Three-and-a-half hours. That’s what it took me yesterday to reach Munich in a regional train for the Oktoberfest. One-and-a-half hour is how long I actually stayed at the “world’s biggest beer festival”.
Yes, you read that right. For starters, I hadn’t planned on staying for such a short while when we first started our journey. Ever since the Oktoberfest kicked off on September 20, I had been very excited to visit it. Oktoberfest had never been something that was high up on my bucket list for many reasons, the first (and the main) being that I don’t drink at all. For a long time, my interest in Oktoberfest remained only in the fact that why it was called an “Oktoberfest”, when it actually starts in September! The second reason why the festival never had my fancy, was because I don’t eat pork or beef. So, nope, no food to look forward to either!
No, don’t roll your eyes and think ‘why did I then go to the Oktoberfest, duh!’
Well, the idea of experiencing Oktoberfest first piqued my interest when I visited a “Sommerkirchweih” (a smaller, more local beer fest organised on a similar format of an Oktoberfest with beer stalls, live music, German food, and the famous roasted half chicken) was organised in the town we live in. It was the time of the football world cup and the Sommerkirchweih gave us a perfect atmosphere to join in the revelry, while sit with some friends and cheer for Germany! The Sommerkirchweih brought life into our town — for the first time since the famous Christmas markets, I saw some merry making! And it was also the first time when I became acquainted with the Bavarian costume of dirndls and lederhosen. My husband and I went there for three days, enjoyed some nice live music, had the most delicious roasted chicken and garlic bread, watched the live screening of the football semi finals, and also got to interact with some really friendly Germans. So, when my husband told me that Oktoberfest is similar, but imagine it to be at a five-times bigger scale, I was obviously excited! How could you live in Bavaria, just over 200 kilometers from Munich, and not experience the Oktoberfest?! Every one said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (If you enjoy the drinking and the food, there are more than one reason for you to visit the Oktoberfest). And that’s how I decided I had to attend it.
So this weekend (a long weekend for us), we decided to visit the Oktoberfest — yesterday (October 4) was actually the second last day of the festival. As we arrived at the Nürnberg train station, it seemed like the whole town was joining us. Most people could already been seen with large packs of beer in their hands. As far as one could see, a sea of people dressed in dirndls and lederhosen could be seen. I, in my sweater and jeans, clearly looked out of place, even at the train station! I did try on a dirndl and loved it, but never got around to actually buying it (dirndls can be very expensive). We were lucky to get a seat in the train, because in a regional train you cant reserve your seats. Our coach — expat first timers (like me), the seasoned Oktoberfest goers, the loud drinkers, large families dressed in same colors — was brimming with excitement, laughter and lots of chatter! Quite unlike our previous ‘pin-drop-silent’ train journeys! By half distance, the train was full and people had to stand throughout the rest of the journey. When we reached the station at Munich, I actually got to realize the scale of visitors! There were people everywhere: the escalators and stairs completely covered, queues at the toilet stretched for more than 10 minutes, security at every corner, crowds spilling over the sidewalks.
Even if you don’t know your way to the ‘Theresienwiese’ – the large park in Munich where the fest is organized – all you have to do is follow the dressed up people and you know you are at the right path! 15-minutes walk later, we arrived at a junction from where I could see the rides from a distance and every once in a while screams of all the adrenaline junkies on the roller coaster filled the air. Near to the park it certainly looked like the whole world was there — it was a Saturday afternoon, what else could have I expected! It was at that moment the size of the festival hit me. Sure, I had read that some 6,000,000 visitors each year. But when statistics are actually translated into a vision in front of you, it gets overwhelming!
I felt like Alice in Wonderland! We started with the fairground attractions — this is the part aimed for the families. Merry-go-rounds, Olympia look ride, haunted house, and shooting stalls attract families with kids. Then there are the stomach-twisting roller coasters and the zero gravity rides. The smell of the caramelised nuts filled the air (mandelen) and the big pink cotton candy transported me back to the neighborhood fairs that I had been to.
At every corner you could find a stall of ‘Lebkuchenherzen’, gingerbread cookies in heart shape. Lebkuchenherzen are typical of Bavaria region and are very popular in open air markets, especially around the time of Oktoberfest and Christmas markets. I love the cute sayings they come with. They usually hang from a ribbon and you would see girls wearing it around their neck.
If you are in for the beer, know that there’s a mad rush to find the seats at the tent and in most cases, the tents will be full even before 11am. If you really want to sit in and say Prost! with the fellow visitors, make sure you book your place at the tents.
Most of the tents have a beer garden outside, but on weekends and in evenings, it is quite likely that you will spend most of your time trying your luck for a spot at one of the many tents, than actually be able to enjoy a drink. It was quite hilarious to see people literally hanging on to the gates of the beer garden to sneak an entry past the bouncers. Every few minutes you could hear loud screaming and singing in unison as people sang and raised a toast. That was your signal that its Prost! (cheers or raise a toast) time in the tent!
Food is everywhere. There’s the popular roast chicken, bratwurst, pork knuckles, and even the ox. I love the giant pretzels that you get Oktoberfest, and after a year in Germany, I have really come around to enjoy eating pretzels now. But you do need patience to get your turn to order any food. Also, there is no place to sit outside of the tents, and we saw a lot of visitors just sitting on the ground with their food. In comparison, I really enjoyed the sommerkirchweih, where the food and beer are cheaper than the ones served at the stalls at Oktoberfest. And, there is actually place to sit and enjoy your meal.
Also, I realized that Oktoberfest is not really the best place to get to know either the German culture or the people. If you want to experience a bit of the local culture, the smaller fests around towns ahead of the Oktoberfest are a better opportunity. You will experience the same flowing beer (and cheaper too), the same food and stalls, but much less clogged with tourists.
You will also see people dressed in hilarious hats in shape of a beer mug! I did enjoy walking around the fair ground, but when you aren’t there for food or drink, there’s only so much you can do. We were told that things become worse as the evening progresses, so we left the grounds early.
But it was on the way back that Oktoberfest started to get exhausting for me.
The S-bahn at the fairground was full of drunken teenagers. People with packs of beer in their hands tried to make their way through the crowded platform and the drunken stench was too much to handle. As we made our way to the main train station for our train back home, the count for the tourists who can’t handle their drink was just starting — there was pushing and shoving, loud shouting, and in general tipsy behaviour.
Our train back home was full, which meant we had to stand for the first one of our journey. To make the journey more annoying, there were people throwing up in train toilet. “Ein Prosit, ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” — you will hear this probably every minute while you are at the fairgrounds (each time the song ends you have to say cheers and raise a toast) and this continued for the rest of the journey on the train too. A guy in this group decided to make himself comfortable by lying at the overhead luggage shelf!
There’s only so much noise and fake ‘enjoying life’ attitude that I could take. And when I boarded the last train home, I was thankful to have finally found the quiet train that we are used to. All, then, that I wanted to do was get home and say cheers to my cup of hot Indian chai.
Have you been to Oktoberfest at Munich or its local equivalent in your city? Share your experiences in the comments or write in at firstname.lastname@example.org