If I say “Munich”â€”most Americans will think, “cuckoo clocks, bratwurst and beer.” But for me Munich meant “DÃ¼rer, Weisswurst and Baroque architecture.” More importantlyâ€”for the purposes of my trip last weekâ€”Munich is the gateway to Bayreuth, a small, prosperous Franconian burg which is famous for one thing. One very important thing. Bayreuth is the capital of planet Wagner, where every July and August, those lucky enough to score expensive tickets gather to sit in an acoustically-perfect opera house and hear some of the greatest music ever composed.
That’s why I went. To feast on the operas of Richard Wagner. But since I also have graduate student memories of pilgrimages to great museums in the capital of Bavaria, IÂ made sure I scheduled time to visit the magnificent collections of Munich’s three grand art palaces, linked by the name “Pinakothek.”
My travel connections flowed easily into each otherâ€”the Lufthansa flight morphed into a convenient airport shuttle ride ($12 for 45 minute ride from airport to Munich’s main train station) from which I simply walked across the street to my strategically-located hotel.
Campari and a ham sandwich helped me decompress after the 11-hour plane trip. And the next day I boarded two trainsâ€”one the bullet train to NÃ¼rnberg, the other a regional train to Bayreuthâ€”and 2+ hours later I was in Bayreuth, where the Festival was beginning its final week.
Make no mistake, Bayreuth knows just how much it owes to the cult of Richard Wagner. During the summer festival devoted to his operas, every hotel and shop window proudly displays a portrait of the controversial maestro. Candy stores, tea shops and bookstores all offer the Wagner brand in a million different configurations.
I had managed to wrangle online reservations at the two top hotelsâ€”one the gorgeous little 18th century Goldener Anker, situated smack in the middle of the attractive pedestrian center of town, wedged between a 16th century castle (much restored after WWII’s heavy toll), and an inviting line-up of outdoor cafes and beer gardens. Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Anton Bruckner all stayed in this hotel. Wagner’s opera house looks down over the beautifully-manicured town.
But even these opulent visuals couldn’t obscure the fact that Europe had launched into a major heat wave. When I stepped off the train in Bayreuth it was a mind-melting 95 degrees, with humidity to match. And it stayed that way for the next five days! (Thank God for sandals and micro-fiber panties.)
Food prices turned out to be felicitiousâ€”platters of outstanding sausages and cheeses, including mustardy potato salad and draft beerâ€”ran around $8. Pastries with espresso ran around $6. The dollar held up nicely all week.
My hotel was graced with a serious chef. Who knew? Each night after the operaâ€”usually around 10pmâ€”the wood-panelled dining room filled up with tuxedoes and Louboutins, and a prix fixe meal of items such as local venison, truffled guinea hen, smoked salmon, and stuffed pigeon unfurled onto linened tables. These were imaginative dishes presented with sophistication and loaded with local, seasonal produce.
I formed the pattern of dining outside at one of the hotel’s sidewalk tables, where I enjoyed an appetizer dinner of camembert, smoked salmon and bresaola on sourdough, along with a spicy red wine from just up the road. Another light dinner involved crayfish with lake trout, pencil-thin asparagus and diced mangoes. Breakfasts were just what you fantasize about. Eggs with brilliant orange yolks. Myriad hams and cured meats along with sour pumpernickel toast and housemade marmalades. Croissants and cakes. Fresh yogurt and meusli, fat nectarines and plums. I feasted each morning and walked all day.
When my opera series finally arrived I moved 15 minutes closer to the Festspielhaus, to the very convenientâ€”if perfunctoryâ€”Hotel Bayerisher-hof (again, next door to the train station. Yes I do plan ahead). At 3pm, I joined a few of my colleagues from the Wagner Society of Northern California and began the brief stroll up to the opera house. We strolled slowlyâ€”it was 90+ degrees in the shade.
(For details of the operas I saw, see the separate postâ€”but they were each, in a word, stupendous!)- more soon.