For some reason we opted to attend the first opera in our lives on our second day in Munich, but before that we had a busy day that began with a tour of the Dachau concentration camp and ended with us wandering into a street fair that was part Jersey Shore with a healthy dose of German weirdness.
Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps, opened not long after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933. At the time Dachau was a small village in the hinterlands. Now it’s part of the greater Munich exurbs. We reached the site by first taking a commuter train, much like the PATH or Septa, to the town of Dachau, where we boarded a bus for a short ride to the memorial. On the way we passed through leafy neighborhoods and housing developments that nearly abut the entry to the memorial site.
We booked the tour through an outfit called Radius. Our tour was led by an American expat from Illinois named Jason. He was very knowledgeable and engaging. The tour lasted a total of four hours including the short train ride of 20 minutes on the way out from Munich central and 10 minutes on the return because we caught a direct train. It would be possible to travel to the site independent of a tour and just rent an audio guide, but we found having a tour leader helpful.
At first Dachau was where the Nazis sent political opponents and other so-called “undesirables” like Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. Over the course of the war it morphed into a more heinous place. All told about 43,000 people died there, which is terrible, but not on the scale of Auschwitz, where an estimated 1 million perished. What made Dachau notable is that it is where the Nazi’s perfected the tools they would use for that industrial-scale murder. Adjacent to the concentration camp was a training center for the SS, who then took what they learned to occupied territories.
All of the original prisoner barracks have been torn down, but there are two replicas that give you an idea of the horrible living conditions. The guard towers and the ovens the Nazis use to burn the bodies of dead prisoners can still be viewed. It’s a sobering site. It didn’t become a memorial until 1965 when survivors pressed for it. Before that, Germany preferred to try and ignore its Nazi past. What is strange is that there are many areas of the site that are actually sort of beautiful, which is in part because the site was set up to be a memorial and part of it is effectively a cemetery.
After the Dachau tour we returned to the beer garden adjacent to where we had our first night’s dinner for a German sausage and, of course, a couple more large beers. There was a band playing traditional Bavarian music and hundreds of people picnicking. As we noted in our first post, Thursday was Father’s Day and that seems to mean guys get dressed up in their Lederhosen and other traditional garb and drink all day. At least that was the gist as far as we could tell. But everyone seemed to be having a good time. It’s interesting that at least one family had brought their own food and set up for a day-long picnic, which was OK so long as they bought beers. Being Germans, they obliged.
After a brief rest we marched off again, this time to the opera house for a performance of “Les Troyens,” a five-hour opera based on the Aeneid. Yep, a real page-turner. Lots of references to terror and enemies, blood and gore, and the Trojan Horse. At least that was the gist of it. Why the opera? I guess the best answer is why not? We had never been to one so why not try it in Munich? It was entertaining in its own way, and lest you wonder about language, the opera was sung in French but translations in German and English were projected above the stage.
After the first two acts there was a 45-minute break where you could grab a drink or a snack. Prices for a couple of drinks were actually fairly reasonable, not the ridiculous gouging you experience at at Broadway theatre. We went back for the third act of the performance after some debate. That act feature a lot of naked men lying around a pool in Carthage, with singing by the soprano playing the queen and another playing her sister. There was a brief curtain for costume changes, such as it was, at which point we decided to make our exit. The opera house is a very large and beautiful building.
After leaving the theater we strolled up to the nearby Hofgarten, which is the gateway from the old part of the city to the more expansive Englisher Garden, which we may visit on Saturday. While there we briefly watched some people trying to tango under a cupola. It brought back memories of our various and so far unsuccessful attempts to master that dance.
We were strolling back to our hotel when we happened upon what looked like a street carnival that occupied one city block. It featured faux pirate-ship stalls that sold various seafood and other eats. (On a tour the following day we learned that operators of the stalls were from Hamburg, which is northern Germany and much closer to the sea.) We snacked on a flatbread topped with sliced, cooked salmon and grabbed two glasses of wine from an Austrian winery that was selling its wares. The entertainment featured a rather fat old guy with a captain’s hat crooning along to various recordings. That and various guys in Lederhosen wrapping up their Father’s Day with vodka shots. It’s one of those you have-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments.