Oktoberfest, and Christmas markets - Munich in a nutshell. But it's important to abandon the postcard-friendly itinerary and respect those who died before freedom reigned
Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial in winter and, as you would expect, there is a distinct chill in the air. As you survey the harsh, decidedly grey, bleak landscape you realise the chill is an ever-present one destined never to disappear.
The camp, accessible from Munich, serves as a chilling reminder of the horrors of life in Nazi Germany with actions so unthinkable and unspeakable that they must be spoken lest we never forget. To this end, Dachau serves as an important educational facility for the whole of Germany and the world beyond. All German schoolchildren are required to visit at least one concentration camp during their school years in the hope that recalling the past in the present will prevent any atrocities in the future.
Arbeit mach frei (work sets you free) is the familiar sinister sign that greets today's visitors on entering the camp. Of course, freedom wasn't an option for the thousands of people incarcerated at Dachau. How many people? We simply will never know for the finer details of accurate record taking wasn't high on the list of the guards' priorities; not while torture was a time consuming occupation. But this camp built by Heinrich Himmler in March 1933, Germany's first, was the model for all those that followed.
To gain more of a feel for the conditions endured by the prisoners, the wisest move is to take one of the official guided tours. Pamphlets and audio guides are available, but it is when an expert speaks about the regime and conditions, and throws open the opportunity for questions, that the extreme truth and horror of the situation emerges.
I took one of New Munich's tours (www.newmunich.com; 19 euro adult, 15 euro children, under 13s free).
This established walking tour company attracts interest from tourists of all ages and backgrounds in sufficient numbers to virtually guarantee the tour will go ahead. The guides are knowledgeable and approachable and don't regurgitate the standard guidebook fare.
Contrary to first assumptions, the prisoners didn't arrive via the train track outside the camp gates. Instead they arrived at Dachau Bahnhof, like most visitors these days, and were forced to march the 2km to the camp. The town's residents were encouraged to inflict verbal and physical abuse as they set on their way.
When the camp was liberated much of its original structure was destroyed, but one or two buildings remain.
Beyond the Jourhaus, you encounter the stark, grey, roll-call square; notably deprived of any greenery save a number of neatly line-up trees in the background. The Nazis had them put in place to give visitors the impression that it was purely a hard labour camp intended to punish society's wrong-doers. Here, inmates were counted twice daily and assigned their work duties. A further utility building to the right tells of what happened to the camp's prisoners. New admissions were made to give up their clothes and belongings in the shunt room, on registration, and the baths used to disinfect and shave the prisoners' heads. Inmates would be forced to scramble for their uniforms in double-quick time else face persecution. Anyone unable to find the right size for their frame came in from further abuse from the guards. Ill-fitting clothing left them open to attack as someone merely standing out from the crowd.
Post 1941, the SS had the room converted to a venue for torture and execution. Prisoners were whipped on a block while forced to count in perfect German, which many did not speak on arrival, to 25. Anyone faltering would be instructed to begin again at whatever point the mistake was made. A system was also introduced whereby a prisoner would receive double the number of lashes. Inmates were also strapped to beams, by their outstretched arms, for hours on end, many fainting through pain. The system only ceased when the Nazis realised a prisoner unable to then ever raise their arms above their shoulder was rendered useless to carry out hard labour.
The execution wall, in the bunker courtyard, still remains as does the chilling, in both air temperature and feel, where inmates were made to suffer in order to extract confessions. Cells were often too cramped even to sit and inmates were plunges into darkness for huge periods of time, fed every four days, only to be dragged out into the open to endure intense pain to their eyes - the result of light deprivation.
The barracks, now demolished, were where the prisoners were held - designed for 6,000, but holding 300,000 when the camp was liberated in 1945. The two reconstructed buildings depict the triple bunk-bed system that was operated. Far from being a place for rest and recuperation, the guards even managed to make the sleeping arrangements an instrument of torture. Inmates were required to line-up their check-style bed linen in perfect symmetry from bunk-to bunk, top to bottom, side to side, and each bunk featured a shelf - a feature that caused further psychological distress because inmates had nothing to put on them. The 'criminal' inmates tortured other inmates themselves, fearing failure to do so would relegate them to the other inmate status. And medical experimentation on inmates was common practice.
A walk along central camp road, alongside the outlines of the demolished rows of barracks, leads to a number of religious memorials - a Catholic chapel, Protestant church, and Jewish Memorial chapel. The Russian Orthodox chapel takes you towards the outside of the camp, beyond the barbed-wire fence and ominous watchtowers, to the crematorium. The shower room, in reality a gas chamber, was never used and inmates reaching this point were dispatched to other camps where they were disposed of accordingly. All in all more than 32,000 people died at Dachau as a result of disease, starvation and exhaustion.
The camp is open from 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is free.
New Munich Tours leave from Marienplatz, Munich.
S-Bahn Line 2 from Munich to Dachau Bahnhof.
Bus 724 or 726 from directly outside the station.
For details visit www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de
Hotel Altstadt Zieglerbrau (Konrad Adenauer Str. 8) - a central hotel within easy reach of all sights and attractions. Both English and German is spoken and rooms are modern and comfortable. The hotel features a restaurant where guests can dine on typically Bavarian and international food and a terrace and beer garden.
Aurora Hotel (Rosswachstr. 1; 08131 51530; www.aurorahoteldachau.de) is a meat-eaters delight featuring a selection of regional dishes including lamb, steak, sausages and venison. The small gourmet restaurant also features a winter garden and garden terrace used in summer.