Of the Theresienwiese 'n Other Places to Fall Down
Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
27Trip End Oct 18, 2006
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I pulled into Munich a little later than I had expected after mistakenly alighting one stop prior to arrival at the Hauptbahnhof. I saw "München" on the platform sign and, not considering that a city of this size might have more than one stop on the Deutsche Bahn lines, got off only to then sit and wait twenty minutes for the next train to happen by.
Once there, however, I immediately tried to call Pia and Norbert - my friend Amanda's aunt and uncle with whom we were to stay for the next few days. Amanda works with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Sean (whom I've known since I was 12 years old) at GE Healthcare. They had both been able to engineer meetings in Europe, Sean in Paris and Amanda in Finland, on either side of a long weekend in Munich coinciding with the town's annual celebration, Oktoberfest
In any case, I couldn't raise Pia and Norbert on the phone my first try. Who knows, given my ineptitude displayed thus far with European telecommunications, I may have very well been doing something wrong, but after ten minutes of trying I decided to put my bags in a locker and go have a beer.
I met a couple of very friendly chaps in one of the 27 bars that occupy the train station. They spoke very little English, though between my broken Deutsche and the magic of beer, we were able to communicate fairly well. I noticed that there were far more people walking around in traditional dress (Lederhosen & Dirndls) than I had anticipated.
Hans und Ulrich explained to me that Munich is a very modern city indeed, but when the festival is going on the town's center is inundated with folks from the countryside and even the city residents bust out their old fashioned duds. It was nice, actually, to see tradition carried on in this way.
After a couple of beers I figured I should try to ring Pia and Norbert again. This time I got through and Norbert gave me directions on how to make my way to their place via the U-bahn, where he would then pick me up and make the last mile to their place by car.
After briefly showing me around their lovely apartment and explaining where we would be sleeping (I was the first of the three of us to arrive by a day) we sat down to a light supper; Wurst und Käse, Brot und Gemüse and, of course, Bier
He told me that this Oktoberfest brew was only available this time of year and only here in München. And boy, was it good. Somewhere between an amber and a pils, it might be the best beer I've ever had; full of caramel and hoppy-flavor, but not heavy. It was perfect.
We sat and talked, the three of us, for quite a while shifting between English and German. I was surprised at how well I was able to keep up when listening to them speak auf Deutsch. Sentence construction was more difficult for me, so I could only speak in rudimentary clips, but it was great fun all the same.
As we were winding down with dinner I remembered the ice wine I had brought for them and went to retrieve it. We sampled a bit of the desert wine as we continued our chat and it was really quite good, very sweet and they appreciated the gesture. Both Pia and Norbert were extremely welcoming and fun people. I enjoyed the evening very much.
The next day Norbert left for a conference in Hamburg or Stuttgart or someplace like that. He's a professor of veterinary science, I believe, and was off to save the animals. Or at least teach others how to. That same morning, Sean was scheduled to arrive from Paris. Pia, who is a teacher, had gone to work by the time I got up, but she had kindly laid out some Brötchen, butter and marmalade and some coffee for me. Soon Sean called to let me know he had landed, but that he needed to do some work at the airport where he had an internet connection before making his way across town. I explained to him how to get to Pia & Norbert's place via the U-bahn and told him I would see him later. That gave me a chance to hop online in Norbert's office to do some typing of travelogue's and uploading photos.
Sean arrived about noon all smiles and happy thoughts, as usual (heavy sarcasm implied for that last bit). Don't get me wrong. I mean, I love the guy like a brother, but he's been known to be a touch moody now and again, as was apparently the case now. For some reason the Munich train system hadn't been to his liking. He was muttering something about how long it took to get from the airport to the apartment. It is on the exact opposite side of the city, so I would guess it's to be expected. Anyway, bitchin' about it (especially to me) doesn't make the trains go any faster
We dumped his gear and headed for downtown on the U-bahn. We emerged in the main square to a fantastic 360° view composed of the old Rathaus and the new one and several other grand, old world styled buildings. We stood there for a minute trying to decide which way to go. Finally we just headed down one of the lanes, saw it didn't look promising, turned around and decided to just grab a table outside one of the many restaurants that lined the street.
We ordered a couple of beers and perused the menu. I told Sean about how much I had been enjoying the food throughout Austria and Germany, but he was a bit trepidatious opting to just get a pretzel (or Bretzen as they say in Munich) with some mustard. He said he'd grab a sausage or something at a stand later. I had Jägerschnitzel with dumplings and tried to convince him what he was missing out on to no avail.
We wandered around the square a bit, not really knowing where we were or having any special destination in mind. We asked a bicycle-rickshaw pilot where would be a good place to hang out for the afternoon as neither of us was feeling especially energetic or ambitious. He pointed us in the direction of an area just off the main square and we soon came across a big open air market
We squeezed into one of them and sidled up to the bar. I noticed a sign offering Sturm and explained it to Sean. They had both red and white and since I hadn't tried the white version yet, we went for that. It was a bit disappointing compared to the stuff I'd had in Austria, but the bartender was funny and it was a real trip this place - lots of oldsters getting toasty in the afternoon. It was also very crowded, so we left after the Sturm and headed next door to a huge establishment. I think it was the Hacker-Pschorr place. All the big breweries run their own beer halls all over town. Pretty wild.
They had tons of tables outside, so we settled in to one in a nice sunny spot and ordered a couple of beers. It was a beautiful day and it was good to be sitting outside just sipping our beers and catching up on what had been going on back home for the past couple of months
We'd received a call from Amanda to let us know that she was at the Hauptbahnhof, so we stopped there to pick her up and then continued on to Pia & Norbert's. Pia had prepared dinner for us of Käsespäetzle mit Speck (like the German version of mac & cheese with some bacon thrown in - awesome!). Amanda had just come from a couple of days in Berlin, which had apparently been fun, but exhausting for her. We all went to bed fairly early.
The next morning we each slept in a bit to varying degrees. I think Sean and Amanda were more tired than I was from some lingering jet lag, but after a bit of screwing around that morning, Pia took the three of us to the Oktoberfest.
First off, I should mention, I wasn't quite prepared for the size of this event. I thought it might be like the MN State fair or something. Ahh, no. In addition to the, what was it 14 main beer tents, there was a full-on carnival midway, amusement park rides, festival halls and showrooms displaying God knows what
The schedule was changed following German reunification in 1990 so that if the first Sunday in October is on the 1st or 2nd then the festival will go on until the October 3rd (German Unity Day). Thus, the festival is now 17 days when the first Sunday is on October 2nd and 18 days when it is on October 1st. And wouldn't you know it, this year October 1st happened to fall on a Sunday. We would have ample opportunity to sample the goings-on.
The first "Oktoberfest" took place on October 12, 1810 in commemoration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The marriage took place on October 12th, the horse race on October 17th, therefore there are different dates named as being the first Oktoberfest
The festival is held on an area named the Theresienwiese (field [or meadow] of Therese). A lot of people call it "d' Wiesn" for short. They serve beer at this event, if you hadn't heard and each year the festival begins with a keg of beer being tapped by the Mayor of Munich who declares "O'zapft is!" (the Sud Deutsch way of saying "It's tapped!"). A special Oktoberfest beer is brewed just for this time of year, which is a bit darker in color, has a stronger flavor and higher alcohol content. At the festival it is served in one-liter-mugs called Maß (pronounced mahss). Only local Munich breweries are allowed to serve this beer in the Bierzelt, beer tents which are large enough to hold thousands of people each. The six Oktoberfest breweries, (Spaten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu) sold 6.1 million mugs of beer in 2006. 30% of the year's production of beer by Munich breweries will be consumed in the two weeks of Oktoberfest.
As we entered the fairgrounds we passed vendors hawking pretzels the size of your head and giant gingerbread-type cookies (Lebküchen) inscribed with "Ich liebe dich" in colored icing. As we turned the corner I caught my first glimpse of the holy land - the Paulaner tent. This was the Munich brewery I was most familiar with before coming to Germany
As we sat there, I noticed this little kid crawling beneath the table. He was obviously with the four chaps we were sitting next to. I know this because the little tyke was amusing himself by alternately punching each one of them in the nuts as he scrambled around down there. I'm not kidding. And he obviously found it quite entertaining. Needless to say, I spent the next 20 minutes in a very nervous state, legs firmly crossed, as I was sitting next to these guys and wasn't at all sure this kid would know one set of legs from the next.
Aside from this, the Weiß garden was nice enough, but we'd come to see the action inside the tents. So we decided to press on in hopes of finding one with vacancy. But it was not to be. By now the crowd had swelled to 8 million people with more coming all the while
As Sean and I alternately bitched to each other about the situation and tried to figure out a new plan, Pia came over and informed us that if we gave this here bar maid (she pointed to her left and a hefty woman in a Dirndl smiled weakly for about a second and a half before returning to a dour countenance) 20-euro, she would provide us with safe passage into the tent. "You bribed her?" I said incredulously. "My God, I can't believe I didn't think of that! Pia, you're a genius." So I slipped her a twenty and we were spirited to the front of the line and then ushered inside to a table where our guide spoke to four young men. They took up a little less than half the length of the table and were already obviously over-served. Our waitress veritably screamed at them, "Raus!" With a little grumbling, they cleared out and we had our seats in the tent.
For the first minute I just tried to take it all in. There were easily a million people inside this thing. There were pine boughs with green and gold ribbons hung from the rafters and along the side walls. There was almost no end in sight. I had to squint to see the far side of the place
We ordered our Maß - one each for Sean and I and one for Pia and Amanda to split - and settled in. This was it. The Olympic Games of beer drinking, what I'd been training for the past six weeks. As I began to make a dent in my first liter, Pia's maternal instincts kicked-in and she insisted I eat something. "Gee," I wondered, "will that even be possible? I mean, millions of Germans gathered together consuming mass quantities of beer - do you think they serve food too?" Sarcasm aside, these people eat like they've never heard of cholesterol and they're under the assumption that the world's supply of ground pork may be exhausted at any moment. What they have on offer is mostly traditional, hearty-fare like wurst (sausages), hendl (chicken), käsespätzle (cheese noodles), bretzen (pretzels) and sauerkraut, along with more exotic Bavarian delicacies like roast ox tails. Here are a few more interesting numbers for you - roasted oxen consumed: 102, sausages devoured: 219,443 pairs, roast chickens inhaled: 459,279 (that's whole chickens, mind you). There are 12,000 people employed at the festival. Of these, 1,600 are waitresses. There is available seating for 100,000 people. This is not like any State Fair in the U.S. This is a serious celebration.
A woman walked by with the aforementioned pretzels the size of my head, so I grabbed one, but this wasn't enough to satisfy Pia. I was ordered to eat more, so I asked for some of the Nuremburger wurst and sauerkraut
By now, Sean and I were on our second liter and we had struck up a conversation with our tablemates. They were 5 guys and one woman, all extremely friendly. I mean, how could they not be, right? They'd arrived at 9:00 that morning to secure their seats in this tent. Yikes! That made our little bribery scheme seem all the more worthwhile. We had a good time just shooting the bull with them for a while, but pretty soon the band took the stage and it was on.
Things started to get a little cagey with the addition of music. Oh boy, do the Krauts like to sing. The drinking songs just started rolling and I found myself standing on the benches more than I sat on them. Third liter. I thought for sure we were gonna break one of those big glass mugs the way we were slamming them together to toast this and toast that. Then for some reason (fourth liter) I remember singing the national anthem (U.S. not Germany). Why was that again? Hmm. Fifth liter. There were a ton of characters in the joint, so Sean and I started passing my camera back and forth shooting some of the more colorful dudes and pretty girls. Sixth liter.
You hear a lot of stories from Oktoberfest. People seem to lose a lot of stuff. They recover 1,000's of lost cel. phones each year (German's call then handy's - wonder if that's because they're so convenient or 'cause they fit in one hand?), they find hundreds of sets of keys, a few children and, once, a prosthetic leg. I ask you, how do you get that drunk? "I say old chap, I do believe my leg's gone missing. Well, no matter. Another beer over here, what?" Seventh liter
During the first weekend of the festival some guy got so drunk that on his way home he felt sick, so he leaned over the edge of the rail platform to evacuate and as he did a train came along. He apparently never heard it for the locomotive took his head off. The dark side of this kind of party, I guess.
And there have been other dark incidents as well. September 26, 1980 at 10:19 PM, a pipe bomb was set off in a trash can at the showers near the main entrance. The bomb consisted of an empty fire extinguisher filled with 1.39 kilograms of TNT and mortar shells. Thirteen people were killed, over 200 were injured, 68 seriously. This was the worst terrorist attack in the history of Germany. The official inquiries found that a right-wing extremist Gundolf Köhler from Donaueschingen, a social outcast was the lone bomber. Apparently he wasn't a very good bomb maker though as he failed to get away in time and killed himself in the explosion. September 30, 1996 26 people were injured in a collision on the Eurostar roller coaster. October 2, 2001 85 people were injured in a riot by a group of intoxicated Austrians. Not so shocking that last one. I mean, the Austrians are like the hillbilly's of the German speaking world (no offense Pip)
Well, at this point things start to get a little hazy. My recollection of events no longer exactly runs a straight line. Sean told me he was pretty sure he drank 5 liters that afternoon and pegged me at 7 or 8, so I'm going with 8. In any case, by this time the two of us were all smiles. Pia and Amanda had had enough of us though, so they went home to chat and knit and have tea or whatever it is girls do after Oktoberfest. Sean and I on the other hand did the sensible thing and headed downtown to find a bar. Looking back on it, I wish we had stayed to check out some of the other tents, but it was just so crowded we couldn't deal with it.
Now remember, I'm all duded-up in traditional German regalia, hat, knickers, the whole bit. And while this is perfectly acceptable and I fit right in at the festival, downtown...ah, not so much. I don't really remember the U-bahn ride too well. I recall emerging in the central square and an elevator ride to a lounge that overlooked the square. There was a table of cute German girls there who wanted nothing to do with us (shockingly). We left after one drink. This was followed, I believe, by some aimless walking for an indeterminate period of time until we came across another establishment that Sean deemed acceptable
Once inside, we ordered cocktails and soon struck up a conversation with a pair of German fellas. They were nice enough guys (I think) and they spoke good English. All of a sudden - and what possessed him to do this I'll never know - Sean starts handing out shots of whiskey or tequilla or God-knows-what. "Where did these come from?" I managed to quip. "I ordered them," Sean replied. "Well, ok. I guess." But being the hospitable type, our new friends Wolfgang und Herman, or whatever, decided they needed to reciprocate. "Oh jeez. I don't know if I can..." Too late. They'd all raised their glasses and had begun to quaff. After that I remember very little. Brief snippets of a cab ride back to the suburbs. Was I just in a McDonald's? Oh yeah, must have been because now I'm wolfing down a quarter pounder with cheese. I mean a Royale with cheese.
I learned the next morning about some other fun stuff that had gone on and it (well, some of it) started to come back to me. There had been an attempt to gain access to an after party at the Hippodrome (or some such bar), which we were denied access to for unspecified, but wholly estimable reasons. Also, I had apparently taken a little tumble in the entryway of Pia & Norbert's condo, rousing at least one set of neighbors. "Ah, so that's how that bruise got there." Not my finest moment, per se, but Norbert kindly pretended he hadn't heard a thing. Amanda then told me that when we were eating our McDonald's in the kitchen, at one point, I laughed so hard that French fries came out my nose and I fell off my chair. Now that I definitely don't recall. C'est la vie.
The weird thing was that I was up and functioning then next morning hours before either Sean or Amanda and felt almost no ill effects from the previous night's festivities
That day, Pia and Norbert gave us a guided tour of München. We began by driving down to the Deutsche Museum, a massive structure that looks like it could hold the history and technical records of the Germanic states form the time of Attila to the present day. Indeed it is so large that Norbert told us it would take days to see it all, so we just strolled through the courtyard instead on our way to the river Isar and then up to the old city bath house (see pic.). It was a beautiful old building with stunning details inside and out. And it's still in use today. Next we drove past the old Parliament building (magnificently grand) into the city center. We parked near the National Theatre and saw the former Royal Residenze next door, taking a minute to admire the interior courtyard.
We then made our way to the Odeonsplatz, a regal square housing a monument to...what? I can't remember. Some victory over some other state I think. Norbert really was a terrific guide for us. He knew all this stuff, but there was just so much information. From where we stood there was also a great view down a long avenue which exemplified the Italianate style of architecture that Müncheners adopted as their own
The church was built in Italian high-baroque style after San Andrea del Valle in Rome and designed by the Italian architect Agostino Barelli. Succeeding him was Enrico Zuccalli who added two towers that had not been included in the original design. He also finished the 71 meter high center dome in 1690. The facade is in the rococo style and was finished later, in 1768 by François de Cuvilles. The Mediterranean exterior with its pale yellow coloring belies the serenity within.
The entirety of the interior is near monochromatic. There is rich white stucco decoration everywhere which exudes a remarkably placid consciousness. Norbert explained to us how the Italian artisans were hired to remain in residence for years to complete this masterpiece. It was just the most unique church I think I saw on the entire trip.
We decided it was time to grab a cup of coffee, so we found a little café with a nice courtyard and sat down to enjoy a short break. We then pressed on to the east to see a small Orthodox church
Literally translated this means Church of our Lady. Its domed, twin towers dominate the city's skyline. While impressive in stature, I didn't find it nearly as appealing inside as the other smaller structures we had just seen. There was something very impersonal about it.
I should mention that between church visits we had been passing through small lanes and large avenues alike containing gorgeous old buildings of all shapes and sizes. Munich really is a remarkable town. We passed by the top hotel in the city where Presidents and Popes stay. In fact, the Pope had just been in town and Norbert showed us the security markings on the manhole covers. They really leave no stone unturned when it comes to his security these days. We went by a small art gallery with some very cool statues out front that looked like people made of corrugated cardboard (see pic.). We strolled impressive shopping lanes. It was a very nice walk indeed.
By now, we were all feeling a bit peckish, so we decided to go for lunch. Norbert steered us to Augustiner's first-rate restaurant cum beer hall a few blocks from the Marienplatz
I think we may have seen a few more points of cultural interest around the Marienplatz after lunch, but what I remember most was our stop later that afternoon at the famous Hofbräuhaus. The place is huge with table after table reaching back through three or four rooms at least 200 yards deep. Plus, there's an outdoor Biergarten in the courtyard. We settled in at one of the rough wooden tables with benches to match. The dark wood surfaces have all been scratched to a lighter shade with engravings of names, dates and, indubitably, very witty German phrases. Sean and I each ordered a liter of the Dunkels Bier as we hadn't really had much, if any, dark beer in the past couple of days. It was very tasty - one of our favorites I think.
It takes a while to drink a liter of beer, or at least it should, which we had learned the day before, so we sat and had a nice chat the five of us. Pia explained to us the general history of the place and the concept of the Stamtisch
As we drove back to their place, Norbert called to our attention several more points of interest including, the BMW headquarters building and the Olympic Stadium, both quite arresting sights.
After a little R&R we cleaned ourselves up and went out for dinner. They took us to the Paulaner restaurant/brew house which was not too far from their place. It was another typical affair much like the Hofbräuhaus, very warm and inviting with a convivial atmosphere and lots of people in high spirits. Sean and I split some Leberkäse to start and I ordered the Spanferkal (baby roast boar) with Blaukraut und Kartofelknödeln (red cabbage and potato dumplings). Mmmm. Sean had his first experience with Schweinshaxe (the same pork knuckles I wrote about when I was in Garmisch). I don't think he was quite sure about it when his plate first arrived, but once he dug in he really enjoyed it. Even if he did skip the best part, the crispy outer skin
The next day Amanda had to catch a flight up to Finland for her meetings, so we screwed around downtown a bit and then bid her farewell. Sean and I went in search of the only fitting souvenir we could think of to help us recall our time in Munich - beer steins. It was not an easy choice either, let me tell you. There were stores with walls full of the things. Some of them, hand made and hand painted, ranged into the hundreds of dollars. We each finally selected one after nearly an hour of perusing. Our good friend Rick, back in Chicago, had just moved into a new condo, so we (along with Amanda chipping in) decided we'd pick one up for him as well as a house warming gift. Sean was good enough to cart them all back to the States along with 10 or 12 collectible glasses he'd purchased for his team at work. What a good boss!
We really didn't do a whole lot else after that. We had some nice time to relax and chat with Pia and Norbert that evening. He and I bonded over our mutual admiration of Bob Dylan and we shared a last bottle (or two) of that wonderful Augustiner Oktoberfest brew which I had, by now, fallen in love with. I wish I could get my hands on that stuff Stateside, but they don't ship a drop over here
The next morning Norbert drove Sean and me to the S-bahn. We bid him adieu and thanked him heartily for all of their hospitality. Pia and Norbert were two of the best human beings I met throughout my travels and I enjoyed spending time with both of them. As we walked toward the entrance to the rail station the sun was coming up in the east. Its rays were exploding out of a bank of clouds lying low on the horizon in the most brilliant hues of magenta, orange and yellow. The sky literally looked like it was on fire and I knew it was going to be a good day.
I was on my way to the Hauptbahnhof where I would catch a train to Füssen for the day to see the castle Neuschwanstein and then return to Munich to catch an overnighter to Prague. Sean was on his way to catch a plane to Paris and then back to Milwaukee. We each stood on a platform on either side of the tracks and yelled across our final goodbyes as my train pulled in first. It had been great to spend some time with friends. After all, this is what I had been pining for in Valencia, to share this trip with people I care about. But oddly enough, as that train pulled out, I was just as excited to get back to exploring on my own.
It was then that I realized I had really made the transition, that I had really become comfortable with myself in a way I never had been before. It wasn't hard to transition back to spending time with Sean and Amanda. Like I said, I really enjoyed seeing them. By the same token though, I did not have any trouble moving on to my next destination alone.
In 2010 it will be the 200th anniversary of the Oktoberfest. Mark your calendars boys for September 18th thru October 3rd.