MUNICH, Oct 26 — When people think of Bavaria, the Alpine state of Germany, the three things that come to mind tend to be beer, bratwurst (pan-fried veal or pork sausages) and Brezn (Bavarian pretzel).
Tourists fill beer tents to overflowing during Oktoberfest. They snap endless shots of Schloß Neuschwanstein, the romantic fairy-tale castle.
What many outsiders don’t know is that Bavaria has more to offer besides Bierstube (beer taverns) and Lederhosen (leather trousers).
In fact, one of the most popular spots with locals is the Englischer Garten (English Garden) in Munich, the Bavarian capital.
One of the biggest urban parks in the world, the Englischer Garten is even larger than Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London.
Covering 3.73 square kilometres, it was first commissioned by Elector Karl Theodor in 1789 and designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson, an American-born British advisor to the Bavarian Army.
The public park stretches for about five kilometres along the River Isar and was landscaped in the style of an English country park, hence its name.
Today, the Englischer Garten is a hotspot for joggers, leisure-seekers, photographers, and even office workers cycling there to enjoy an unhurried lunch under the trees.
While the park has many entrances, the easiest way to get there is via the U-Bahn subway.
Get off at the Universität stop and follow the stream of students carrying picnic baskets, footballs and small crates of beer.
(Its proximity to the park could be why the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich seems so popular with young Germans.)
The first place you should head to is a Biergarten (beer garden), of course.
One could try the Seehaus Biergarten on the banks of Kleinhesseloher Lake or the Aumeister Biergarten further north.
But really, if you want to experience Bavarian hospitality at its finest (along with a good dose of German kitsch), there is only one choice: Munich’s oldest Biergarten at the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower).
This 25-metre pagoda-style wooden tower has five storeys and was built in 1790 during the height of the 18th-century obsession with everything Oriental in Europe.
While the original tower was destroyed during World War II, the Chinesischer Turm was rebuilt in 1952 as an exact copy.
The Bavarians are perhaps the proudest of all Germans and post-war restoration efforts here are some of the best in the country.
Here you may choose from over 7,000 seats in the Biergarten.
The benches that are arranged around the tower offer a good view of the brass “oompah” band that plays “live” from the first floor.
Imagine Oktoberfest music... without the unwieldy crowds.
Try some traditional Bavarian delicacies from the food stalls.
Typical favourites include Schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock), Käsespätzle (egg dumplings with cheese and fried onions), Knödel (potato or bread dumplings), and Weisswurst (a white sausage).
The crispy and tender Hendl (roast chicken) is some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world; definitely finger-licking good!
This being Bavaria and a Biergarten to boot, you can’t leave without sampling some of the best beers in the world.
Bavaria has the highest brewery density in the world, with a brewery in almost every village or town! Little wonder then that beer here is served in a 1-litre glass called Maß.
At the Chinesischer Turm, the beer served is from the Hofbräu brewery. Besides the helles Bier (“blonde beer” or a lager), you may try the Weißbier, beloved by all Bavarians.
Weißbier is a cloudy, unfiltered beer where malted barley is replaced with malted wheat during brewing.
It even has a special vase-shaped glass; to pour the beer, you must tilt the glass at a 45º angle, allowing the beer to run down the side.
For something less alcoholic, try a summer specialty: a Radler, which is a 50-50 mix of lager and lemonade, or a Russ, where the lager is replaced with Weißbier.
Both are deliciously thirst-quenching and shouldn’t get you tipsy (not unless you are truly a light drinker).
After quaffing a cool beer or two under the shade of ancient horse chestnut trees, a ride by horse-drawn carriage through the park may sound heavenly while you digest your lunch.
Tours in traditional carriages by Kutscherei Hans Holzmann begin at the entrance of the beer garden so you needn’t go far for your ride.
The drivers are stately gentlemen in grey vests and black top hats; the service itself dates back to 1945.
Alternatively, take a slow stroll along one of the many rambling paths. The entire network of paths cover a total of 78km, so you can take your time getting lost in the sights!
And such sights – cyclists and joggers share the same space as folks out playing soccer and volleyball.
There are painters and photographers; yogis and yoginis practise in shaded alcoves.
Some even go surfing on the Eisbach, a small side stream of the River Isar with its own manmade standing wave.
Of course, the most infamous “sights” of the Englischer Garten are the nude sunbathers during summer.
The “Free Body Culture” (or Freikörperkultur in German) movement endorses a naturist approach towards community living.
Since it’s both legal and socially acceptable, why not join the locals in stripping down to your birthday suit and frolicking in the sun?
Lunch breaks are particularly fuss-free affairs since you can easily wipe away any food or drink you may spill. No nasty stains to worry about!
Do note it’s only clothing-optional in the area in and around the horse track near Universität; elsewhere you might receive some puzzled stares if you go commando (or at worst, a snigger or two).
As the day draws to a close, head south and climb a small hill with a Greek temple at its peak. Both the Monopteros and the hill it sits on are artificial and created in 1836 under orders from King Ludwig I, purportedly to replace the nearby wooden Apollo temple that had crumbled away over the years.
The structure may not be ancient Greek, alas, but it still affords a remarkable view of the Munich skyline and the Alps in the distance, especially at dusk.
What better way to end your Bavarian day out in the Englischer Garten?
How to get there
Take the U-Bahn subway (U3 or U6 lines) and get off at the Universität stop. Follow directions at the stop to the Englischer Garten entrance.
Englischer Garten 3, Munich, Germany
The beer garden is open 10am-11pm (depending on the weather)
Kutscherei Hans Holzmann
Horse-drawn carriage rides from the Chinesischer Turm daily 10am-12pm