Marienplatz / Munich, Germany / June 2016
On a distinctive mechanical clock and Munich’s historical past and evolving future.
Well before the appointed hour, we took our places amidst the large crowd which had already gathered in Marienplatz. Everyone was standing around with bated breath, all eyes focused in the same direction midway down the tower in front of us. Several people, including me, checked their watches expectantly. “It’s coming!” someone stage whispered when there were about two minutes left. Our gazes drifted upward to the clock at the top of the tower, as if to move the minute hand by sheer force of will. At 5pm the clock’s hand lurched into place, and there was an audible gasp of excitement. Finally, the show started.
This is Munich: a place where, once a day (and in summer, three times a day), people gather to watch a mechanical clock reenact stories from Bavarian history. Embedded in the tower of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) in the early 1900s, the Glockenspiel employs 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures over the course of a fifteen minute show. The Glockenspiel primarily depicts the 16th-century wedding of Duke Wilhelm V (who built Hofbräuhaus, one of the city’s oldest breweries) to Renata of Lorraine, at the time an event of epic proportions and expense. The top half of the clock shows the wedding party, with figurines dancing and the honorable couple forever gazing out onto the very square where their lavish celebrations were once held. The highlight of the top half is a joust between Bavarian and Lothringen knights, with the Bavarian rider – dressed in blue – always triumphing, and the audience giving an audible cheer.
Just when you think the show is over, though, the bottom half of the clock swings into motion. This portion of the clock shows the Schäfflertanz (Coopers’ Dance), a ritual dance performed by coopers1and considered one of the last original guild dances in Germany. Legend has it the dance started in 1517, after a terrible plague hit the city and this dance informed residents that it was safe to leave their homes again. By tradition, the Schäfflertanz is only performed in Munich every seven years, but you can still catch the red-jacketed coopers circling, hands and legs raised, in the Rathaus tower every day.
I find the Glockenspiel perfectly emblematic of this city, one so devoid of dirt, grime and litter and filled with quaint medieval buildings that it has been nicknamed “Toytown,” or “Millionendorf” – village of a million people. Narrow cobblestone streets snake off the main plaza, lined with candy-colored pastel facades and topped with orange roofs. Climbing up a church tower and looking out at the onion-domed Frauenkirche and the gothic gingerbread Neues Rathaus, you can’t help but think you are a Glockenspiel figurine come to life, roaming the streets of this dollhouse city.2
Given that Munich is also the epicenter of Oktoberfest, the city has the feel of an adult playground; perhaps it is fitting, then, that the city’s mascot is a monk-child, which perches atop the Rathaus tower, arms outstretched in welcome. A reference to the origins of the city’s name – “München” means “by the monks’ place” in Old High German – a monk has been on the city’s coat of arms since the thirteenth century.3The monk has changed with the years, however, starting out as a man holding a book, later becoming a child, and now, at Oktoberfest, often depicted by a young woman holding a beer mug.
This is equally Munich: an evolving, wealthy city in which legacy is preserved but modernity is also embraced. A gleaming BMW may be parked outside a medieval house; a new craft beer may be poured in a traditional stein; a table of elderly men in lederhosen may share a table with a family of immigrants at the beer hall. In many ways Bavaria fulfills our expectations of “quintessential” Germany – beer, lederhosen, giant pretzels, BMWs – so much so that Ernest Hemingway is said to have once remarked that everything in Germany except Munich was a “waste of time.” But in many others – the surfers in the English Garden, for example – the city continues to grow and surprise.
If you wait until the end of the Glockenspiel show, past the second act, past several minutes of bells and chimes, past the crowds starting to dissipate, there will be a few seconds of silence and then, slowly, a tiny golden bird will emerge from a door on the top of the clock. It chirps as a daily reminder that it’s not over till the cuckoo sings.
And . . .