Barbara Vinken loves Munich. Twelve years ago, Germany’s most elegant academic moved to the Bavarian capital. It was the charming atmosphere and the high quality of life, but also the surrounding mountains and lakes, that attracted the Ludwig-Maximilian University literature professor. When she’s not teaching, the stylish theorist writes eloquent, profound, and often entertaining and feisty books, for instance about the relation between fashion, gender roles, and society.
It’s not surprising, then, that Vinken demonstrated her exquisite sense of style when putting together this Munich district tour for us. Although she actually lives in Schwabing — a borough in the north of Munich — she led COMPANION through the city’s old town quarter, a splendid part protected as a historic center. This is where Maximilianstraße, lined with luxury boutiques, leads up to the opulent National Theater. This is also where you’ll find the Frauenkirche and the Munich Residenz. No matter where in the center you look, almost every building and square is an architectural blessing for aesthetic sensibilities.
Together with Barbara Vinken, we are going to visit a few of these architectural wonders. Incidentally, Vinken herself describes the places she has chosen — from the Literaturhaus (literature house) to the opera house and the Dianatempel (Diana Temple) — as “world class stops.” As a woman of the world who occasionally exchanges her adopted home city of Munich for a few months in Berlin or Paris, she can afford to make such a judgment call. In fact, most Munich inhabitants would claim that these chosen stops aren’t just the most beautiful places in Munich, but in the whole world.

Hat-Maker Ina Böckler

Clothes make the man, hats make the woman. Vinken kicks off the tour by showing us her favorite shop for elegant headgear: the hat-maker Ina Böckler. We meet at the display case in the Residenz-passage at the entrance of Theatinerstraße. A display case! What a wonderfully charming retort to the bland shop windows of German shopping streets. With its carefully arranged hats in cobalt blue and creamy white, the glass-fronted display case functions almost like a window onto the past — but is in no way old-fashioned. “Ina Böckler is the oldest and most famous hat shop in Munich,” explains the professor. Hats have been made here since 1928. The technique used now is exactly the same as 90 years ago. What’s more, the excuse “oh, hats don’t suit me” is not an option here: “Ina Böckler finds a hat for everyone.”

Bavarian State Opera

Having sauntered across Max-Joseph-Platz, we reach the neoclassical National Theater with its Corinthian columns. It is home to the Bavarian State Opera, founded in 1657. We arrive to find an orchestra rehearsal underway. Vinken tries not to miss the annual opera festival that takes place here. And no wonder: the opera house is known for its outstanding direction, aesthetic force, and powerful voices. One of the most breathtaking rooms is the Königssaal (the royal hall), with its Venetian lamps, inlay flooring, and walls decorated with ornate stucco. The sunlight falling through the windows suffuses the day with a wonderful interplay of light and shadow. The literary scholar remarks, “Whenever I descend this marble staircase I always think of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the king’s lover, floating down the stairs in Heinrich Mann’s novel ‘Henri IV’.”


As we continue our tour, we meander across Maximilianstraße, the chic shopping boulevard, back across Max-Joseph-Platz, and past the elegant boutique of Marion Heinrich, which Vinken often frequents. But we’ve got a different destination in mind: the Literaturhaus (literature house) at Salvatorplatz, which is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. The Literaturhaus regularly hosts exhibitions, readings, and workshops. Sometimes the focus is on texts by young authors, at other times it is on the classics — prose, popular literature, and poetry. Vinken’s books are sold here: the director Tanja Graf was her first editor and has become an old friend. Vinken says, “Even if I’m just sitting here in the café, it feels a bit like home.”

Schwittenberg Concept Store

Right next to the Literaturhaus you’ll find the Schwittenberg concept store. “You can always buy something here,” Vinken says. With a unique range of products occupying 250 square meters, owners Sandra Schwittau and Christopher Romberg demonstrate a clear flair for fashion. Alongside a well-curated selection of local talents, including a collection by the fashion designer Ayzit Bostan and jewelry by Saskia Diez, you’ll find many international brands. Scented candles, marble tables, and knitted dolls made out of alpaca wool complement a variety of clothing for women, men, and children. You can also buy the Schwittenberg collection online — this is something, however, that Barbara Vinken would never do.

Theatiner Film Theater

Crossing Salvatorstraße, our path turns back down Theatinerstraße. We approach a real gem of cultural pleasure and a far cry from mainstream movie theaters: the Theatiner Film Theater. It’s a small cinema with no space for big blockbusters. Since 1957, the theater has been showing art-house films from France, Italy, and Spain in the original with subtitles. Beautifully designed vintage posters take us on a journey through the 50s and 60s, telling tales of the big and small heroes of the moving image. Lovers of French film should definitely pay this haven a visit, especially on Sunday afternoons when films such as “The Death of Louis XIV” by Albert Serra are shown. “I usually come here alone,” says Vinken. Experiencing the small cinema solo — with its nonchalant 1950s paneling and heavy red velvet curtain — is definitely even more romantic than going as a couple.

Diana Tempel

Crossing Odeonsplatz, we enter the Hofgarten, which marks the end of our cultural tour with Barbara Vinken. Our penultimate stop is the Dianatempel (Diana Temple), a twelve-sided Renaissance pavilion built in the early 17th century. Here you can settle on one of the benches between the flower beds or at the edge of a fountain, watch small groups playing boules (the only ball game tolerated here), and listen to the occasional clicking of colliding balls, the steady splashing of water. “When the linden trees flower here in summer, it’s like paradise,” Vinken says. “I’ll come here to work, to edit, and read. The time flies.” That said, it’s beautiful in all seasons — in autumn and winter too.

Schumann's Bar

As the district tour comes to an end, Vinken orders a beef salad and a white wine in Munich’s notorious bar, Schumann’s. Inside, there is a wood-paneled bar and red leather benches. Upstairs, the bar Les Fleurs du Mal, named after Charles Baudelaire’s cycle of poems, provides an intimate retreat from which the happenings below can be secretly observed through wooden slats, as if from behind a veil. In summer, the wooden tables under the linden trees in the garden are particularly popular. It seems the entire population of Munich meets here; it’s rare not to bump into a friend. “I need a table for Ms. Vinken,” a waiter immediately announces as we step into the bar from the Hofgarten. The quality of the food and drink certainly don’t suffer from the bar’s popularity. Especially not after a day of strolling through Munich!


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