Not doing enough binge drinking in the UK? Maybe a trip to Oktoberfest will quench your thirst. SAM BISHOP has this advice for surviving the annual Bavarian beer festival.
So, you’ve packed a healthy thirst, your drinking boots, aspirin and a party attitude. You’re ready for Oktoberfest, right? Almost. But with more than six million visitors drinking six million litres of beer, eating almost half a million chickens and a couple of hundred thousand sausages, this 18-day beer binge is bigger than your average weekend booze up or west London house party.
You wouldn’t go on a mission across Europe without your trusty Lonely Planet, would you? So then, set your brain to sponge and soak up our survival guide like a pretzel absorbs beer.
A party the scale of Oktoberfest doesn’t just pop up overnight. In fact, it’s taken 173 years for the legend of ‘Die Wiesn’ to grow. Beerfest actually started as a celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese. To celebrate the couple’s vows, the fun-loving Bavarians threw a giant fair which continues today, albeit in a much larger form. Oktoberfest is still held on a patch named Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow) in honour of the princess.
Since organisers started keeping detailed records in 1950, beer consumption has risen almost 600% as the popularity of the festival spread outwards from Munich around the world.
Theresienwiese is a sweeping expanse of parkland on the outskirts of the city centre. A 10- to 15-minute walk from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (main station) it’s impossible to miss the beer grounds with the sheer mass of bodies moving in a trance-like state towards their first stein of the day. There is no charge to enter the beer grounds, although there is unwritten law which requires all foreign visitors to identify themselves by purchasing a gawdy novelty hat in the shape of a stein, T-shirt or heart-shaped gingerbread cookie when leaving the grounds at the end of a heavy session.
To get from your hostel to the beer grounds you walk left out the front door, hang a leftie, a right at the first set of lights and walk straight until the end of the road before turning right. Voilà, there you are. Easy, right? OK, then, how about getting home, then?
This is where things become tricky, especially if, like me, you’re the one who always insists you know the right way to go – even if you’ve no idea at all and especially once you’ve had a skinful.
Taking the two-hour scenic route home might sound like fun and, if like me you’re lucky enough to find the world’s best late night pizza joint (at the Hauptbahnhof end of Senefelderstrasse) they can be. However trekking across Munich at midnight on a chilly autumn night isn’t necessarily an ideal end to festivities. Carry a map, your hostel/hotel will have one.
If walking to the grounds is not an option, jump on the U4 or U5 subway line from Hauptbahnhof. Once on the beer grounds, it’s a different kettle of fish. Speaking of all things pescatorial, if you’re feeling on the seedy side of tip-top, steer clear of the smoked fish stalls on your way into the festival, unless you’d like to revisit breakfast. The layout of Theresienwiese is straight forward enough, with the 14 beer tents, each of which hold between 9000 and 12,000 punters, clumped mostly together. There is a massive carnival at the back of the site and street vendors and food stalls dotted around the grounds. Ignore the temptation to hit the beer halls straight away and have a wander; there are some amazing sideshows and parades, and it always pays to plan a closing-time escape route in broad daylight.
Culture and traditions
While Oktoberfest is all about good, clean (for the most part), alcohol-induced fun, there are strict conventions governing the way beer is drunk at the festival.
Arriving at 9am well before the beer starts flowing might make you feel like an addict waiting for his/her first hit of the day, but seeing as you can’t get a drink unless you’ve nabbed a seat, you’ll be smiling on the other side of your oh-so-thirsty face if you decide to arrive fashionably late. The no seat, no beer rule seems to have been relaxed in the Höfbrauhaus tent – especially in the centre of the enormous marquee, lovingly known as the ‘Pigpen’ to its predominantly Antipodean crowd.
However, in the Pigpen the mob rules, and girls are required to go sans bra and lads without dacks. Get busted breaking the rule and you’ll lose the offending garment – in front of 5000 pissed onlookers.
Once you’ve got a seat and a stein – that’s a litre, or Ein Mass to the locals -you might be wondering what happens next. Well, the widely accepted convention seems to be to get pissed, dance around like a pork chop while listening to the Oompah bands and sing Ein Prost with alarming regularity. Ein Prost is a German toast which you won’t learn the real words to, rather one you’ll end up singing much the same way most Aussies sing the second verse of Advance Australia Fair – with loud, proud but completely undiscernable mumbles.
After a couple of steins you might find yourself a little peckish. Forget a filthy serving of KFC or Maccas, the good folk at Oktoberfest are happy to help you stuff your face Bavarian style. Whole and half chickens and sausages are favourites, pretzels are tops at soaking up the beer from your belly while replacing some salt. The granddaddy of them all – and a must to complete a meaty yet wholly authentic experience – is the pork knuckle. Grab it with your hands, tear it with your teeth and polish it off with a dumpling and a Homer-esque burp and bingo! You’re an honorary Bavarian.
Some people say that Oktoberfest is a pricey little adventure. They’re right. Beerfest is definitely not the event you want to go to in a penny-pinching mood, so throw caution to the wind, raid that ATM and drink away happily (if you drink enough, you mightn’t even remember that 15th withdrawal from the on-site cashpoint).
This year, a beer will set you back €6.95-€7.50, which is not too bad. A feed will set you back anywhere from €2.50 for a pretzel to €12 and upwards for virtually a whole leg of pork. Worth remembering, though, is that the hard-working ladies, who can lug up to 10 steins (more than 20kg when full) at a time, have so much custom that they don’t need to make sure your glass is always full. Therefore, budget on chucking in a couple of euro a beer to keep your friendly fraulein happy and you’ll never go thirsty again.
Save a bit of coinage for some rides, best experienced on the sober side of tipsy rather the ‘I’m-so-drunk-I-can’t-scratch-myself’ side of paralytic and, of course, don’t forget that crap stein-shaped novelty hat, T-shirt and cheap, nasty cigar.
These are few and far between in a city which could vie for the title of ‘Friendliest And Happiest Place on Earth’, but there are some things to look out for.
The big two are ever-present when alcohol filters into the bloodstream, prompting a spot of trestle table dancing. We don’t need to revise Newton’s first law, but suffice to say that when bopping along to Take Me Home, Country Roads while dancing on the top of a table somewhere between your sixth and seventh steins, it’s worth remembering two things. 1. The ‘see-saw effect’. Remember what used to happen to your poor mate when you leapt off the see-saw at the bottom? If you see someone climb off at the end of the table, or if you feel the balance shift, prepare to say hello to the same floorboards that made quite an impression – literally – on my forehead last year. 2. Beer is not non-stick. Sure, swinging your stein around while belting out Ein Prost is a laugh. Sure, your trainers are pretty grippy, and sure, you’re as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Finally, it might seem like a good idea to nick off with a stein at the end of the night, but besides being bloody heavy – they to conceal, there are laws that protect the valuable little vessels being kidnapped by light-fingered revellers. Security firms are hired specifically to deal with stein theft and if you get caught expect to be, at worst, turned over to the police and prosecuted, or at best, banned from the grounds for the rest of the festival.
Beerfest by numbers
Area: 103.79 acres (0.42km)
Seats in halls: 100,000
Electricity used: 2.8kWh (enough to keep a family of four powered up for more than 52 years)
On-site expenditure: €450 million.
Toilets: 980 and 878m of urinals
2005 lost propery: 4000 items, including 260 pairs of glasses, 200 mobile phones, a wedding ring and a pair of crutches.