Our first Medieval Macabre tour of 2021
I received the request last week: 2 people for the “Munich Macabre” tour on Sunday. This is a group tour and normally, just for two people I might not run it: but these are not normal times. Plus, I thought it would be good to blow off those cobwebs.
Ok, I’ll be honest: it was the thought of wearing authentic heavy wool in the baking heat of a Bavarian summer that did it. I am, it would seem, a glutton for punishment.
“Munich Macabre” was inspired by my having taken a spooky tour in Edinburgh, which was both informative and good fun. Now Edinburgh, if you have never been, is really quite a spot – full of ancient churches, medieval cemeteries, secret passages and some truly shocking tales. It also benefits somewhat from not being extensively bombed during WW2…. How then, could I transplant the best elements of that tour to Munich?
I figured the best way forward was to go with what I knew: I had spent most of my life from the age of 11 mixed up with historical re-enactments: from playing at Vikings to WW2 paratroopers – and always in character. I’ve been involved with a bit of TV in the past as well. Acting the part would not be an issue.
I was pretty well read on the local medieval history and how it fitted into the wider picture but found it was a bit redundant on my general city tours, which tend to be overviews rather than paragons of intimate and detailed research – “you can get a good sausage here, that is a good pub there… just don’t ask to sit at Hitler’s table, they will throw you out. I think someone asked about the BMW museum? You need the U3 which you can get right here at Marienplatz…“. Nothing wrong with that and in fact as a tourist myself, I have taken similar orientation tours and found them to be very useful – but as an historian and archaeologist, I like to be able to delve a bit deeper into the history of a place, and this is especially true when I am running a tour. Although I am offering a service, I really need to be engaged with it – I need to “own it”, to be as competent with the material as I can be: for this reason I run a number of WW2 tours but not the ever popular Neuschwanstein. The Second World War is a subject close to my heart. My BA Archaeology thesis was concerned with the archaeology of WW2 bunkers. “Mad” King Ludwig and his myriad building projects, although certainly interesting, just does nor grab my imagination the same way. Without that passion, I think I would be a poorer guide and I’d rather not take guests on a tour which I was not, to some degree, emotionally invested in.
So, the idea started to form, of how to use this local historical knowledge and my skillset. Add to this some local archaeological knowledge, throw in some artefacts the guests could handle and voila! You have “Munich Macabre”.
It runs to about 3 hours. This sounds like a bit of a killer but half way through we take a break and try some medieval beers.
It is a good tour if I say so myself but the lack of much in the way of original medieval structures is a bit of an issue: no-one visits Munich to gaze upon its medieval splendour. Sure, we have some interesting churches and I talk a bit about the architecture and ancient burial rites but it is lacking the half-timbered streets of Rothenberg, Nuremberg and Cologne – these last two were also levelled by bombers and saw serious ground fighting in 1945 – but made a real effort to preserve and restore the more vernacular architecture.
In Munich, the city centre – with few exceptions – is very obviously post war architecture. There were high-level talks amongst architects and art historians about how to rebuild. (See here for a great book on this subject) An argument against rebuilding as it was was the question of what value a replica? Also, if one is to decide to rebuild damage from WW2, why not restore other structures, torn down and swept away in peacetime, such as the town walls and moat? The same debate tackled what to do with the the recent Nazi architecture; some loud voices wanted it all destroyed, in a way, pretending the years 1933-45 never happened. What to do though with somewhere like the famous Hofbräuhaus? The N.S.D.A.P. was founded here on February 24th 1920. For the Party faithful, this was a holy spot. Do you destroy somewhere that has been brewing beer since 1589 because the Nazis used to hang out there? Of course not, that would be silly (And never mind the money it brings in) – and yet these were the sort of questions the planners of the immediate post-war years grappled with. So Munich gets rebuilt – but in the process, it loses some of its charm, some of its history. (Of course, one of the ways in which history and archaeology is measured is through change, so you could argue – and you would not be wrong – that this rebuilding is just another page in the history of the city. It is just that I really have to work that much harder when trying to conjure up a medieval cityscape for my guests).
Suffice to say, the lack of Medieval structures means that a medieval history tour comes as a bit of shock to many. It is not the sort of tour one would associate with Munich. There is a German firm running similar for German guests and it is widely popular – I think because it is so far removed from all the baggage that goes with the more modern history that Munich is associated with. (Similar… but not as good… and their costumes are quite frankly shockingly bad, no handsewn, authentically dyed with onion skins and urine there – but I digress).
I’ve tried different approaches to advertising – flyers in hotels, Facebook, Google AdWords…. being on the main square in costume. In truth, most guests find me on Tripadvisor or Viator: which is great, but still, a night-time medieval tour, looking at things like the Black Death (very topical just now!), military and social history, crime and punishment is just something that would not cross most peoples minds: a majority of those who take my tour have taken something similar elsewhere, somewhere with more obvious and visible medieval structures and history. I think in Munich that this will always be an issue.
One of the stops on the route is in a very heavily and unsympathetically restored castle called Der Alte Hof – The Old Court. The Wittelsbachers – the royal house of Bavaria – lived here for centuries. I use this spot to illustrate a few facts about sword fighting and the concept of Chivalry – as the Bavarians interpreted the word – so I’ve always got two, sometimes three swords wrapped up in canvas. Now these swords are blunt modern replicas but are pretty good in terms of weight and the way the handle when you practice your moves – or “wards” as they were known. Medieval sword fighting was a real skill, with two main schools or styles, what we now call German and Italian styles. I teach a few moves from the German school, referring to handbook by a fella called Hans Talhoffer. He was essentially a sword-yielding renaissance Yoda. But taller, not so green and from Swabia, rather than the Dagobah system.
So – Sunday evening.
We start the tour and it is going really well, despite my initially being a bit nervous: what if I am rusty after such a long break? The pubs were showing the football and so town was quite quiet. I round a corner to make one of my fairly important stops and I am confronted by 8 police vans: parked up on a side street, just waiting to get the order to go and break up a pub brawl. It is not ideal for my history tour but I was committed, having just built this next stop up. I find the best spot in which to deliver my spiel and drop my kit off my shoulder, the bag of swords leaning against a wall.
I’m a few minutes into my presentation when three cops sidle over to me. Monsters – huge – all of them. Certainly not the sort of chaps to get on the wrong side of. But this has to be bad. You never want to tangle with the cops here if you can help it: they are here to protect you, not make small talk. The head guy comes over to me and starts his speech. I’ve heard it before – “What are you doing? Lets see your ID. Those are swords in the bag..why have you got them?”. As I say, the swords are blunt and legal – my pal the cop – Big Stevo (what is it with Munich cops?) – said they are fine. I’m listening and yet the words I’m waiting for don’t come. He actually ended with “Bitte” – “Please”.
It took a second for my mind to actually make sense of what he had said: we love what you are doing and could we try on the medieval helmet, please? I wish I had thought to take their picture….
The rest of the tour passed without further incident. Just need a few more of these now: maybe next month….