Bewitching Bavaria

by Jill Gleeson

It isn’t really about voyaging across the planet. Nowadays, flying to Western Europe from the Mid-Atlantic doesn’t take much longer than a day at the office (and can be a lot more pleasant). The distance to Bavaria is, in an odd way, measured less in miles than in years. Traveling to this German free state, which gloriously unfurls like a pristine postcard across the country’s entire southeast region, pulls the visitor back centuries. Dotted with fairytale castles, graced by medieval towns, with dark mountain forests and lush, rolling meadows in between, Bavaria offers lucky travelers to its interior a trip across time.

For many residents of the greater Capital City region, it is also a journey home. According to the Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, the Commonwealth boasts more than 3.2 million German-Americans, more than any other state in the nation. While the first major migration of Germans to America in 1683 resulted in the founding of Germantown in the Philadelphia area, later immigrants pushed further west into the state. Many helped create the unique and vibrant Pennsylvania Dutch community that extends into Dauphin County.

Whether or not you feel a sense of homecoming upon touching down in Bavaria, it’s a safe bet you will quickly experience the area’s famed “Gemütlichkeit,” which roughly translated means a state of well-being, warmth, belonging and friendliness. Direct flights from Philadelphia to Munich, the region’s capital, depart daily, making the bustling, beautiful city the perfect place to begin your Bavarian adventure.

Going Beyond Beer in Munich

Best known for Oktoberfest, the legendary beer festival that attracts some 6 million people annually, Munich has managed to retain much of its old-world charm, despite the devastation wrought by Allied bombs during WWII and its emergence as Germany’s top spot for business. With a population of nearly 1.4 million, Munich is the country’s most prosperous city and home to multinational corporations such as BMW. The automobile manufacturer’s Welt and Museum, housed in a contemporary architectural showstopper, featuring showrooms, exhibits, special events, guided tours and more, is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.

Founded in 1158 by the splendidly named Henry the Lion, Munich should be experienced for at least a few hours with one of the city’s official guides. They’ll help untangle its long, dramatic history and lead you through the sights that can’t be missed, many of which are grouped within Altstadt, Munich’s historic center. Among them are Marienplatz, a square dominated by the massive, richly ornamented New Town Hall. Its tower features the beloved Glockenspiel, a clock with animated figures and 43 chiming bells tourists flock to see come alive at 11 a.m. and noon.

There is also a wealth of gorgeous churches in Alstadt worth visiting, including the more than five-century-old Frauenkirche, graced with 325-foot-tall, onion-domed twin towers that dominate the skyline, and Asamkirche, a relatively small house of worship. Designed by the Asam brothers and finished in 1746, it boasts a jaw-droppingly ornate Baroque interior.

Nearby, the world-famous brewery and beer hall, Hofbräuhaus, dating back to 1592, serves literally thousands within its walls. Viktualienmarkt, built in 1807 as a farmers market, continues to beguile gourmets with dozens of outdoor stalls spotlighting homegrown Bavarian products, including sausages, vegetables, honey, eggs and much more.

Every season in Munich brings its own pleasures, from spring’s Frühlingsfest, cozier than the autumn version, to winter’s Christmas markets – the oldest Christkindlmarkt dates back to the 14th Century – and fall’s Oktoberfest, sure to be extra celebratory this year, which marks the 500th anniversary of Germany’s beer purity law. But summer is a stunner, serving up unique opportunities for fun, including swimming in the clean, clear waters of the Isar River and sunbathing (nude, if you like) on its shores. And then there are Munich’s fabled bier gartens, where city residents beat the heat by quaffing massive 1-liter glasses of beer. Hofbräukeller, with seating for about 1,800 under the cozy boughs of chestnut trees, has been a favorite since 1892 and, along with beer, serves hearty Bavarian cuisine, like bratwurst on cabbage and potato dumplings.

Spearing the Dragon in Furth im Wald

Speaking of summer, should you be able to arrange a visit to Bavaria in August, you’ll want to visit the lovely little town of Furth im Wald, which sits deep in the Bavarian forest, not far from the Czech border. Nearly 700 years old, it is also known as Drachenstadt, or the City of the Dragon, thanks to its five-century-long history of presenting the Drachenstich, a play loosely based on the story of St. George. Believed to have originated with a re-enactment of St. George’s fight against the dragon as part of the annual Catholic Corpus Christ procession, it is the oldest folk play in Europe.

But don’t expect an antiquated, outdated production. Furth im Wald, which is home to only 9,000 residents, manages to present a show that rivals anything seen on Broadway or in Vegas. Set outdoors on the town square, it features a cast of 300, all clad in richly detailed costumes that accurately replicate medieval garb, portraying such archetypal characters as the fair maiden, handsome knight and evil misanthrope. There is thrilling swordplay, real horses, spectacular lighting and sound and, yes, a dragon, which roars, breathes fire and smoke, bleeds when pierced by the hero’s lance and spreads wings 40 feet across. Known affectionately to townsfolk as “Fanny,” at 50 feet long, it is the world’s largest quadruped walking robot.

Despite all this modern technological wizardry, the Drachenstich somehow manages to feel very much the product of another, long-ago age. Perhaps it’s because its stage is a centuries-old town square, or that its lines are uttered in German, such a mysterious, ancient-sounding language to those who don’t speak it. Or maybe it’s just that the dragon looks real. Whatever the reason, it makes a trip to Furth im Wald in early August, when the Drachenstich runs, a special treat. While there, be sure to visit the town tower, which provides a breathtaking view of the surrounding Bavarian and Bohemian forests.

Wandering the Streets of Regensburg

The best-preserved medieval city in Germany, Regensburg was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site a decade ago. Located about an hour northeast of Munich on the banks of the storied Danube River, Regensburg is filled with a stunning array of nearly 1,000 Romanesque and Gothic structures. Among the most famous are the massive St. Peters Cathedral, built in the French Gothic style between 1274 and 1520, and the Stone Bridge, which dates to 1135 and was so impressive it was once considered “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The Regensburg tourism office offers guided tours that give a fascinating look at the city’s history as a medieval trading center of political, economic and religious importance.

Just be sure to save plenty of time to stroll the city’s narrow lanes, still lined as they were in the Middle Ages with shops and craftsmen’s houses. Regensburg is wealthy, but retail therapy here doesn’t have to mean haute couture. Instead, investigate charming storefronts filled with second-hand lederhosen and dirndls, Bavaria’s traditional leather pants and apron-bedecked dresses, or perhaps Der Hutmacher, the last remaining German millinery, which outfitted Johnny Depp for his Mad Hatter role in Alice in Wonderland.

Before heading out of town, stop by the Spitalgarten, a bier garten attached to the Spital Brewery. Regensburg’s oldest, the brewery was founded to raise funds for the 800-year-old home for the elderly located next to it.

Festival Frolicking in Straubing

Like Furth im Wald, Straubing, which sits on the banks of the Danube and is considered the gateway to the Bavarian Forest, comes alive in early August. That’s when Gäubodenvolksfest takes over the town. Begun two centuries ago as a celebration of the area’s fertile agricultural plain, it is now the second-largest festival in Bavaria, drawing almost 1.5 million visitors. This is Bavaria at its most charming, with tents filled with thousands of grinning, gleeful Germans quaffing mammoth beers and singing along to songs like Sweet Caroline – everyone, young and old, in lederhosen and dirndls. Step outside, and you’re bathed in the neon lights of an enormous carnival, with Ferris wheels spinning to the sounds of distant oompah bands. It’s all a little surreal and utterly magical, the kind of experience your senses can’t quite accept.

While pleasures of Gäubodenvolksfest are many, Straubing itself deserves attention. The first settlements in the area date back 8,000 years; the “new town” just west of the old town center was founded in 1218. Important sights include the historic walled cemetery, featuring graves from as early as the 14th Century and three lovely, melancholy chapels, and the soaring, five-spired Gothic town tower, built in the early 1300s. Straubing’s square, lined by a lively mélange of architectural styles spanning seven centuries, bustles with cafes and boutiques, perfect for whiling away the afternoon. Just beware – like so much of Bavaria, should you linger too long, you might find it difficult to tear yourself away and travel back to the future.