Interview with a tour guide

When Munich became an “Athens on the Isar”

Ludwig I of Bavaria modelled Munich into his own “Athens on the Isar”, and many of the city buildings still attest to his endeavours today. Reidun Alvestad-Aschenbrenner is the Chair of the Munich Tourist Guide Association and a huge fan of King Ludwig. With her guidance, we discovered Ancient Greece in Munich.

After finishing secondary school, Norwegian Reidun Alvestad-Aschenbrenner came to Munich as an au pair. Her host family took her everywhere with them, so she soon became familiar with all of the museums and theatres in the city. After completing German studies courses in Oslo and Munich, she continued to live in Munich, passing the tour guide exam in 1999. She has been working enthusiastically in that profession ever since, and is now the Chair of the Munich Tourist Guide Association.

We met her at the café in the Staatliche Antikensammlung (State Collections of Antiquities) museum, and went on to admire the Greek statues in the Museum für Abgüsse klassischer Bildwerke (Museum of casts of classical sculptures) together, before taking the trail of King Ludwig I’s favourites – from sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen to architect Leo von Klenze. We conclude at his beloved “Athens on the Isar”, which the king had built in the style of Ancient Greece.

 

The Munich Tourist Guide Association offers over one hundred tours. What’s your favourite theme?

I am fascinated by royal Munich. Perhaps it’s because I come from a kingdom myself. I am always discovering new similarities between Norway and Bavaria: the mountains of course, and nature, but also the fact that there are so many reminders here that Bavaria was once a kingdom. That was probably one of the reasons I immediately felt at home here when I first came to Munich – even if Bavaria has a few more inhabitants than Norway (laughs).

What do you like best about your job?

There’s a lot of give and take in being a tour guide. I love that I can bring my guests closer to the city that I so enjoy living in, and also that I meet new people all the time and get chatting to them. It means every tour is an enriching experience for me too.

The Glyptothek art gallery will finally be reopening in January 2021 after over one and a half years. What have you missed during its closure?

Showing my guests the Glyptothek and its unique treasures. And for me personally, I missed the theatre performances they always had in the courtyard during the summer. The last play I saw there was Don Quixote. I am so looking forward to it reopening at last – and there will be a special exhibition for the occasion.

“There’s a lot of give and take in being a tour guide. Every tour is an enriching experience for me too.”

To mark the reopening of the Glyptothek and the 250th birthday of Bertel Thorvaldsen, the museum will be hosting an exhibition all about the Danish sculptor. What characterises his work?

One special thing about Thorvaldsen is how he manages to capture moods in his pieces. The way he put his sculptures in context – that’s also what Ludwig I valued so highly about his work: the piece as a whole, the composition. One of his best-known sculptures is Adonis. King Ludwig I commissioned the sculptor with it in 1808, but it wasn’t completed until 1832. The reason for that is it is one of Thorvaldsen’s few works that was carved entirely by his own hand – Ludwig I had specified that as a condition of the commission.

Did they know each other? Or were they friends, even?

King Ludwig I was often in Rome in his capacity as Crown Prince, and Thorvaldsen spent many years working there. Ludwig wanted to make Munich a real art city – and he wanted to employ a number of artists, among them Thorvaldsen, to achieve that. But the sculptor gratefully declined. Thorvaldsen did do Ludwig a different favour though: Ludwig desperately wanted the “Barberini Faun” for the Glyptothek, but it was supposed to remain in Italy. It took ten years to get the famous sculpture to Munich, and it was stored temporarily in Thorvaldsen’s workshop on the way. As a sign of his appreciation, Ludwig I allowed Thorvaldsen to restore the pedimental sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina – his contributions were removed in the 1960s, but the figures remain one of the highlights of the Glyptothek. Another testament to the good relationship that the two men enjoyed is a painting by Franz Ludwig Catel in the Neue Pinakothek. It depicts Ludwig I sitting in a Spanish wine tavern with a group of artists, with Thorvaldsen among them. 

Medieval literature, the Russian language, Ancient Greece – King Ludwig I’s interests were very diverse. Was there anything he wasn’t enthusiastic about?

You could maybe say that he was anti-France. Nonetheless, he travelled to Paris in his youth and visited the Louvre 33 times in just a few weeks. He was interested in all aspects of art. A year before his death, he also attended the Paris International Exposition. It is said that by the end of his life he had made his peace with France – after all, he was in Nice when he died. 

“The first building he had built in the Greek style was the Glyptothek – which is still the only museum in the world that exclusively houses antique art.”

King Ludwig I was a huge fan of Ancient Greece. Which buildings in Munich remind us of that to this day?

The first building he had built in the Greek style was the Glyptothek – which is still the only museum in the world that exclusively houses antique art. Then, there are the Antikensammlungen (State Collections of Antiquities) and the Propyläen (Propylaea). He was also behind the Monopteros – he put together his Athens on the Isar bit by bit. The reason he had the temple in the Englischer Garten built so tall was because he wanted it to have a direct view of the tower in the Residence (city palace). 

He even financed the Propyläen on Königsplatz privately, as a sign of the friendship between Greece and Bavaria. 

It was not finished until long after he had abdicated; almost 30 years passed from the design to completion of the building. Many people say that his initial support dwindled over time, as his interest in Greece had waned. The Propyläen was originally planned as a gate to the city, but Munich had grown significantly larger by the time it was finished.

The statue of Bavaria and the Ruhmeshalle (Hall of Fame) are also very Greek in style. We even have King Ludwig I to thank for the Oktoberfest, isn’t that right?

In 1810 he married Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in the Hofkapelle court chapel of the Residence. A festival for the townspeople to celebrate the wedding was organised on a fairground outside the city, and the people of Munich enjoyed it so much that they wanted to make it an annual celebration. It was initially organised by the farmers, but the city took over the event from 1819. The Theresienwiese [which literally translates as Therese Meadow] was named after Ludwig’s wife Therese.

“A festival for the townspeople to celebrate the wedding was organised on a fairground outside the city, and the people of Munich enjoyed it so much that they wanted to make it an annual celebration.“

How can someone identify Grecian buildings as they’re walking through Munich?

You can spot them from their triangular pediments, which are typical of the Renaissance and of the buildings of antiquity. If they have a frieze inside the triangle, even better. And of course there are also the Greek pillars, which you can’t miss. The Glyptothek is a typical example of this style of building – and the Temple of Monopteros as well.

Ludwig’s favourite architects were Leo von Klenze and later Friedrich von Gärtner. What did he like about their work?

King Ludwig I liked the classical architectural style for which Klenze was renowned. The two worked together for over 20 years. Ludwig could be certain that Klenze would never build anything remotely French – so that reassured him (laughs). Gärtner’s style, on the other hand, was more Renaissance Revival, but Ludwig I loved it as well. It does have an Italian flavour after all, and the Renaissance is the rebirth of antiquity. 

And it was not just in architectural terms that Bavaria looked to Greece at that time. Ludwig’s second son, Otto I, even became King of Greece in 1832. How did that come about?

As Ludwig had provided so much funding for the Greek fight for independence, his second son was quickly suggested as a possible monarch, though he was not the first choice for the throne. Depictions of the way Otto I was received in Nafplio, the Greek capital at the time, can be viewed today in the frieze at the Propyläen. King Ludwig I also visited his son of course, and therefore travelled to his beloved Greece at least once!

“Ludwig I can also be credited with building the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, which he had moved from Landshut to Munich.“

We also have the Greece enthusiast to thank for the fact that today Bayern [the German name for Bavaria] is spelled with a y and not an i. What other achievements can we attribute to King Ludwig?

Ludwig I can also be credited with building the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, which he had moved from Landshut to Munich. His desire for a grand boulevard like those in Rome led him to gift Munich its Ludwigstrasse. However, because the ruler did not want to move into the new avenue himself, he needed to fill it with other buildings – which is how the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) and ultimately the University came into being.

He invested heavily in architecture, but was Ludwig I rather stingy on a personal level?

He was very frugal with his wife – that much is true. When you look in the treasury, you won’t find much that belonged to Therese. He did give her an exquisite necklace and a tiara adorned with rubies and diamonds, but those jewels were not new, they were reused from the royal treasury.

What is your favourite story about King Ludwig I?

I love telling the story about the lions in front of the Residence: Ludwig I was born hard of hearing and grew ever more distrustful as he aged. He withdrew the freedom of the press and closed the university. When a student wrote an open letter of protest, Ludwig suspected that a revolt was being prepared against him, and he offered a thousand florins to anyone who captured the letter writer. The student came to him voluntarily – Ludwig was so relieved, he simply gave him the thousand florins. The student danced for joy outside the Residence and touched the lions as he did so. Since then, rubbing their noses is said to bring wealth.

“The student danced for joy outside the Residence and touched the lions as he did so. Since then, rubbing their noses is said to bring wealth.“

Where in Munich do you still feel especially close to King Ludwig I today?

When I am giving tours in the Königsbau (King’s Building) in the Residence. Also in the university – where I’ve actually studied – and in the Glyptothek art gallery. Ludwig I had a good art agent, but he always looked for quality rather than quantity. That’s why he only bought the most valuable pieces – and we can still marvel at their quality here today.

Where in Munich can you still enjoy some Greek flair today?

When I was at university, the Greek bars in Munich were the only ones we could afford to go to, because they were cheap. If I want to feel like I’m in Greece these days, I head to my favourite Greek restaurant on Prinzregentenplatz. I like the Grecian friendliness and playfulness there and that, together with the food, makes me feel very close to the country itself.

 

 

Interview: Anja Schauberger; Photos: Frank Stolle

Covid-19

The City of Munich is also affected by the nationwide tightened measures to contain the coronavirus. All important information about the coronavirus and your stay in Munich can be found here.