This is the third Oktoberfest since we got to Germany two years ago, and it’s been killing me every time that I haven’t gone. To be so close, yet to far from one of the world’s biggest and most fabled parties. How could I live here for so long and not go?
Money, mostly. Munich is pretty far from here, and the trains are expensive. And the hotels jack up all their prices for those three weeks. So there’s that. Chris also had no interest in going with me, and I wasn’t going to go alone. Luckily, my friend Shinyee was in the exact same predicament as me. Her husband (also a Chris) didn’t want to go either. So I bit the bullet, decided to use some of the money I had saved up, and go down there for just one night. I found a great rate for a room on Hotwire, which turned out to have a fantastic location (and was a huge discount), so we booked our train tickets, and set out at 7am on Sunday morning. Four hours later, time to experience Oktoberfest! Oh, and Munich.
Oktoberfest might as well have started on the train. The train, which was oddly short, was already packed when we got on and we were VERY lucky to get what were the last two remaining unreserved seats. At the first stop, in Kassel, a group of 10 or so got on and just started the partying. They strung up flags across the row, broke out the beer, and starting having a grand old time. Nothing like beer drinking at 7:30 in the morning! When I passed by on my way to the food car I noticed they had a whole spread of Bavarian food and what looked like an entire pot roast out. Even a small boombox playing some oom-pa music. A good start, I guess.
Since it was still morning we started with a walking tour of Munich, from the same company I had used in Berlin, Hamburg, and Prague. Munich must be pretty compact because we didn’t too a whole lot of walking. I had spent one night in Munich before, last year during our little car-centric road trip, but we didn’t see a whole lot. I guess what the walking tour really taught me was that there’s not a whole lot to see.
That being said, Munich is a lovely town, but it has a wholly different feel from other German cities I’ve been to. I can’t really put my finger on why that is, but it’s just a bit different. The buildings are taller, and plainer in some ways, but the styles are all consistent. It doesn’t really have any picturesque, memorable landmarks. The skyline is dominated by the Frauenkirche, which is a pretty ugly church in my opinion. Basic brick Gothic construction and a very underwhelming and plain interior. The Rathaus and glockenspiel are nice and all, but not as impressive as the Hamburg or Hannover ones, for example. So with downtown out of the way we checked into our hotel and it was off to the Theresienwiese, home of Oktoberfest.
First, and it wasn’t really a surprise, but there was lederhosen and dirndls as far as the eye can see. Not just at the fest itself, but all through town. Every Bavarian has their own set at home, and it’s practically a uniform for those three weeks of the year. I love lederhosen for some reason, and I’m really kicking myself for not buying a pair when I tried them on last month. I wasn’t planning on going to Oktoberfest at that point, and it’s not really an item of clothing you can just wear around an American town without getting quizzical looks. Maybe on Halloween? Besides, leather pants ain’t cheap! And, the dirndl! I’m clearly not an avid fan of breasts, but wow, those things really draw your eye. You’re just compelled to stare right at them.
The trains were packed with people headed down as it was late afternoon, and all the streets from the station to the Wiese were closed and filled with people. Some of the people heading home had clearly had a great time as evidenced by their inability to stand or walk. Roughly 6 million people attend over the 16 days, and while it was busy I get the feeling it was nowhere near as close to the craziness of, say, Saturdays.
In many ways, Oktoberfest is like your typical fair back home, only half of it is replaced with massive beer halls. Lots of food stalls, souvenirs, crafts, rides, and games. You can’t go 20 feet without passing gingerbread hearts, the smell of roasted almonds, or big beer mugs and cheesy t-shirts for sale.
We went to Oktoberfest without a table reservation. Mainly because 1) you need a party of 8 to 10 to reserve a table, and we were just 2 people and 2) All the tents tend to sell out a year in advance. Germans love pre-planning! Getting into a tent that night was probably going to be impossible, so we would try to get in somewhere the next day. Instead we started by checking out the rides. Shinyee rode the giant swing ride with me, but that was enough for her and I was on my own for the rest.
I love carnival rides, and Oktoberfest had some crazy ones. I had noticed at a carnival here in Göttingen that the safety standards seemed a bit, well, lax. No barriers between the crowds and rides, for example. You could just run into the bumper cars, or some crazy spinning ride, and get creamed. It smacked of an American lawyer’s wet dream. The giant swing ride, for example, barely stopped long enough for us to on. Instead of waiting for everyone to get off and leave before letting the next group on, we were directed to cling to the outer wall while the ride was in motion. My seatbelt wasn’t even fully buckled before it started rising! Crazy.
I went on the three big roller coasters. The Alpina Bahn, Europe’s largest movable roller coaster, which was a nice, large turny thing. The Höhenblitz, a spinning roller-coaster in a giant tent with lasers, smoke, fire, and crazy lighting. A truly impressive setup, considering it’s mobile. And the Olympia Looping (pictured above) that was simply awesome. I’ve never gone through loops so fast, and it had a whopping five total, along with plenty of drops and turns. If it hadn’t been so outrageously priced at 8 Euro a ride, I would’ve ridden it a bunch of times.
After getting my fix of the rides we tried to at least see if we could get into a tent. And, big surprise, we couldn’t. Instead we wound up at one of the tables outside the tent. Not the best possible experience, but a decent second. We were at the Löwenbräu tent, whith its giant beer drinking lion out front that roars at you every minute or so.
Ordering was simple. I had a Maß (pronounced “mahss”) of beer, some pork sausage with sauerkraut, and a pretzel. Seems stereotypical enough, right?
I’ve never liked beer. I still don’t. I really don’t understand why people like it. It doesn’t taste as awful to me as it once did, but it’s certainly not a taste I’d ever describe as tasty. Light beer especially. But, hey, this is Oktoberfest, so I’ll gladly down a whole liter of it. Because that’s the only size available (and they sell about 8 million a year). The Oktoberfest brews come from six local breweries and are made with a slightly higher alcohol content (around 6%) and less carbonation. So it’s easier to drink and faster to loosen you up. More bang for your buck. And since each Maß is 9.40 (about $12), I guess that’s a plus. And, sure enough, that one beer in and of itself gave me a healthy buzz.
It’s the atmosphere that’s really special. Everyone is in a great mood, everyone’s friendly, and you just can’t help but get sucked into it. They pipe music from the live band inside the tent, and everyone sings along and dances. Standing on tables, cheering on those brave enough to chug, and so on. And people do this all day and all night.
The next morning we headed straight back as, without a reservation, that’s your best bet to get into a tent. We walked into a few tents to see which one we might like. It was a hard decision. Some of my students, who are Munich locals, had given me recommendations. The Hippodrom is a colorful and hip place to be. The Schottenhamel is the largest (seats 6,000 inside, 4,000 outside) and oldest. The Paulaner tent seemed nice, while the Nymphenburg tent seemed uptight and dull. Where to go?
Instead we chose the Käfer’s Wies’n-Shänke tent, which I had heard was the foodie destination. A much, much smaller tent by comparison, seating only 1,000 or so. It had two levels and, in a rush to simply find an open table, we chose downstairs which kind of had the feeling of a restaurant. Kind of a mistake as, when I later poked my head upstairs, I saw it was a more traditional open space. And, once the band started playing, I’m sure the atmosphere up there was a touch more fun. But no real loss.
My God, the food in the tent was amazing. We ordered Radlers, which is half beer half lemonade, instead of just beer. A much, much better choice as the lemonade really cuts out the bitter taste and makes it a smoother drink. The menu was pretty extensive (and pricey), so I chose the traditional half chicken, and Shinyee ordered a mushroom dish with dumplings. My chicken was beyond juicy and mouth-watering, while Shinyee’s had the most amazing tasting sauce. I could’ve sat there and ordered more and more if I had the time and bank account for it. I later learned Käfer’s is a famous catering company/store/celebrity chef and it’s usually one of the hardest tents to get into. All tables are already booked for the 2013 Oktoberfest. So, yeah, a good choice calmer atmosphere not withstanding.
After that it was time to say auf wiedersehen to Oktoberfest and head back into Munich. I had such a great time there, and I hate beer, crowds, and party environments. There’s something about the whole thing that’s just very special. There’s an uglier side to which many of the locals hate, but luckily we didn’t really see it. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Back in town we went to the Englischer Garten, as Shinyee wanted to check it out. It’s the largest urban public park in the world (bigger than Central Park even, to my surprise) and is a long and narrow park with lots of winding paths, lakes, and streams. We stumbled upon the famous surfers as we walked in. Because of a block of concrete in the river it creates a constant wave that locals love to surf. It was really fun to just watch them take turns for a while. But it’s also pretty dangerous as it’s flanked by two concrete walls and people have died after falling before. But they still do it.
We walked all through the park, just enjoying the scenery and watching all the dogs (a hobby of mine Shinyee also enjoys, unlike Chris). While stopping to take some pictures of one of the rivers, Shinyee lost her grip on her phone and, in a harrowing few seconds, it fell to the ground and right into the river. Her brand new Samsung Galaxy III. Her very first smart phone. All 700+ Euro of it just plopped right into the river. It was awful. And it had a lot of great pictures on it too.
That kind of put a damper on the rest of the afternoon. But it’s just a phone, and nothing could be done. Oh well.
So that was that. A whirlwind night in Munich and the Oktoberfest. I’m kicking myself this wasn’t my third trip there, but we really didn’t have the money to before. But if you ever get the chance to go to Munich’s biggest, most famous party, don’t pass it up.