Shell-Shocked in Munich: The Grotto At The Residenz

Shell box FI

This modest, shell-encrusted box doesn’t complain as it sits, day after day, on a Miami Beach tourist shop shelf.

It dreams about a change of scenery and some relief from the heat; going home with a Minnesota tourist would be nice. But what it really wants to be when it grows up is a shell grotto; just like the lollapalooza at the Residenz in Munich.

Grotto Face

Walking into the courtyard and seeing this grotto is a shocker. The number of shells and the intricacy of the design is astounding. It’s beyond bizarre … but in a good way. Given the formal opulence of the rest of the palace, it seems outlandishly out of place, but there it sits. In fact, it’s the first stop on the palace tour.


I’ve never really understood the appeal of artificial shell grottos, until I read an explanation by grotto expert (Yes, I said grotto expert.) Hazelle Jackson:

“The earliest grottoes were shrines built over sacred springs in ancient Greece. Over time these evolved into temples and were popular in ancient Rome, where the term “nymphaeum” was used for both formal temples dedicated to water deities and artificial grottoes surrounding public fountains. Smaller grottoes were also popular additions to Roman villas and gardens, decorated with shells and a maritime theme. Architects in Renaissance Italy revived the grottoes of ancient Rome to lend an air of historical authenticity to their neo-classical villas and gardens and these caught the public imagination and swept across Europe.”

Grotto figure

The original courtyard grotto was built in the 1580s, but like much of Munich, was destroyed by Allied bombs during the war. But, there’s an inspirational story of its subsequent reconstruction. After the war, people had no money to rebuild, so small-town Bavarians volunteered to gather the hundreds of thousands of freshwater shells needed for reconstruction, and thanks to photographs taken by the Nazis, an exact replica was built.The amount of time and energy required to fabricate this shell-encrusted extravaganza must have been staggering.

Grotto fish

There are fish, mermaids, pots of flowers, baskets of fruit, and comical faces – all 100% shells. A golden statue of Mercury is the centerpiece, and when the royal family was home, red wine flowed from the mermaids’ breasts and dripped from Medusa’s head. I bet happy hour at the palace was a hoot.

Did I not say that this spectacle was bizarre? I came away thoroughly shell-shocked.

Happy Trails,

Grotto door

Photo Credits: 1. Joe Mabel


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

65 thoughts

    1. It’s interesting about the photos Alison. The Nazis had an effort to hide all the really valuable art to protect it from Allied bombers, but couldn’t manage to get it all hidden. So they took photographs of the rest. This seems quite a paradox given what else was going on in Germany. ~Jame

  1. I regret, team, that whilst the text is informative and delightfully interestingly written, the images do nothing so much as cause me to shudder and feel ill.
    I honestly can’t STAND this kind of kitsch, regardless of its provenance.
    Sorry for my intolerance …

    1. M-R, I’m sure that you’re not the only person with this opinion, but some art historians would disagree with the term kitsch. The Renaissance was about creativity and breaking old molds; shell art certainly fills both these requirements. ~James

  2. oh. my. goodness. i am trying to retrieve my jaw, which dropped to the floor as i viewed these images!

    was in ntz/new orleans yesterday, stranded on standby in houston w/flight delays, and heading to the equator or else will become an airport nomad!… z

    1. Thanks Lisa. After seeing some of your art, I can see why this grotto appeals to you. It’s interesting that the original inspiration goes back to the early Greeks, and natural caves. Many of the famous grottoes have a religious theme (statue of Mary, etc.) and many are mythological. Back to Ecuador huh? How has the southern saunter been? ~James

      1. how’s the saunter been? ha.. it’s great to see my loved ones and the flora and fauna, but i have had many cases of reverse culture shock…

        presently in guayaquil.. third day while trying to find out where the mia luggage could be – perhaps it detoured through bourbon street!

    1. You’re right Laura. Imagine the collecting, sorting, and transporting, and then all the effort the artist must have taken to keep it all straight and put it together. Amazing! ~James

    1. If you were there for Oktoberfest Hayley, I can understand that you might have been a bit preoccupied for museum trips. The Residenz is quite a museum and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. ~James

    1. Thanks Sue. It is an amazing sight and such a contrast to the rest of the palace. I’ve tried to think of a contemporary parallel, but can’t come up with one. There’s probably some billionaire out there with a room designed for his collection of childhood candy wrappers. Back in Calgary? ~James

  3. Wacky maybe, but imaginative. It strikes me that the shells were being re-purposed not discarded. I’ve seen enough shell boxes and kitschy tourist stuff in Florida. Still, I am amazed at the artistry. Fabulous photos.

    1. There was no shortage of imagination or skill in this creation Tess. The fact that it’s made of shells only makes it more interesting to me. I would love to know more about the actual creative process, and the reconstruction. ~James

    1. Thanks Darlene. When I see a cool, unique sight like this, I just have to write about it. Traditional tourist attractions are fine, but there are lots of interesting outliers that deserve some attention as well. Sometimes I see that as part of the Gallivance beat. ~James

  4. Shell shocked, huh, James. 🙂 Any sea town worth its name used to have shops crammed with tourist items made of shells and often shells you could buy. I wonder if that is still true? I’ll be over on the Oregon coast next week and check it out. As for the European extravaganzas, neat! –Curt

    1. We lived at St. Augustine Beach, FL for a few years Curt, and based on that experience, it’s exactly as you remember. In FL the tourists also have the option to take home a gator head to grace their coffee tables. But come to think of it, I never saw a shell-encrusted gator head. I wonder how the tourist shops missed such a golden opportunity. ~James

      1. Maybe you have discovered an economic opportunity, James, to keep you out of mischief in your retirement. Or here’s another one, you could insert alligator heads into large shells. Or better yet, you could have it hidden in the shell so it would pop out like a jack-in-the-box when someone lifted the shell up to his or her ear. Darn, I should charge for these ideas. 🙂 –Curt

    1. Thanks Pam. You might consider printing up a few copies of these photos to take along to the shell shops there in FL. You’d be the talk of the shop, and might even parley it into an discount. ~James

      1. Good idea! There was a shell shop (now out of business) that used to have a VW out front. It was totally covered in shells. Quite an attention grabber, although I can’t imagine how much it weighed.

  5. Amazing! How cool they were able to rebuild it and from photos! I will have to check this out when we go to Munich.

    1. Thanks Angela. I can recommend this museum for a couple of reasons. There are many cities in Germany that make great travel destinations, and Munich is very close to (or at) the top of that list. And The Residenz would be one my personal must-see list for Munich. ~James

    1. An interesting question Jolynn. Given the German penchant for accuracy, I’m sure that number is out there, but I didn’t read or see it. But it has to be huge. If you look closely at the door, you’ll see that most of it is covered with pea-size shells, and I can’t imagine how many it took. ~James

    1. I’ve read a few accounts of post-war Germany, and it was a dismal place. The daily lives of most Germans were a constant struggle for survival; so a community project like this must have been a glimmer of hope. And there’s no denying that the results are amazing. ~James

  6. I found this to be fascinating. The back story about the recreation from photographs was amazing. I have seen a few grottos in this country and none of them seemed to have much in the way of creativity or pattern. I would love to see this one. 🙂

    1. Apparently the Nazis saw the writing on the wall, so they photographed art and architecture all over Munich (and other cities I assume). It’s funny that I haven’t heard or read about this before. It’s one of those interesting little historical tidbits that gets filed away for later use. ~James

    1. Thanks Lu. This really was a surprising and wonderful sight. And the backstory makes it even more interesting. If you get to Munich, The Residenz and this grotto is a fun attraction. BTW, I sent you an email with a question about a book recommendation. I appreciate any suggestions you might have. ~James

      1. I’ve been to the Residenz in Munich before so now it’s time to make another trip for the Grotto! I got the e-mail – will reply soon! Keep in touch!


  7. Wow! The intricate workmanship is amazing. I’ve never professed to know art, but mosaic, be it shells or tiles, always impresses (when it is done well of course)!

    1. Chris, this grotto has to be the most detailed shell work that I’ve seen anywhere – hands down. I’d love to see the photo of the original, but haven’t been able to find it online. ~James

  8. Wow, the hours of work that must have gone into that is mind boggling.

    At the moment I’m having to put in a lot of hours myself. My blog was hacked and I’ve had to close it down and start again at At the moment I’m immersed in the salvage project. Over two years of almost daily posts is going to take a long time to go through. Quite a lot has been lost forever. The moral here is back up, especially photos. Apparently this is very common. Please back up your blog if you haven’t already. I’d hate you to have to go through this too 🙂

    1. Marie this is very sad news, and I can imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be. Thanks for the heads-up and reminder. We’ve made backups for teh past couple of years, but in the early days, not so much. Why these swine get a kick out of hacking non-commercial websites is beyond me. It’s no change when criminals try to make a buck, but these idiots are simply being malicious. I hope the Grand Equalizer gets around to them soon. ~James

    1. Anytime I see a project with this level of detail (also mosaics), I wonder how on earth they keep track of everything. This had to have been done before the days of baggies. All the best for the new Year Peggy. ~James

    1. Hey Stacy. Thanks for the link to our post on the shell grotto in Munich. Your detailed and interesting post brings up all sorts of questions about these marvelously, quirky creations. I bet your kids loved it. Like you, I think that the simplest explanation is probably the best: some aristocrat wanted visual proof of their wealth. When you have one of everything, what do you get next? Why not a shell grotto? ~James

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