I’m happy to say that I can now cross one big thing off my to-do-before-I-die list: a visit not only to Germany but to the 175th Oktoberfest as well. We took an overnight train from Amsterdam to Munich and spent 3 days getting to know the city, understanding Bavarian pride, and joining in on some pure and irresistable merriment.
We started off our first day with some white sausages and coffee in the Marienplatz before watching the Glockenspiel at the New Town Hall go off and taking a free tour of the city. I try to sample the traditional fare wherever I go, but I have to admit I could have done without the white sausage, and could have done with some better coffee, but hey, that’s travel. With all the build-up and the big crowd waiting in the square below, I half expected the Glockenspiel to shoot fireworks or spout forth live dancers and acrobats. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed by the show, then had to remind myself that it was designed and built in the mid-19th century and it is, after all, pretty impressive for just a big clock.
During the afternoon we wandered around the open-air market and sat in a cafe for our first beers in Germany (delicious!) and some “pancake soup” – the saltiest thing I have ever tasted. Our spoonfulls of broth actually had salt granules gathered in the bottom, and apparently it takes an enormous amount of salt in liquid before it no longer dissolves. Yum! Fortunately we were given one small glass of room-temperature tap water to share.
We bought some refrigerated bottles of water at our next stop: the Olympic complex from the games of 1972, the notorious site of the Israeli Olympic team murders. The complex is now put to great use. There are concerts and other events held frequently, a lovely pond with lots of geese and swans, and many people (tourists and locals alike) wandering around the grounds and enjoying the scenery.
Early the next morning we awoke to the excited chatter of other travelers in our hostel getting ready for Oktoberfest. It was about 7:00 am and the place – a giant, permanent tent with about 60 bunk beds inside – was buzzing with the anticipation of all-day drinking. We hadn’t planned on getting up quite so early, but with the cold Germany air seeping in through the canvas walls and the giddy Australians whispering all around us, sleep was out of the question.
So off we went, not too sure what to expect but definitely sure we wanted to find out. We got off the tram and followed the crowds of liederhosen and beer maids to the entrance of the biggest beer festival in the world. We were there on the opening day of the year (it actually starts on the third Saturday of September and goes into October), and excitement was running high – and cold and bubbly. Actually, on the festival’s first day, a parade runs down the center of the grounds and the mayor then does the first tap, marking the first beer of the year. This doesn’t happen until noon, but they open up the beer tents much sooner, so many people end up crammed on the benches inside saving their seats for when the beer comes pouring out.
We found spots in the Hippodrom – a smaller tent (holding about 3500 people) and one of the most festive – next to some Swedish guys and a bunch of German girls all experiencing Oktoberfest for the first time. It was only 10:00, so we were looking at two hours of drinking Coke with these people before the real fun began, and conversation was at a standstill. That pure merriment was nowhere in sight, and I was not optimistic about spending an entire day cramped on the little wooden bench choking down beer and not talking with my neighbors.
Two hours came and went, though, and when the clock struck 12:00 it was like someone came and shook up the beer tent like a snow globe, instant change. The band started playing boisterous traditional German folk songs and everyone in the room stood up on their benches, clapping and shouting and laughing as the master of ceremonies said a bunch of things in German, inciting more cheers and applause, and the first beers were lugged out – 10 liters at a time by tiny blond girls.
From then on it was “Prost!” every 10 minutes, swaying back and forth and singing loudly with the whole table, and making fast friends. The merriment started as soon as the beer was in sight, before it was in our systems it seemed to be in the air, infusing everybody with life and warmth and joy. I won’t give details of the rest of the day unless you ask me personally, but I will say that I was much more successful getting down beers the size of my head than I’d anticipated.
I would go back in a heartbeat. After all, there are 14 tents to try and 6 million people to meet. And it seems as though every one of them must be filled to the brim with frothy, honest-to-goodness cheer that can only be tasted at Oktoberfest.