Thursday, September 25, 2014

Beer and More Beer: Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

I checked a major item off of my bucket list this weekend: Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany! I absolutely could not study abroad in Germany in the fall without going to Oktoberfest. The world's biggest festival is like a nation-wide holiday here: thousands of people travel to Munich during the celebrate German culture and, of course, beer.

Many other cities in the world hold their own versions of Oktoberfest, but none are as grand as the main festival in Munich. Located in the southern German state of Bavaria near the Austrian border, Munich is full of stereotypically German culture and traditions. Think old style architecture, cobblestone paths, beer, pretzels, bratwurst, and Lederhosen. Basically, Munich is the perfect place to hold a festival celebrating Germany.

Ironically, Oktoberfest doesn't actually take place in October, but over a 16-day period starting in late September. Since my friends and I are going on excursions through our study abroad program for the next two weekends, we had to attend Oktoberfest on the opening day (Saturday, September 20). On Friday night, my ten friends and I caught a night train from Berlin to Munich and settled in for an 11 hour ride. Getting a good night's sleep on a train is not easy, but we managed to catch a few zzz's before arriving at the Munich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) at 8 a.m.

After I grabbed an authentic Bavarian sandwich with Leberkase and pickles at a bakery (sounds gross, but tastes great!), we headed though the rain to the Oktoberfest grounds, which is basically a meadow with enough room for the beer tents, carnival rides and souvenir stands. The main attraction at Oktoberfest is obviously the beer tents, which are huge indoor rooms filled with long, cafeteria-style picnic tables. Munich builds 14 separate beer tents just for Oktoberfest each year. The most famous beer tent (Hofbraeu Tent) holds almost 10,000 people! 

Besides beer tents, Oktoberfest also has lots of carnival rides and souvenir stands that sell beer mugs, German trinkets and
"Lebkuchen" (heart-shaped gingerbread cookies with love messages on them). Tons of people at Oktoberfest wear Lederhosen and Dirndls, traditional German clothes that you've probably seen at costume shops. I considered buying a Dirndl myself, but I couldn't bring myself to shell out 60 Euro for a dress I'll probably wear only once. 

My nine friends and I were planning on exploring Munich a bit before finding a tent, since we arrived on the grounds at 9:30 a.m. and the festival didn't start until noon. Once we reached the meadow, though, we knew we couldn't spend the morning doing tourist-y things. All of the tents were already full of people! We walked through four different tents and couldn't find a single seat available. Just as we were starting to worry, we noticed that some tables outside of the Ochsenbraterei  tent were still open because of the rain. We pounced at the opportunity, took the table, and huddled together under three umbrellas until Oktoberfest started at noon, only getting up to check out the passing parade.

At around 11:45, a waitress came around asking how many Maß (liters) of beer we needed, since beer is sold by the liter and costs 10 Euro in every tent at Oktoberfest. However, the liters are super strong, so the money is well spent. Each tent only serves one kind of beer, kind of like a "house speciaility," and I'm sure all of them are bound to taste pretty good. At noon on the dot, twelve gun shots rang though the air to commence the start of Oktoberfest. Crowds erupted in festive cheers as waitresses swarmed thorough the doors of the tent carrying armfuls of beer – ten liters at a time just like you see on TV! German ladies are strong!

As soon as everyone at my table got a Mass, we dug into our drinks. I'm not typically a beer person, but I've never been disappointed with beer in Germany! The light-medium beer at Ochsenbraterei was really good, and so strong that I was set for the rest of the day after a liter-and-a-half. The rain had stopped by the time we started drinking, and the outdoor atmosphere was actually very fun! I think more people are crazy-drunk and loud inside of the tents (some of my friends saw men standing on tables and drinking out of their shoes..) so I enjoyed the relatively smaller outdoor area.

My friends and I spent four hours talking and drinking in the tent, which was a completely unforgettable experience. We took turns buying huge soft pretzels (a Bavarian speciality!) for 5 euro each. Those pretzels were seriously amazing- and as big as my head! Combine pretzels with liters of beer and you get a carb overload... and dehydration!

One of my favorite memories of the day was when the dreary, gray clouds finally gave up their struggle and the bright, shining sun peeped out. All one-thousand-plus people sitting outside the Ochsenbraterei starting screaming and cheering in drunken unison. I was reminded of a crowd of drunken men cheering as their favorite team wins an American football game, except that I was cheering along myself (which rarely happens at football games!) The lines to the outdoor bathrooms at Oktoberfest were terrible, though. Chugging liters of beer obviously makes people have to pee, and once someone "breaks the seal," the urge to pee never stops. I waited in three separate 15-minute bathroom lines over the course of four hours, which ate up a good 45 minutes of my afternoon. Not fun!

At around 4 p.m., someone in my friend group decided that we had enough of the tent, and we should go on the carnival rides instead. Happily full of beer, we all followed blindly, stopping at yet another bathroom on the way. We ended up at a "swing" ride, where pairs sit in large swings that rise high above Oktoberfest and spin around a tower. A couple of people in my group, including myself, braved the heights and got an incredible view of Oktoberfest.

After a few more hours, which included dinner and souvenir shopping, we headed back to the Munich Haputbahnhof for the long commute home. We left Munich at 11 p.m, transferred trains twice, and got back to the apartments at 10 a.m the next day. I immediately settled in for a power nap, because spending two consecutive nights on trains really makes you tired! 

I am extremely grateful that I was able to attend such a fun, world-famous event. I am definitely interested in going back, if I'm ever in Germany again during the fall. Maybe I'd even buy a Dirndl!