Union Jack draped round his neck,  shouting very much the same thing? Well now a group of leading German MPs have also said as much in a very touching letter to The Times.

All as if we could somehow avert Brexit. 

If only....

Anyway, this past year I've been working on a similar 'loveshell' to our perhaps closest European neighbours - a book about my own affection for the Germans, and especially Bavarians. You'll be able to read about a range of amusing experiences likely to befall Germany-bound migrants. Such as bearing the brunt of a beer-fuelled human pyramid, sniffing snuff with hop-plucking grannies and being the (possibly) first ever Brit to drop a clanger in a Bavarian brass band. You might well recognise these stories if you've been following my blog 'Being British in Bavaria.' 

And the book's working title? 'Brit in lederhosen.' Or perhaps better 'Br(ex)it in lederhosen...'

Hilfe, I want to be Bavarian!

Follow Howe’s bid to become Bavarian and you’ll learn why complaining is national sport for Germans, why they’re most content when obediently sorting their recyclables and – despite following rules to a tea – they’re first to flout them when it comes to fêting ‘fifth season’.

               Union Jack in one hand, litre beer mug in other, Tim Howe wonders                                                              Can you really transform a Brit into a Bavarian?

Samstag, 15. Dezember 2018

Cheerio Miss Sophie – same old sketch is must-see for Germans every Christmas


Year-end slapstick tickles the Germans' fancy like nothing else.  


Expats and migrants are often adept at picking up the local lingo and many have no great difficulty adapting to new climes and cultures. Yet when it comes to customs and conventions, the nitty gritty of daily life, they can still come a cropper. I arrived in Germany able to speak the language fluently. But it took ages to realise that a tersely uttered 'danke' really means 'nein danke'. And that a long-drawn out 'neeein' actually translates as 'ja'.

It also took me ages to suss all the details of German Christmas customs. I'd always thought of German Weihnacht and Christmas in Britain as being almost identical: Christmas trees, Winter Wonderland markets, glass baubles, tinsel, hot spiced wine, stollen and spicy gingerbread.

But here's a surprise. And it's something you'll find nowhere else in the world: whole families crowding around the TV on New Year's Eve to watch 'Dinner for One'.

While Brits flop onto their sofas every Christmas and binge-watch world TV premieres such as Mission Impossible Six it seems bizarre that Germans have to make do with an old black-and-white comedy – in English no less – which virtually no one else has ever heard of. And yet 'Dinner for One' is massive in Germany. This 18-minute skit about an English baroness’ 90th birthday celebration has run here every Silvester for the past 45 years. It’s broadcasted on almost every single channel. Think of the comedy’s popularity as such: just as every Brit can hum Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in their sleep, so too can almost every single Bundsebürger recite off by heart the opening lines to 'Dinner for One':

Miss Sophie: ‘Well, James, it's been a wonderful party!’

James: ‘Yes, it’s been most enjoyable.’

Miss Sophie: ‘I think I'll retire.’

James: ‘You're going to bed?

Miss Sophie: ‘Yes.‘

James: ‘Sit down, I'll give you a hand up, Madam. ‘

Miss Sophie: ‘As I was saying, I’m going to retire.’

James: ‘Ya, ya. By the way, the same procedure as every year, Miss Sophie?’

Miss Sophie: ‘The same procedure as every year, James.’

Just what is it about 'Dinner for One' that prompts millions upon millions of Germans to slap their thighs and howl with laughter every Christmas? Academic researchers point emphatically to the typical management structure of the country’s 3.7 million small and medium-sized enterprises. They claim that the ‘same procedure’ punchline reflects the nation’s desire for continuity and stability. Others, less academically and more hands-on, argue that the secret of the sketch’s success lies in Miss Sophie’s come-hither response to her loyal butler’s apparently innocent enquiry: ‘Same procedure as every year, James.’

This sexual innuendo delights Germans of all ages. The catchphrase has long entered their everyday vocabulary. It’s often used in newspaper headlines and advertisements too. It’s as well known in Germany as Vorsprung durch Technik in Britain.

So much for Miss Sophie & Co. But what still puzzles me after 20 years in Germany is this whole Father Christmas business. Children here are gifted by either baby Jesus, known as Christkindl, or Nikolaus. I typically mix these characters up, mistaking them for one and the same.

First I ever heard about Nikolaus was when I worked in an office in Bonn and we all turned up on 6 December to find a chocolate Nikolaus propped up against our coffee mugs. German bosses follow this custom every Advent, supposedly in honour of Bishop Nikolaus of Myra, famed for helping the needy around 325 AD. After his death, word of the gift-giving legacy spread, slowly transforming man and image into the modern-day, red-dressed chocaholic. The Christkindl, on the other hand, originates from Luther’s time. Ironically, it was Protestants’ attempt to de-bunk this whole Catholic celebration of Saint Nicholas on 6 December. 

How delightful that Germans still cling on to both figures, one historic, the other religious, rather than some beardy boozer from Coca Cola. But, as we're just about to discover, Christkindl and Nikolaus have a sidekick too. And I bet no one outside Germany has ever heard of him either.

Only a week into Advent and we get a terrible fright. Darkness is falling when a sudden thud at the front door makes us almost jump out of our skins. Peering out through the window we spot the shape of a ginormous figure plodding up our garden path.

This devil-like horned creature is actually Krampus. Half Gruffalo, half Godzilla monster, he's probably the last creature you’d wish to open your door to on a cold dark night. Let alone invite in and offer a piece of Plätzchen and glass of Glühwein. And yet that’s exactly what we end up doing, once we’ve established his real identity.

Local heros - scary Krampus (left) with Nikolaus


Dating back over 1000 years, Krampus’ sole role is to flag up naughty kids to Santa, before dragging them off to the underworld. That's what parents tell their kids, at least. Unofficially, he’s just an uncouth guardian angel, scary enough to put the wind up you. Like some Simon-Cowell-type ‘X-Factor’ judge. German readers - just think big mouths from Modern Talking.

Fortunately he’s not alone. Alongside stands Nikolaus, the absolute antithesis of the pot-bellied, larger-than-life All-American Santa. Tall and lanky, the Nikolaus outside our house looks more like the village priest. And since we booked him through the local church he probably is too. There’s just one small problem. Only children who polish their boots the night before will find them filled with goodies. Another key Christmas tradition I’d missed. Sadly, our child’s boots haven’t been cleaned since around Hallow’een.

You HAVE been gut, haven't you?


We come face to face again with Krampus and Nikolaus the very next day. It’s the duo’s annual appearance at the village Christkindlmarkt and I’ve just committed the classic yuletide blooper in the company of Bavarians – I’ve foolishly referred to Nikolaus as the Weihnachtsmann. Something only a Prussian would dare do. Well, it is all a bit chaotic and I’m trying to take a picture of Tildy shaking the old man's hand while an army of kids keep prodding me impatiently from behind. I can hear some of them quietly tut-tutting and one little boy politely corrects me:

‘Des is doch da Nikolaus!’

Oops...

It’s almost like Krampus is punishing me when he hands over his birch stick, the one with which he beats naughty children. ‘Hoid moi guad fest,’ he says, motioning me to hold tight while the old man patiently plods through the meet-and-greet routine with his little guests. Some are not quite so little, actually. One girl must be pushing at least thirteen or fourteen. She’s reaching over to shake Nikolaus’ hand. It’s something of a one-sided conversation with all the usual have-you-been-good, have-you-listened-to-teacher type questions:

‘Bassd Du oiwei im Unterricht auf?’    

Silence.

''Ho ho. Und machst Du oiwei des wos da Leahr sogt?’

Visibly embarrassed, the pubescent visitor is just nodding and giggling. Maybe she does still believe in the bearded benefactor, this is backwater Bavaria after all. Yet her eyes are clearly on the prize. She’s spotted the free bag of sweets which Krampus is preparing to hand her.

After Tildy’s encountered Krampus and Nikolaus a second time in as many days, reassured them she has been good this year, and collected her goodies bag, I slip off for a mulled wine. Snow’s falling and it’s icy cold. I notice some drinkers huddled under a patio heater. I’m quite surprised to see one of these contraptions in remote rural Lower Bavaria. Even Parisians have banned outdoor heaters because of their damaging effect on the environment. Still, this absurd appliance provides much appreciated warmth. Hugging my mulled wine like my last lifeline, I enjoy just standing there listening to snippets of conversation all around.

Although a little rough around the edges, there’s something mellifluous and singsong-ish about Bavarian dialect. One of my neighbours at the high table has just said

Mei Buidog schofft's den Hügl ned mehr houch.

My tractor can no longer make it up the hill.

Aha. Uttered in English, this might be aluding to the speaker's sagging libido. Spoken in Bavarian though, it simply sounds sweet. The three other mulled-wine sippers around the table show sympathy for the farmer’s plight, offering practical tips and advice on how he might soup up his vehicle:

‘Probier doch oafach moi de Kolbn und Dichtungsringe auszutauschn.’

Try replacing the pistons and gaskets. 

That's the Christmas spirit - Tildy & Co. singing in the snow


This is deutsche Weihnacht at its best – heavenly sweet aromas wafting from mulled wine urns, the local school choir singing ‘O Tannenbaum’, and the haunting blow of hunting horns. There’s something almost spiritual about this fairy-lit Christkindlmarkt. 

Most Bavarian Christmas markets run up til 23 or 24 December so still one or two more days to stock up on traditional handicrafts, gingerbread goodies like Lebkuchen, and enjoy one or two Glühwein under the enviromentally-destructive patio heater. 

And Dinner for One? 

31 December on (almost) every German TV channel. And here right now.  Enjoy!

Cult Cult comedy Dinner for One to get UK premiere after 50 years


Montag, 27. August 2018

Three cheers for no-nonsense American attitude to hellos and goodbyes

                       
We'd been sipping coffee outside the Fresco branch of Whole Foods, chatting to my colleague Rod, recently removed from Munich back to the States, when he suddenly glanced at his watch and indicated it was time to leave. Then, instead of shaking hands, he simply got up and waved. At first I thought his friendly gesture was directed at someone across the 'parking lot'. But no, as he proceeded to head off, it was evidently intended for us. Over the following weeks as we sped down the Pacific Highway I noticed everyone else doing it. Regardless of how near or far the distance between them.

The New Yorker 20.08.18
                        
Very soon I started following the American example, greeting people with a wave too. Admittedly, it felt a bit odd at first. Waving is surely just for royals and A-listers, isn't it? Or, for mere plebs, upon seeing someone you recognise across the street or winding down the car window for one final farewell, right? Well, not in SoCal, apparently. Americans even have a name for this gesture  the 'parade wave'. 

Let's reflect for a moment on the European way of greeting. With all the different ways of saying hello and goodbye we're easily confused. Should one kiss, hug, high five or hand-pump? Germans have a habit of knocking on the table whenever they get up and go. Or – and this puzzled me at first – they scrunch up their nose and blink both eyes at you. After 20 years in this country I still can't get used to either farewell gesture. Instead I often end up doing that very British thing of patting friends on the back or the arm. Cringe!

Whichever touch-feely approach we Europeans adopt, our greetings and farewells can be awkward at best and clumsy at worst. Particularly when we accidentally end up bumping noses, or knocking the other one's glasses off. Cringe again! 

Many fellow Europeans dismiss the U.S.A. these days as having losing the plot, but most Americans we chatted to were extremely sympathetic and apologetic about the current state of affairs. Many sounded confident about the mid-term elections. We left the country feeling generally optimistic. As for no-nonsense greetings, meanwhile, three cheers for the good ole 'merican way.
                       
Prost America!


Samstag, 30. Juni 2018

Wochenende. Hit the autobahn, head for the hills.


   

‘So why have we stopped doing things at the weekend?’

Bea’s question one Saturday morning, just as I’m quietly munching my way through another slice of home-made organic bread laced with our very own mirabelle plum jam, catches me by surprise. And yet she speaks no differently than if she were casually asking me to pass the butter.

Truth told, we’d not done very much at the weekend for some while. We’d slipped into an easy-come, easy-go routine of ferrying our offspring around to play dates and reciprocating friends’ hospitality here at home. All that in between trips to the local swimming pool and short walks through the woods just above our house. Or simply hanging around home and garden doing general chores. In short, our leisure life had become predictably routine and repetitive. I hesitate to use the word 'uneventful' because we lead pretty busy lives. Still, if we were to break the mould we needed to get going and give ourselves a push.

Funnily enough we both had exactly the same idea. Within moments I’d pulled a map off the shelf and had it spread out on the floor. Bea, bent over her i-pad, was keying in words like ‘Alpine Hikes Bavaria’. To watch us so ardently immersed in this activity you might be forgiven for thinking we were planning to fly off to some far-flung corner of the world. We don’t speak for almost quarter of an hour until Bea suddenly looks up from her i-pad and announces ‘That’s it. Next weekend we’re going to the Alps.’ She then says the name of a place I’d never heard of and moves off to make a cup of coffee.

We live a mere ninety-minute drive away from the Alps – the foothills, or Voralpen – at least, but I can count the number of times we visit them each year on just one or two fingers. By living on the northern side of Munich we’ve long kidded ourselves that the mountains are too far away for just a day trip. In reality, having reached Munich in less than an hour we’re already half way up the hills. Well, almost. The Alps are actually so close to Munich that they creep up on you, springing into view long before you join the Salzburg autobahn that tenaciously snakes round the Bavarian capital. Several years ago Bea and I flew over Munich in a four-seater Cessna 150. One moment we were passing over the Marienkirche, Munich’s landmark church. I bent down to adjust my seat belt and when I looked up again we were already cruising over the snow-sprinkled Alps.

Hurtling down the autobahn with Munich straight ahead of us, these snow-capped mountains suddenly leap into view again. Towering majestically on the horizon, the jaw-dropping alpine scenery reminds me how lucky we are to have first-class hiking and ski regions almost at our doorstep. All of a sudden, taking a 240-km round day trip to the Alps feels just like a short hop, or Katznsprung as Bavarians say.

                                       

The walk we’ve chosen starts and ends at Fischbachau, a pre-alpine village crammed with picture-perfect houses decorated with so-called ‘Lüftlmalerei’. These colourful frescos depicting traditional local fairy tales or religious scenes are found on countless homes in Upper Bavaria. One such brightly painted building particularly catches our attention. Splashed over its facade is a life-sized painting of a harp player. But it’s no normal harp player. This one’s an angel and it’s straddling a Harley Davidson. We’re just gawping at this slightly unusual fresco when the owner suddenly appears through the side gate. My instinctive reaction is to apologise and quietly move on. But before I can do so the man is beckoning us over:

‘Wo kimmd ihr ha, wo gäd ihr hi?’

Where are you from, where are you going to he wants to know. We say we’re doing the Leitzachtaler Bergblick– a 14-km round trip along the River Leitzach, over meadows and through woods. And it’ll take us right back to where we parked our car, just opposite the eleventh-century Friedenskirche Maria Schutz, the oldest church in the valley. What’s unusual about our conversation though is how talkative this man is. Bavarians are usually quite reserved. But this one is quite different. Talking nineteen to the dozen, he’s already telling Tildy and her friend Simona jokes. ‘Why do Red Indians do this?’ he quizzes them, holding both hands flat above his eyes, as if scanning the horizon. The girls look baffled. ‘Because if they did this,’ he reveals, hands cupped over his eyes, ‘they wouldn’t see anything!’’

                                      

The thermometer is nudging 20 degrees – just the right temperature for a decent mid-summer walk. Any cooler up in the mountains and we’d need jackets; any warmer and we’d probably be sweating. Yet dipping our toes into the River Leitzach we get a shock. The water’s ice cold. No great surprise really – its source lies 200 metres high in the Alps. We stop for sandwiches and coffee at a splish-splashy waterfall, the crystal-clear water shimmering in the morning sunshine as it tumbles over the rocks. ‘Papa schwimm!’ the girls chant in unison, daring me to strip off and plunge into the glacial water. A hardened swimmer, I'm usually the last one to say nein danke to a nice fresh dip. But there’s no way I’m leaping into this water. It must be a good 12 degrees cool.

                                      

Crossing a bridge which leads us away from the river, we enter a small village. Every single half-timbered cottage with its identical-looking flower-box-filled balconies looks like something straight off a Milka chocolate box. One of these gingerbread-like houses has a sign on the garden gate warning ‘Vorsicht, bissiger Hund!’. The vicious dog is either having a midday nap or, more likely, it doesn’t exist. Germans often put up such signs just to scare off curious passersby.


'Free-roaming dog. If dog comes, lie on the ground and wait for help. If no help comes, good luck.' 
                   
Just past the village we spot a cherry tree leaning over the pathway. Its aching branches are so heavily laden they’re literally touching the ground, almost to breaking point. The fruit is squelchy, juicy, overripe, and absolutely divine. Hanging from branches directly over the public footpath, it's crying out to be picked. We hastily fill our sandwich boxes, cramming in as much as we can..

Continuing the hike with slightly stained hands, we’re just passing a small Gastwirtschaft when we notice, a little higher up the hill, a group of farmhands loading piles of wood onto a gigantic bonfire. It’s the second or third such fire we’ve seen today. On the café terrace, meanwhile, half a dozen young waitresses prettily clad in dirndl are fluttering around busily decorating tables and clambering up stepladders to hoist up bunting and fairy lights.

                                        

Before I can think better of it, I’ve bounced up to one of the pigtail-braided waitresses. Standing there with peekaboo shoulder tops and revealing cleavage, she probably embodies every foreign male's idea of the quintessential Fräulein. It’s the chunky-heeled doll shoes that do it for me.

‘Tschuldigung, ist heut was los?’

I realise immediately what a silly question I’ve asked. It’s 21 June and of course something’s happening. It’s the longest day of the year and they’re preparing to celebrate summer solstice. This is the alpine practice of Sonnwendefeuer, lighting bonfires on mountaintops to ward away evil spirits. Traditionally a pre-christian custom, the Catholic Church ‘hijacked’ the heathen practice by turning it into a celebration of John the Baptist’s birthday which falls ust three days later. Ever since the fires have been known as ‘Johannisfeuer’. In recent years dare-devil youngsters have started jumping over the glowing embers in the belief that this purifies their souls and protects them from illness. Apparently the more people who leap over the red-hot cinders, the more purgative the whole process. Couples crossing over the fire hand in hand are said to signal that a wedding is on the way.

                                     

A little further on we suddenly spot, dotted around a meadow just above the path, a group of wooden sun loungers. Each curvy chair is wide enough to seat two to three persons. It’s the sort of furniture that wouldn’t be amiss in the relaxation room of an exclusive wellness centre. It’s a common sight in Bavaria – expensive furnishings dumped in the middle of nowhere, freely available to anybody who happens to pass by and fancies a rest. ‘If only we had one of these at home in the garden,’ sighs Bea, flopping onto such a model.

Oh, if only. Actually these loungers are so cosy it’s very tempting simply to stay put and just cancel the rest of the walk. But then reality kicks in. We’ve still got another half dozen kilometres to go.

These final six kilometres easily feel twice as long. Soon the kids are showing signs of fatigue. Fending off relentless pleas to carry Matilda piggyback, we suddenly pass a small chapel. A snow-haired man has just locked up the building and is pocketing the keys. ‘Grüßi Gott,’ I say, in typical Bavarian greeting style. I ask him for directions to the nearest Wirtshaus and, pointing to the tired kids, enquire how much further to Fischbachau. ‘Ooch, gar net so weit’ – not far at all – he says, gesturing across the fields towards a group of buildings clustered around an onion-shaped church spire. He also recommends a local hostelry which does great food. But before I can thank him in local dialect (vagelt's God!’) he’s jumped into a car and pulled up alongside us. ‘I’ll drop them off at the car park,’ he offers, beckoning the kids to climb in as he revs up the engine. Simona’s mother manages to hop in too. But only just. 

'Uuuh, have we just done the right thing?’ questions Bea, as we continue the walk on our own. Quivers of doubt suddenly cross my mind too. Standing sentinel by the chapel gate just a moment ago, the man had looked so trustworthy. ‘Oh, they’ll be there at the carpark, you’ll see,’ I say, seeking to reassure her. Sure enough, arriving back where we’d started out five hours earlier, Magdalena and the girls are waiting for us safe and sound.

Well almost.

Having tenaciously trecked almost a dozen kilometres of undulating pre-mountain track, Simona is suddenly hobbling around on one leg. Larking around on a bench in the carpark, she’d managed to fall off and sprain her ankle.

Still, in between Bea and I had been lucky to enjoy probably the most stunning scenery of the whole hike, traversing plateau-like terrain with wide-sweeping panoramic vistas of the Mangelfall mountain range, the eastern part of the Bavarian Alps. Looming up straight ahead of us we marvelled at the Wendelstein – at 1838 metres the highest local peak. We’d been up there once by cable car. The mountain top boasts a cosy restaurant, meteorological station, ginormous solar energy system and stunning views far into the Austrian province of Tirol.

When we roll up at the Café Krugalm, the inn we’d been recommended just a little further up the hill, the waitress apologises profusely that the kitchen already closed at 2 p.m. They’re no longer serving full meals, only snacks. We’re expecting just sandwiches and soup at the very most, but it turns out that Germans’ idea of just a snack is actually a full-blown hot meal. Very soon we’re tucking into wagon-wheel sized pizzas, piles of crunchy side salads and mouth-watering Kaspress Knödel oozing with Pinzgau Beer Cheese. But it’s the cakes that really steal the show at this mountainside eatery. A notice pinned up outside the kitchen reads ‘Cakes don’t make you fat, they simply straighten out the creases.’ Inside, a massive table stretches from one end of the kitchen to the other. It’s crammed with cakes, which we’re told are baked fresh daily. Spoilt for choice, I’m torn between the Gedeckter Apfel-Mandel and Versunkener Kirsch mit Joghurt. Both look irresistable. Unable to make my mind, I plump for rhubarb-and-joghurt cake.

With a big blob of Sahne, whipped cream, of course.

Mountain food has seldom tasted so succulent and the hike has wet our appetite for further forays into the Alps.
 

A guate!

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