Every trip starts with grand plans; not all of them can be realised. But in the end, the Michael Jackson-influenced trip I made to Germany in 2016 was a great success; a memorable experience on many counts, in particular for Michaeling and historical sightseeing.
It began in Munich, a city MJ visited numerous times, the last being for his charity concert ‘Michael Jackson and Friends’ in 1999. He stayed at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof overlooking Promenadeplatz where the fan-initiated memorial now stands.
I had a drink on the rooftop Blue Spa Bar of the hotel with Nena from MJ’s Legacy International Association and a tour of some of the public rooms, including the incredible Falk’s Bar with its ‘hall of mirrors’. This remarkable place dates back to 1839 and is the only room at the hotel to survive WWII unscathed.
Earlier I had left tributes at the memorial, looked at the cards and messages left by some of the many other fans who had preceded me to this modern-day ‘sacred ground’ and taken numerous photographs. I met Mila, another of the keepers of the shrine, and some of the curious sightseers who stopped to look at the memorial.
The Munich MJ street memorial adorns a statue honouring another, lesser-known musician. Since being co-opted by Michael Jackson fans, 16th-Century Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso has gained some new recognition of his own. It’s what they call a ‘win-win’ situation, I guess. Di Lasso’s statue was due for refurbishment a couple of months after my visit, and Nena and friends were negotiating with authorities to be able to reinstate the MJ tributes once the cleaning process is completed.
I gained an appreciation of what it takes to keep something like this going without raising the ire of surrounding Promenadeplatz tenants, including the 5-star Bayerischer Hof and city officials. Knowing problems people have had at home in placing simple floral tributes adjacent to sites of road fatalities etc., it seems to me an incredible achievement that the Munich MJ memorial has continued for so long. Unfortunately it hasn’t been without some controversy between competing groups of fans. It gave me reason to wonder, as I’ve done before, whether anything involving Michael can be free of controversy or fan politics. Sadly, it seems not.
The Munich MJ memorial represents an outpouring of international love for Michael, just as do the flowers and messages left at Forest Lawn and Neverland in California. In Munich the memorial has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right – a curiosity in this beautiful, historic city. If it causes non-fans to wonder about the artist who prompts such declarations of love and admiration from around the world, then it serves its purpose. It has grown beyond petty fan politics and needs to be sustained and maintained for the benefit of Michael’s legacy.
Munich also offered me opportunities for amazing historical and architectural sightseeing. As a history buff who loves beautiful buildings, I felt very much at home in this city of buses, trams, trains and pedestrian promenades. It reminded me very much of Melbourne back home in Australia, but with a landmark structure on almost every corner.
I did most of my sightseeing on foot or by taxi, walking from my hotel to Marienplatz and visiting the beautiful churches on the way, starting with Michaelskirche on Neuhauser Str – a Jesuit church built in the late 1850s and the largest Renaissance church north of the Alps. By the end of my first full day in Munich, a Sunday, I had dropped in on five different Masses in five different Catholic churches. At home I’d be lucky to get to Mass once a year.
That afternoon when I was at the rooftop bar at the Bayerischer Hof with Nena, I had an aerial view over the part of the city that I had explored in the morning, from Karlsplatz to Marienplatz and back. Now, in the golden afternoon sunlight, it was full of tourists and locals whereas in the morning it had been just early risers like myself, a few cafes open for breakfast business, and people going to early Mass.
On the following day, a Monday, when museums are usually closed in Germany, I took a day trip by train to Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II’s fairytale castle in the Bavarian Alps. Ludwig, who is sometimes called the Swan King or the fairytale king, reigned from 1845 to 1886. He was obsessed with the heroic sagas of the past and enamoured of France’s famous ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV and saw himself as the ‘Moon King’ – a romantic shadow of that earlier monarch.
I joined a group at the Munich Haupbahnhof (main train station) which was about five minutes’ walk from where I was staying. Together with our guide we caught a train to Hohenschwangau, and then a bus to the village at the base of the castle. Or, I should say ‘castles’ because there are two of them. One is Hohenschwangau Castle itself, which was built by Ludwig II’s father King Maximilian, and across the valley, at a higher elevation, is the magnificent Romanesque-style fortress Neuschwanstein. Before climbing up to the castle we visited Lake Schwansee that is said to have inspired Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’. In the distance is the Marienbrücke, the bridge over the Pollät gorge – closed for refurbishment at the time of my visit.
That was fine, because the visit to the castle was sufficient for me, especially after the steep walk up from the village. It had me glad of every rest stop, overlook and photo opportunity so I could catch my breath and give my heart a chance to return to a normal pace. Next time I promised myself I’d take a ride in one of the coaches being pulled by magnificent draught horses. The smart people were riding up the mountain!
But Neuschwanstein was worth the effort to reach. It is indeed a magnificent attempt to create a typical fairy tale castle. It’s famously said to have been the model for the Sleeping Beauty castle in the original Disneyland in California. I’ve visited all the Disney parks and I especially know the park in California well, so I could testify that the top part of Neuschwanstein, viewed from the frontal aspect, does indeed display a similarity to Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Only it’s much bigger – of course! And it has lots of spiral staircases! Yes, after climbing up the hill, when you finally get into the castle, the first thing you do is climb some more!
No photographs are permitted inside the castle, but there are official images on the internet and a series of historical prints of the fresco-covered rooms that pay homage to Wagner’s operas, of which King Ludwig II was a great fan. He was also a friend and financier to Wagner himself, though never invited him to the castle to see the artworks his operas had inspired. It’s one of the many mysteries about the King who in addition to spending the crown’s money on realising his fairytale fantasies at Neuschwanstein and elsewhere, became depressed and reclusive in his later years. He came to a sad end, but his legacy certainly lives on.
Which brings me to something our tour guide said as we were talking on the train journey up to Hohenschwangau. She had been telling our small group about King Ludwig and his eccentricities, his lavish building projects and his later reclusiveness. Eventually the government had him declared insane, and he was deposed and died in Lake Starnberg, south of Munich, having gone for a walk with his doctor and subsequently drowned. The doctor was also found dead in the lake, but with a bullet hole in his head! Speculation about the double fatality continues to this day.
On seeing the MJ artwork on my tote bag our guide said to me, if you combine Michael Jackson with Howard Hughes, that’s King Ludwig. Well, that was an interesting viewpoint, but I really didn’t want to spoil my outing by debating or thinking about it. Yes, I guess there were some similarities in behaviours, but some of them only if you believed the tabloids.
The next day I took a taxi to the Nymphenburg Palace, the royal palace where Ludwig was born which is located right in Munich. It is palatial indeed, and is surrounded by landscaped gardens and parkland full of beautiful pavilions and even a grotto-style chapel.
It was a day of inclement weather – the first I’d experienced since arriving in Germany which was otherwise enjoying a glorious spring. Walking the paths through the trees and sitting by the lakes of Nymphenburg I enjoyed the patter of the light rain on the green canopy overhead and felt blissfully contented.
I felt physically refreshed and emotionally and artistically exhilarated by Munich and the Bavarian landscape beyond it. Perhaps like Michael before me. I like to think so.
Sources and further information:
http://www.mjs-legacy.com/ (in German and English) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_II_of_Bavaria https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuschwanstein_Castle