Oktoberfest is in full swing and is drawing thousands of people to Munich. I’ve never been but a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of what it is like and what it’s about.I’ve been to Munich once before and even ventured into the Black Forest. I didn’t particularly remember the food. Part of the reason is that I don’t speak German. Confronted with a menu I tend to leap for things I understand rather than take a risk. And in Munich there are plenty of risks to be taken. This is pig country – and nose to tail is offered somewhere on the menus. I dread to think how vegetarians cope. The translations are brutal even when you get the English menus – who fancies the sour lung special? We also did a lot of the tourist thing first time around. We went into the city centre Hofbräuhaus and pretty much got what we deserved. It’s not bad food but it most definitely is mass food and it is the accompaniment to some mighty fine beer.
This time around I had an excellent translator in my daughter who happened to be spending a few months in the city. She arranged a fantastic four days in a place she has quickly grown to love. We arrived just two weeks before Oktoberfest and you could tell the excitement was rising. This is the annual show for the Munich Brewers. Until you get to speak to the locals you don’t realise just how proud they are of the beer they make and how withering they are of anyone else’s product. Think of the French and their wine…
There are alternatives to Oktoberfest though and we were quickly whisked on a train to Rosenheim. While the show ground for Oktoberfest was still being constructed, Rosenheim’s Herbstfest was in full swing – two weeks of beer, food, fairground rides and fun. The trains were full of people dressed in dirndl and lederhosen making their way into the countryside. This is another eye-opener. The traditional dress is in full swing and growing in popularity amongst people of all ages. Whenever there is a Bavarian or a country event out come the best clothes. I learned that not only is the clothing expensive – eye-wateringly expensive in the case of lederhosen where deerskin will cost you the best part of £800 – but it can be stylish. It is being woven into the everyday fashion in tweed and gingham fabrics.
We walked down to the festival site and walked straight into one of the enormous beer halls set up by one brewery and serving only one beer Flotzinger Brau (I understand the Oktoberfest site has many more of these tents with surrounding ‘beer gardens’ to accommodate the hordes). The breweries create a special beer for the festival and the only alcoholic choice is a one litre mass of the stuff. Its hard to describe just how big these tents are – imagine an exhibition hall at the NEC. The balloon sellers do a roaring trade selling helium balloons which are tied to the table so that latecomers can find their parties in amongst the throng.
The beer is undoubtedly the main feature. It’s jolly good but typically over 5% strength so it soon starts to take its toll. There is food served too though but there were no traditional English bar snacks – crisps or nuts – that I could see. Rather a menu of pig, veal and chicken served on plastic compartment trays. I had suckling pig served with sauerkraut and a potato and bread dumpling. It was fine. The pork was actually very good but the crackling was chewy and the potato dumpling was definitely not to my taste but probably served its beer-absorbing purpose well. The hall is on a temporary site feeding hundreds of people on long benches holding a maximum of ten people each. People sit on double sided benches which means if you want to get out you climb along the middle of the bench and quickly make friends with your tablemates. It’s an incredibly social activity. As we ‘prost’ed each other (very important you make eye contact) the two young dirndl-wearing girls next to us joined in with a smile. Occasionally the brass band would play a drinking song and the audience needed no encouragement to get to their feet. The place had a fantastic atmosphere without a hint of trouble. Families, groups of boys, groups of girls, young and old all having a great day out. The public transport was full of people drinking beer on the way there and on the way back from the glass bottles so the train smelled strongly like an old-fashioned football special. You may sense that I rather enjoyed my day out and the food was part of the scene but not the star attraction. We returned tired and glowing to our hotel which was located a short walk from Marienplatz in the heart of the City.