When it rustles in churches, smells like stables down in the mines, and when the market places the world at your feet with its fragrance. How Franziska Sgoff, blind from birth, perceives Munich’s sights without seeing anything. By Florian Kinast and Tobias Gerber (photos).
Munich – with obstacles
In the afternoon, at the end of a long walk across the city, Franziska Sgoff stops once more. For two or three minutes. Easy now. Completely at one with herself.
On her left, there is a stall with spices. It smells exotic, of the wider world: of anise and cinnamon, lovage and lavender, cardamom and coriander. Right next to it, wooden vats with pickled cucumbers, olives, antipasti.
Glasses clink at the champagne bar behind the gift stand with the home-made carnation wreaths. All around, a throng of voices comprising locals, newcomers and tourists murmur through the air, and high above, the bells ring out for four o’clock.
Urban background noise. Munich, how it sounds in all its glory. Some are in a hurry, simply rushing past, but Franziska Sgoff stops and lets it all sink in. “This is so beautiful here, so beautiful,” she says with a smile, animated and delighted in this confused jumble of smells and sounds. Here at the “Viktualienmarkt”, a melting pot of sensory impressions, this is where she feels the city very intensely. Franziska Sgoff has been blind since birth.
Munich by smell and sound only
The tour on this day begins many hours earlier, at half past nine at Marienplatz – meeting point Fischbrunnen. A day in which the 24-year-old gives us an extremely unusual tour of Munich and tells us how she perceives the city with her limitations.
How she feels the sights without seeing anything. How Munich feels – the city that likes to claim of itself that it shines. And which for those arriving is perceived solely by smell and sound, and whose sensory stimuli hold so many mysterious facets.
Trips to Munich are still something special for Franziska. She rarely comes to the city, she lives in her parents’ house in Attaching, a village south of Freising.
From there, she works in her home office for one of the world’s leading technology groups, developing concepts to enable people with and without disabilities to work together inclusively and without barriers with the help of technology.
An obstacle of our time: e-scooters
But how barrier-free is the real world when Franziska makes her way through the big city with a white cane for the blind? After just a few minutes, the first tripping hazard lurks in Burgstraße: an e-scooter parked in the middle of the pavement.
A source of annoyance for sighted people, but really dangerous especially for blind people who find their way with their cane on house walls and kerbs and who often also get caught with their arm on the protruding handlebar grips.
"The way these contraptions are sometimes parked is a real nuisance"
"For people like me, the way they are sometimes parked has made them one of the biggest obstacles in the city, a real source of irritation," says Franziska, before she uses her fingers to feel her way through a tactile city map with the street names and attractions in Braille, to arrive shortly afterwards at Burgstraße 4 – the headquarters of the municipal disability officer.
Even as a child, she says, she loved going on a trip around the world with a specially designed globe, or through her atlas in Braille. Now, she perceives the city of Munich, the “Residenz”, the “Rindermarkt”, and central station through touch. “And here” she says as she moves over a small area northwest of Marienplatz, “is the Frauenkirche.”
The “Cathedral of Our Lady” is our next stop. As we head for it via Kaufinger Straße, Franziska suddenly filters out a distant street musician from the background noise. “Oh, there’s an accordion player up ahead.” For her sighted companions, the virtuoso only becomes audible many metres further on. And only visible even later.
The smell of incense, the sound of songbooks
In churches, she always suddenly finds herself in a world of her own, says Franziska, as we enter the cathedral through the massive entrance door. The sudden change in environment, sound level and smell. “The muffled echoes of whispering people, the smell of incense and candles, it’s a very familiar feeling for me, a sense of security,” she says.
As a child, she herself was an altar girl at the Pallottine Church in Freising. She was especially fascinated at that time when churchgoers pulled out the songbooks and leafed through the volume in search of the number displayed. “That crackling of the old paper, the smell of the cover and the pages, it was always very comforting and familiar”. How versatile songbooks can be. To sing, to rustle, to smell.
Tactile model, “The Devil’s Footprint”, movies of the mind
For those guided by touch and feel, there is also a tactile model of the Frauenkirche situated at the rear. With her hands, Franziska feels the two towers with their domes, the sloping roofs, the entrance doors; a little later, she feels the small depression in the floor with her feet and then hears the story of what it was all about.
The story of the famous “Devil’s Footprint”, which exists in various versions and always ends with the Devil stomping furiously on this very spot because he didn’t get the master builder’s soul, and rushing back to his infernal realm.
Devoutly, Franziska listens to the legend. It is one of those moments on this day when it doesn’t matter at all whether you are blind or not. It is no different from sighted people when they are told stories and fairy tales and thus create their own images, their own ideas and fantasies. Movies of the mind for all. Just close your eyes.
Next stop: Deutsches Museum
Much to listen to is what awaits a little later in the Deutsches Museum with its Music Department and its unique, historic and (by today’s standards) curious range of instruments. The “Disklavier”, for example, on which Franziska, who learned the piano herself at the age of seven, can now feel the keys moving up and down all by themselves during Beethoven’s “Für Elise”. Or the “Symphonion”, a music automaton machine from 1910, an oversized music box with insertable roller wheels.
As Franziska runs her fingers over the perforations in the panes, she says with a grin: “Feels like Braille.” A hidden message, a secret code even? “No,” she explains after a moment’s study, “just holes in a metal plate.”
Mine: The smell of sulphur, salt and horse stables
Two floors down in the large shipping department. School classes rumble through the huge hall, children’s laughter and noisy echoes fill the air. The echo is far less muffled than in the Frauenkirche. “Bright, friendly, loud, the typical sound of a museum,” says Franziska when she notices a little later that it suddenly smells like steel, like oil. Why? Because you’re one room away. In the Machine Department, together with Sandra Kittmann, the German Museum’s Inclusion Officer.
The acoustics alone reveal just how cramped it is
Sandra Kittmann takes them on a very special exploratory tour: down into the famous mine – the biggest challenge of the day, up and down the many steps, over rail sleepers in the floor and under low ceilings. The acoustics alone tell her how close the walls are, how cramped it is.
Franziska notices how it smells of coal, and then later of sulphur, then of salt and finally also of stables – right where the resting place for the pit horses is shown, which were sent underground to pull mine cars. A host of sensors in this deep, underground world.
The scent of flowers, curry sausage and paper
Back in the fresh air, the sun breaks through the clouds for the first time that day and Franziska enjoys the warming rays on her face on the Bosch Bridge. Gradually, we head back to the centre of Munich. Via Gärtnerplatz with its many colourful, fragrant flowers and around the fountain, the path leads towards the city centre through Reichenbachstraße, where one shop follows the next. And with that, one sensory impression after another.
Time and again, Franziska stops briefly and talks about her perceptions. About the smell of paper, for example, as we stroll past a bookshop. Through to freshly ground beans at a café. And the smell of ketchup and hot sauce. Next to her, a man is eating a curry sausage with fries in the garden of the “Deutsche Eiche”.
Noise over silence every day: safety in Big City noise
At the Viktualienmarkt, over a glass of freshly squeezed orange-pineapple juice, Franziska tells me how secure she feels in this atmosphere. That she truly does not perceive Munich as some sort of terrifying obstacle, but that she can find her way quite well thanks to the city’s sounds and smells. And how threatening the prospect of silence seems to her instead. Once, she says, she took part in a silence session in a monastery. “One of the most nightmarish experiences of my life.”
The tour ends at Marienplatz and, with that, the carillon and the dancing “Schäffler” at the town hall at 5 pm. A harmonious end to an impressive day, on which Franziska says she now perceives Munich quite differently after these many new experiences and discoveries. With a whole new look ...