Cycling in Munich

Last Updated 21 September 2013, 13:59 IST

Munich, with its aim to bring down carbon levels in the city, has embraced the culture of the bicycle. Sanjay Austa catches the action in the ‘bicycle capital’

The last time I rode a bicycle, I was in my 10th grade and still wobbly. So when our guide suggested a cycling tour of Munich, I was sufficiently alarmed. Why don’t we just get onto one of those HOHO buses, I thought. We could sit comfortably in their open-air comfort and sip on the excellent Bavarian beers (yes, it’s legal to drink in public in Germany).

But Munich prides itself as a cycling city. It recently anointed itself as Radlhauptstadt or the Bicycling Capital. More than 80 per cent of Munich residents own a bicycle and there are 17 dedicated Fahrradstrassen or bicycle streets, where vehicles are limited to 30 kmph, and cyclists have priority. All this is not surprising in a country that is in the vanguard of environmental protection. Cycling is just one of its many initiatives to achieve their ambitious eco-friendly goals.

Green crusade

Cycling in Munich is not only encouraged, but most motorists complain that cyclists are an overly pampered lot. Cyclists have the right of way here and are given many concessions, including being tolerated on the wrong side of the road on 212 one-way streets. Cyclists are sometimes called the ‘silent killers’ or ‘rambo riders’, our guide informed us, for their propensity sometimes to bang into you from behind.

We gathered near the Munich City Center on a balmy morning and walked few streets to the cycling stand. I tinkered with my cycle for a bit and found it daunting. The next option was to trundle on a rickshaw. That would have been humiliating. Especially since I saw my companions, which included pretty members of the fairer sex, whizz past me on their cycles. It’s amazing what that can propel you to do.

I hopped on my cycle without a thought and, viola, I was peddling like a pro. I crossed my first traffic signal without incident and rode two blocks and saw our cycling leader head straight towards heavy pedestrian traffic. This was cause for panic and I began to think of myself as the ‘silent killer’ our guide spoke of, unleashed on Munich’s roads, but hoped I would be tolerated in a cycle-friendly metropolis.

But coming from India, I used the little cycle horn liberally and was successful in scattering pedestrians, other cyclists, children, dogs on leashes and feeding pigeons out of my way. The cycling route was through some of the most scenic parts of the city. Isar River that cuts across Munich has a nice wide bank, which is a great place to cycle and we cycle a fair portion of it. The day before, we had walked a great length of the river and were witness to a carnival of sorts along the riverside. People of all age groups were lounging on the river banks. Some reading, some barbecuing, some drinking beer, others tanning or sleeping or in various stages of indolence.

This was surprising, as the weekend was still far away. Our guide informed us that most people come to the Isar to unwind straight after work. More and more Germans are choosing not to marry, and consequently, don’t have children to fetch from schools, crèches and elsewhere, leaving them with a lot of time for themselves.

Culture shock

Cycling down the Isar, one realises that Germans are perhaps more comfortable with nudity than others. If they want to sit without their clothes on the banks, they simply do so without calling themselves nudists or this a nudist beach.

After taking in the views at the Isar, we cycle on a large swath of the English Garden and here too find the locals out in hordes. Munich’s English Garden is one of the largest urban parks, bigger than New York’s Central Park, and is called so because its contouring and arrangement is reminiscent of an archetypal English garden of yore.

The man-made River Eisbach runs across the English Garden, and we stop by a bridge where the waters make a standing wave. Surfers queue up here to surf on the one-metre-high wave created by the force of the waters gushing under the bridge and meeting still waters. Surfers jiggle on the wave from one end of the bank to the other, and can barely keep at it for 30 seconds before the force of the water pushes  them away.

We cross many historic buildings and despite the nervousness of my ride, I could observe that the city planners have taken elaborate pains to maintain the architectural congruity, avoiding the modern homogenous steel and glass edifices altogether. The façades of the new buildings, including shopping malls, wear the old gothic look to blend in seamlessly with Munich’s past, though on the inside the buildings could resemble any glitzy modern mall.

After almost two hours of the ride, we enter the crowded City Center again. In an effort to catch up with the group, I take liberties with the traffic and witness motorists deferring to my erratic ways, some stopping while others waving me on. Finally at the cycling stand, I stop with an exaggerated flourish. I park my cycle with both a sense of relief and exuberance. A city tour on a cycle is a different experience altogether, and if it’s Munich, it’s surely something else.

How to get there

Lufthansa Airlines has daily direct flights to Munich from New Delhi and Mumbai.  Bangalore has daily fights to Munich via Frankfurt.

(Published 21 September 2013, 13:59 IST)

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