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Beer Pilgrim in Bavaria

Oktoberfest: a vague and mythical monolith like the first visit to Disneyland; the beer drinker’s pilgrimage to Mecca. And yet there was an apprehension about delving so deep in to the German heartland of Bavaria as we set off on our 12 hour scoot across the Netherlands and Germany. CNN reported that 1 million were expected to descend on Munich, that pretty much doubles the population – Taihape Gumboot Festival type stuff – meaning it bursts at the seams like a fat man in lederhosen. On top of that, we had no place to stay, all Germans I had talked to spoke of the Bavarians like a family talks embarrisingly and vaguely about the uncle in a mental hospital, and the only German I knew aside from that I had learnt off Hogan Heroes, was Ik ben ein scheizer worst. I doubted I would be put in a situation where I needed to say I am a shit sausage.

Can’t damp down the Oktoberfest

The fest itself is held a five minute stumble to the west of the  central Marienplatz. Around the massive Theresienwiese Park are 10 or so tents representing each of the Bavaria breweries…and Fosters…presided over benevolently by the massive sculpture of Bavaria crowning herself. Tents is a rather loose word: they house between 6 and 8 thousand inside and have room for another 2 to 3 outside. They are more like mid-sized towns serviced by mass (the 1 litre mugs, standard size for Bavarians) hauling frau who can carry up to 10 of them full without breaking a sweat. Around the outside of these covered towns are various fair ground activities, eateries selling a range of Bavarian fare, and the usual overpriced souvenir beer mugs. Don’t waste your money on one of these, just stick one of the huge mugs up your jersey like everyone else does. This year so many were stolen the organisers had to rush 195,000 extra mugs from Austria. 

And here it is, the incontrovertible fact about the Munchen Oktoberfest, the distillation of 200 years accumulated knowledge, the golden rule: to enjoy you must be drunk, to be drunk you must be in a beer hall, to be in a beer hall you must be at the front door of a beer tent at 8.30 in the morning. Go in your pyjamas if you must, none of the ledehosened locals will notice, just make sure you follow this rule because sober, the beer festival is 900,000 drunken idiots vomiting or urinating on your shoes while you wait two to five hours in the rain constantly battling the pushing and shoving of the thirsty queuers. Best you take your clear head to the fringes and experience the rides with the other 100,000 parents and children on the rollercoasters and ferris wheels.

Even with the global acquaintance of their annual bender, Oktoberfest remains very much a Bavarian dominated festival. At least inside the tents where Schlager bands sing away the hours and revellers, the majority of whom are middle aged locals ledehosened to the nines, join in whether they know the tune or not because every second line of lyrics is ein, swie, drie, soif!

The beer flows down the throat with a silky ease. It was an unsettling experience and for a long time I could not figure out why. It wasn’t until the next day when we toured the Munich Olympic Stadium that it struck me why. I had been training at sea level on tui and speights and now here I was with the smooth Mass beers of Munchen and much like the long jumper at the Mexico Olympic games soaring through the air, smashing all personal bests, I was drinking at altitude. I was Bob Beaman.

A holy tent where beer is found.

On the second to last day of the festival I was let in on a privileged secret from a veteran fester, an old man from Augsburg whom I had approached to learn more about the mysteries of their ridiculous ledehosen. There was an alternative to the golden rule of Oktoberfest, all was not lost if you were not in line at 8.30 am. The name of this exception was Hofbrauhaus in the old city, serving up the lagers since 1589, in that time earning the dubious distinction of hosting the first speech of an angry young political activist called Adolf. Hofbrauhaus is easy enough to get to if you take a u-bahn subway train just past the central platz stop. The u-bahn is quick and basically free: during the Oktoberfest the authorities have given up checking tickets.

Expect to pay 6-7 Euro for a mass. Ask for anything smaller and you will be driven to the outskirts of town and dumped; expect to make a lot of friends even though you have no idea what they’re saying, just smile and yell eins, swie, drie, soif, clink glasses, yell prost, the universal dialect of the beer festival, and I dare say they’ll donate you a kidney should you need it; expect to lose a third of your mass clinking glasses; expect seven thousand renditions of ‘hey baby, oo, ahh, I wanna know, will ya be my girl,’ from the Italians; expect to do a lot of waiting for beer – the only way to order is to wait for a frau to come to your table; expect to be homeless unless you book accommodation for next year before November.

I suggest staying at Munchen Flugenhof, a lovely little spot just out of the city on the ‘free’ train. The toilet, shower, and restaurant facilities are superb,  there’s no need to book, the security is tight – men walked around with automatic rifles – and it is free. The only downfall is that the beds are chairs stacked end on end and during the day it masquerades as an Airport.

Finally, expect to have a shitload of fun. The paradox is that the Oktoberfest atmosphere is so intoxicating large scale beer consumption is not actually required once you’re part of it. At all costs, make sure you’re part of it: get inside those beer tents or rush to town and line up at Hofbrauhaus. Otherwise you will find yourself trying to reconcile your preconceived mythical event with the reality of hours and hours of waiting where you have to sift through your memory for the little nuggets of time when you actually did something. Then you may as well have just gone to Disneyland.   

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