Having not travelled out of the country in many a year, I took the chance to go see my good buddy K out in Germany this year for Oktoberfest. It’d be a great chance to experience a new culture and take advantage of a place that was still buzzing from winning the World Cup, right? So I filled my Tortuga backpack, loaded my tablet with books and jumped on a flight to go across the pond.
The first thing that struck me about Bavaria is how much it remains an agricultural center. Munich is a cosmopolitan city, full of all the modern amenities and eclectic nature of today’s global centers. But the moment you take the train or the autobahn out of it, you’re struck with endless fields of wheat, corn and flaxseed. The traditionally-picturesque villages with their raised roofs and barns dot the landscape of hills and valleys much as they have done for the last thousand years. The best comparison to America I can give is that it’s akin to driving through Colorado or Kentucky.
And the comparison isn’t that far off in terms of the people. Bavaria is very much like the South. Very kind people they were, willing to help a lost foreigner time and again. But they are very straightforward. There’s almost none of the playfulness of the Latin countries in German. Oh they do laugh and find things funny. It’s just it’s not the sense of humor I was accustomed to. And the further into the small villages you go, the less likely you are to find someone who does speak English. So keep that in mind if you go wander off the beaten paths, like I and my friend did.
Also keep in mind that the weather over there changes dramatically throughout the day. We’d leave in the morning and it’d be grey and rainy and there’d be fog all over the autobahn. By noon, it’s hot and sunny and you’re peeling layers of clothing off of you. I got accustomed to just carrying my jacket on my arm. It did help to carry my point and shoot camera and the old iPhone 4 I found to bring along, but there were times were I was ruing bringing the damned thing along.
The fog did make driving down the autobahn an experience. There was all sorts of construction closer to Munich, but once you’re past it, it opens up. I wondered how such a system – an interstate road without a speed limit – could work and the answer is simple: everyone minds the rules, both the written and the unwritten. Things like “only use the left lane to pass” and “move over when someone’s trying to pass you” are just obeyed. And it’s important for them to be obeyed for things to work. Also, tickets and fines have to be paid on the spot. None of the “we’ll see you in 8 weeks in traffic court.” With fines being steep, there’s every incentive for people to behave on the road.
But the scariest driving experience was taking the small mountain roads into the village of Kelheim. We’re talking 10-15% incline roads, with lots and lots of bank turns where you don’t see the Audi or the bikes coming in the opposite lane until they right on top of you. Oh, that’s another thing: with Sundays, the country shuts down. So a lot of the roads are filled with people taking Sunday drives on their motorcycles. On the way out, we saw an accident where a car had ended in a mountain road ditch.
Like I said, that’s Bavaria. Munich is something else entirely.
The first thing that greets you is the mass of humanity at Munchen Hauptbanhof (the central train station). It’s like you took the entire city and made them walk around one another. Specially because Oktoberfest was going on at the time. You’d have train after train of lederhosen-clad locals and tourists pouring out and onto the streets. It’s a similar experience at Marienplatz – the city center – and at the Fest itself. Munich was clearly the vacation spot to be at this time of year and people were coming from all parts of Europe.
The best comparison I can give regarding Oktoberfest is the Houston Rodeo. It’s actually a close approximation. It’s a massive regional fair, people come from everywhere dressed in the local outfit of the country, they partake in carnival rides and games and drink and eat a lot. Only, in Oktoberfest’s case, it’s the big beer companies that put up the massive tents as opposed to the beef and BBQ contestants in Houston. That said, just like at the Rodeo, if you want a seat at the tents, you better reserve them suckers early. I mean early as in March! Otherwise, it’s having to wait hours for the chance to find a seat. And you really don’t want to waste hours in line that could be spent drinking.
Because if there’s one thing the Germans do great, it’s beer. (My bad joke is the Germans do three things great: beer and cars). Every town and village has their own individual brew, with bigger cities having multiple competing brewers. And that’s what Oktoberfest is: a massive competition between the brewers. Paulaner, Augustiner, Neumarketer, Schneider Weisse, Hofbra Beer, etc. They’re there to ply you with massive tankards of their wares and lots of their traditional Oompa bands’ music. And it’s like the music is made to go with the beer. Light and frothy, sweet and tasty, dark and wheaty. You take your pick and drink.
After Oktoberfest, we sauntered over the the Hofbrahaus – the old Munchen beer hall – and you can imagine the scene in there. Picture Pat O’Brien’s during Mardi Gras. The place was jumping and beer flowed all over the place. Good beer too. We did find seats in the third floor hall – a place that’s epically-large and all wooden. Honestly, it didn’t look like it had changed much in a thousand years. I got a traditional pork dinner there with a large bowl of what the nice waitress called cabbage but was sauerkraut. Let’s just say I preferred the beer.
We also found our way over to the Allianz Arena, home of FC Bayern Munchen aka the Yankees of German soccer. My friend Brilund is a big Bayern fan and this was like making his pilgrimage to holy land. Now the first time we tried getting there, TSV 1860 Munchen was playing (they’re the other local team). So we had to return the next day to take the English tour and it was a pleasant time. I recalled how the Superdome used to do tours for kids and visitors a lifetime ago. It’s a nice stadium and were I a fan, I’d be impressed. The trophy haul is amazing and they do a great job of taking you everywhere. If you’re a fan, I recommend it. Just know that it’s a good subway ride out to the outskirts of the city.
If it sounds short, let me just end by saying that the distances do get to you. We had to take a 2-hour train ride from where we were staying to Munich everyday. And then a 2-hour train ride back. Now, beer makes the train ride pass the time, but after back-to-back-to-back rides like that, you do get a bit spent. My recommendation is that, if you’re going to go to Oktoberfest, find accommodations in the city. It’ll be expensive, but you’ll get the creature comforts, such as WiFi, which is spotty in the country, and you can stumble back to bed after experiencing it all in. However, if you’re after a more laid back vacation experience, go visit the villages of Bavaria. They’re picturesque and pleasant and pretty.
And if you get lost, you might see a Rolls Royce Phantom II (1950 edition) barreling down towards you!
Next time: Regensburg!
A few more photos of Munich and Bavaria: