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Munich: the perfect place for the holidays

At one time Munich was the capital of Bavaria, a peaceful, mountainous country with crystal-clear lakes and picturesque Alpine villages. Now Bavaria is considered the southern part of West Germany, yet the fierce pride and rugged independence of the Bavarian people is still evident in the area - and nowhere more so than in Munich, a city that has risen, like the phoenix, from its own ashes.

On our first morning in Germany's showpiece city, we took the U-bahn - Munich's modern underground system - to Marianplatz, one of the central town squares. When we emerged from the subway, we were surrounded by colorful Christmas decorations - small pine trees laden with thick red candles and bright ribbons, large Christmas wreaths - and crowds of people.

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At Marianplatz, just beneath the famous Glockenspiel, was the Christkindl Market. Green booths were filled with wooden and glass ornaments, hand-painted china, warm woolen scarves, and heavy sweaters. Thousands of delicious smells floated in our direction - chocolate-covered strawberries and bananas, waffles smothered in whipped cream, roasting chestnuts, and hot cinnamon apple cider. German women, wearing dark green coats, their heads wrapped in colorful scarves, bought ornaments and goods for Christmas, and efficiently threaded their way through the crowded square.

Then, as if by magic, the crowd became still. Heads turned in the direction of the Neu Rathaus - the new Town Hall. It was 11 o'clock in the morning - time for the jousting knights and dancing coopers of the Glockenspiel, an antique clock, to perform its daily musical routine. The almost life-size figures rotated around the clock's face; coopers shape wooden barrels and knights rescue maidens in distress. Ten minutes later, the pantomime was over, the crowd dispersed, and the booths were once again a hub of activity.

One of the brochures my husband and I had picked up at Tourist Information outlined two ''self-guided'' tours, both of which started and ended at Marianplatz. Since the day was warm and the sky bright blue, we decided to explore the old section of the city.

The Old City Hall, or Alte Rathaus in German - a burnt-orange building with a tile roof, built in the 1400s, was our first stop. Ornately painted buildings with heavily carved doors adorned either side of the city hall. In Bavaria the facades of homes, usually pastel in color, have painted scenes decorating the exterior.

Passing through a low dark archway, we entered the Alter Hof - a medieval courtyard built in 1255, the first Munich residence of the Wittelsbach family. The small snow-covered courtyard blended in with the low white buildings surrounding it.

A short walk from here is the Residence - a group of buildings dating from the 16th through 19th centuries. The buildings are a combination of the Renaissance, baroque, and rococo styles - symmetrical courtyards, ornate fountains, and decorative stone archways. During World War II the complex was so heavily bombed that it had to be completely rebuilt, but today, magnificent state rooms, fine German china, priceless cut glass and silver, and the jewels of Bavaria's royal family - the Wittelsbachs - decorate its halls.

A couple of blocks off the Marianplatz is the City Museum. A visit here lets a tourist catch glimpses of the history and culture of Munich. There is a puppet theater, a musical instrument collection, and a film and photo exhibit.

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Our excursion the next day was to Schloss Nymphenburg, the winter home of the Wittelsbach family, which is about a 20-minute bus ride from the center of town. The palace, in the northwest area of Munich, is surrounded by 500 acres of gardens and woods, inspired by the royal gardens in The Hague. The ponds - frozen solid - were being used as curling rinks, and children were skating cautiously along the bumpy ice.

But the ornate gardens, beautiful even in the winter, aren't the only attraction. The central core of the palace - a creamy white facade - is purely Italian in style and elegantly simple in design. The additions to the palace, a series of pavilions, provide a loose sequence of individual buildings with hidden entrances into the park.

The interior of the palace is an ornate rococo dream world. One room, known as the Gallery of Beauties, houses a collection of paintings of Bavaria's most beautiful women, commissioned by King Ludwig I during the early 1800s.

When we returned to Munich, the market - an attraction to Munichers and tourists alike - was bustling with activity. It is the encounters with the people, combined with the beauty of their city and countryside, that make Munich a wonderfully warm city to visit.

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