Munich may not be by the sea, but it still has a beach life: in Au – a district that has lived in symbiosis with the Isar river for centuries.
The people of Au live on the Isar, with the Isar and sometimes in the Isar, especially in summer, some even in winter. The district lies along the Isar with its entire length: its lower part stretching from the Wittelsbacherbrücke in the south to the Ludwigsbrücke (bridges) and the Müller'sches Volksbad in the north. Hence its name, which dates back to the first mention of the area in 1340 as “Awe ze Gyesingen“, land by the water near Giesing, the neighboring quarter.
„The people of Au live on the Isar, with the Isar and sometimes in the Isar.“
At that time Au was still a fishing village, later mills were built on the Entenbach and Mühlbach arms of the Isar, with Mühlbach still flowing through the district today. From the 15th century onwards, day labourers and workers moved to the riverside to earn money during the construction of the Frauenkirche (the construction of the cathedral began in 1468) or the Residenz (the construction of the city palace began in the early 16th century). Au remained a working-class neighbourhood until well into the 20th century. The people there were poor, some even criminals. Au inhabitants were known as uncouth, good-hearted underhanded crooks in Munich, of which they officially became residents after the incorporation in 1854.
Over the centuries, the area has changed a lot. Today, there is little sign of its working-class past, but one thing has always remained the same: the proximity to the river, to the water that comes from the Alps and flows fresh and cool past the people and the town. This closeness has shaped Au to this day.
Growing up in Au today, is no different than it was for famous sons of the quarter like Karl Valentin or Ossi Oberleitner. The banks of the Isar were the centre of their youth. Multi-artist and urban legend Valentin was born at Zeppelinstrasse 41 (formerly Entenbachstrasse 63), located directly on the Isar with a view of Museumsinsel (museum island), which was then called “Kohleninsel” (coal island), because wood and coal were stored there for the city before the Deutsches Museum was built. On this island, Karl, always up for mischief and pranks, probably spent many hours of his childhood.
And he skated in front of the Muffatwerk – yes, there were times when the Isar froze over thickly in places. Valentin wrote: “If the ice cover becomes watery, it is a sign of danger ... But for us, this was where the real fun began: The challenge was: 'Who still dares to skate around?'. ´Vale, lass de koan Drenza hoassn, packs no moi (Vale, don't be a sissy, try again)!' – So, I whizzed over the dangerous fifty-metre sections, crunching and crashing violently behind my feet, my comrades following me. Arrived safe and sound, applause from the bridge and from the other bank.”
Eventually, Valentin broke through, from which he was left with an asthma condition. But this could not dampen his passion for the river. In his poem “Ich bin erst kurz beim Fußballkampf gewesen”, he first expresses his dislike of football and then says: “Mein Herz, das wohnt am Isarstrand” (my heart is at home on the Isar beach).
Ossi Oberleitner, who was born in Gebsattelstrasse in 1930, would probably have said something similar. In his book, “Der Stenz von der Au”, author Hans Mühlberger recorded Ossi's life story as a Munich red-light character. Oberleitner played football with his friends in the Isar meadows, partied by the Isar, seduced women there and kissed them by the water. Back then, in the 1940s and 1950s, everything was a bit wilder than it is today. Oberleitner and his friends fiddled around with World War II ammunition they found by chance and threw grenades into Mühlbach stream. A typical strizzi – a rogue from Au.
„Munich may not be by the sea, but you wouldn't want to miss the playful ease of beach life. This is possible in Au.“
They certainly still exist today, those ladies and gentlemen from Au, who like to go overboard sometimes, perhaps not as dissolutely boundless as Ossi, but still more than most. In summer, you're sure to find them on the Isar beach between Wittelsbacherbrücke and the Deutsches Museum, this strip of meadow and the gravel banks that, since the renaturation of the Isar were completed in 2011, finally allow direct access to the water again. This city beach, affectionately called Monacocabana by insiders, transforms into the lively and vibrant centre of the city from May onwards. This is where people meet from early afternoon onwards, to sunbathe and socialise, depending on their age and work status.
From the Weideninsel (island) to the Reichenbachbrücke (bridge), you can drift pleasantly along the water that sparkle in the sunlight. The pebbles of the Isar crackle beneath your feet, the water cools you down, the hustle and bustle on the beach passes by. It is one of those carefree Munich moments when the city gives you a break from everyday life. A little further on, in the streets of Au, people in swimming trunks and bikinis flock to the water as if they were in Nice.
„From the Weideninsel to the Reichenbachbrücke, you can drift pleasantly along the water that sparkle in the sunlight. It is one of those carefree Munich moments.“
Later in the evening, the scenery changes. Now people drink beer, have picnics, listen to music, flirt, kiss and cuddle. The sun sets behind the Maximilian Church, twilight light bathes the Monacocabana in unreal, magnificent shades of blue. No one wants to go home. They sit on the beach in groups, their faces lit up by smartphones, glowing cigarettes or candles, and cherish the moment. Munich may not be by the sea, but you wouldn't want to miss out on the playful ease of beach life. This is possible in Au.
That's what summer is all about. But even in winter, some Au residents can't resist the waters of the Isar. They don't have enough frozen water for ice skating like Valentine, but they can ice bathe. So, they plunge their pale winter bodies into the floods, puffing frantically and coming out tomato red. Their grins testify to a torment that becomes a pleasure when it's over. Some like it! Others do yoga and qigong on the banks, dance to set choreographies in the Isar meadows or torture themselves with Crossfit. It is never really quiet around Isar river in Au.
Sometimes the river itself raises its voice: In summer after heavy rainfall or in spring when the snow in the Karwendel melts. Then the water rises right up to the banks. The beach is no longer visible; the Isar towers metres above it. The high water forces the groundwater into the cellars near the river. In Au, you can’t escape the Isar. Even if you don't go to the river, it will come to you at some point. The inhabitants of Au are part of a centuries-old symbiosis. People and the river, land and water are inextricably interwoven here.