Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Real Oktoberfest (by Todd)

Since my first trip about 12 years ago, Munich has been my favorite European destination. There is something about the way of life in the city that feels unique to me - despite being a large city it is a relaxing place, and the people there really seem to enjoy life...the ease of travelling by bike around the city, the serenity of the Englischer Garten, the combination of gothic & modern architecture, and the welcoming atmosphere of a biergarten are just a few of the things that come to mind when I think of Munchen. Despite having visited four times in the past, I had never had the fortune of being there during the Oktoberfest so when we realized our vacation would coincide with the fest dates in 2010, we quickly added it to our itinerary. We got quite lucky to find both a mileage ticket home from Munich and a hotel in the city center that was available on points.

We were taken aback at the size and scale of the festival. The fairgrounds (Theresienwiese) on which the festival is held contains a six-flags-like collection of carnival rides, 14 large beer tents (seating up to 10,000 people each, and each featuring a particular brewery and usually a specialty food item), and about 20 smaller beer tents (seating a few hundred to 1,000 people). The beer tents are all permanent structures, apparently used at other times throughout the year for corporate and special events. The fairgrounds and the tents are free to enter, and from opening hour (around 10 AM) to closing hour (11:30 PM) each day, the entire place is slammed with people, about 50% of which are wearing lederhosen or dirndl.

On day one we made it to the "weisn" around 11:30 AM. We wandered around a bit, a little tentative to take the plunge, but soon entered our first tent and looked for a place to sit. Since there were just two of us this was not too difficult, but still can be a hassle (as you wander around looking for empty space at a table as if you are a freshman in college eating at the dining commons and desperately looking for a table you can join so you don't have to eat solo). Each tent has their own spirit/vibe/level of raucousness, and we quickly realized that our first choice was way too subdued for us. So having said our first "prost", sang our first of many "ein prosit" chants, and finished our first two liters, we quickly moved on to another tent, where the difference was night and day.

We found space at table between a group of guys from England and a group of Germans, and spent the next four hours or so getting to know them, clanging mugs, eating meats and giant pretzels, and singing along (where possible) to the band which was situated on an elevated platform above the tables. As one might expect when we hadn't drank much alcohol for nearly three weeks, the strong festbier hit us pretty fast so we had to be smart about it - mainly this meant making sure Juli wasn't trying to keep up with me liter for liter, so I did most of the ordering and poured a bit into her glass. A liter of beer was about 8.50 EUR ($11.30 USD) in each tent, but if one wants to drink soda or water you're still going to pay about 7.50 EUR - so of course since you pay only one Euro more, it is difficult to justify ordering anything else!

Each day at 5PM, space inside the tent becomes very scarce as "reservations" time takes over (groups of 8 or more can make reservations but even this must be done well in advance), leaving only the outdoor biergartens and a small number of inside tables available. Fortunately for us we had a secret weapon - Marina, a Munich local who used to live in San Francisco. Marina and her roommate joined us after work and found some space both in a reservations area and then subsequently with other friends at an outdoor biergarten. Our stops in the evening were even more raucous than those during the day, but we faded a bit more quickly than expected and decided to head back to the hotel around 10PM. Still a long day of drinking by any measure, and we were definitely hurting the next day!

But round two was not optional, so after a late breakfast and lazy walk through the Englischer Garten to check out the surfers, we were right back at it.

On Friday the tenor of the fest had definitely changed - even more people, and lots of Italians - apparently the second weekend is when large numbers of folks from Italy make the trip and trade their vino for birra. Out of curiosity, we popped in the Hofbrauhaus tent to see what it was like and it was completely out of control - hundreds of people standing on tables, people stumbling everywhere, fights on the verge of breaking out...we bailed on that place right away without even thinking about sitting down.

Instead we hopped to another tent and found a good table with some guys from Stuttgart and a handful of Italians who spoke no English whatsoever, but were still incredibly entertaining to talk to.

But since we had an early departure to the flughafen the next morning (but definitely not because we were hung over), we were not in it for the long haul on Friday night. We hit up a few of the carnival rides (just in time before it started raining), met Marina for dinner, then headed back to the hotel to pack up and head home.


The Nextian said...

"Theresienwiesen" is one of my favorite words to say in a heavy German accent.

Toddmy said...

@Nextian: and I thought your favorite was 'BLITZKRIEG!'