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Munich's Mad Month

A trip to Munich in September must include a visit to Oktoberfest, but you may find time to toboggan and buy a Beamer

The noise was deafening. Over 5,000 people, most of them dancing on tables, were crammed into a festival hall that could otherwise house a 747 jumbo jet. And this was only one such hall. In the Oktoberfest area there’s seating for about 100,000 people. It’s socialising on a macro scale, complete with German efficiency and international bonhomie.

            The annual Oktoberfest extravaganza needs little introduction amongst Europeans, but for those unclear on its attributes, the most effective way to describe it would be to use some of the stats from this year’s festival. The 6.4 million guests, yes, that’s 6.4 million people — double the population of Ireland — consumed seven million litres of beer. Guards recovered about 130,000 steins (glasses that can hold one litre of liquid) from souvenir hunters; visitors ate 117 oxen and 59 calves; 37 children were “misplaced” by their loving parents; 4,500 objects were recorded at the Lost & Found office — including 1,450 clothing garments, 770 ID cards, 420 wallets, 420 mobile phones, 90 cameras, 80 umbrellas and, my personal favourites — a ship-in-a-bottle, a pug (small dog), a rabbit (was it lost or just foraging?), a tennis racket (from a local park?), a leather whip (from a local riding school?), four pairs of ladies’ shoes, a pair of rain boots, a tuba (presumably from a touring band), a hearing aid and a set of dentures (possibly removed to aid in the consumption of aforesaid oxen).

Oktoberfest in full swing (Picture by Heribert Pohl --- Thanks for half a million clicks! from Germering bei München, Bayern [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Oktoberfest in full swing

(Picture by Heribert Pohl --- Thanks for half a million clicks! from Germering bei München, Bayern [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

            It’s clearly a massive event, yet amazingly the mood stays upbeat and jovial throughout. Unlike the nationals of some countries — whose names shall not be mentioned — Germans seem able to celebrate their national drink in style, making for an incredible atmosphere. The style on show is also evident in the outfits the locals wear.

            In much the same way that fashion spins in repetitive circles, so the fashion of Oktoberfest has come full circle back to traditional Bavarian garments of the working class pre-1800 — the classic lederhosen. Originally worn by men doing manual labour, it became fashionable as leisure wear, then was dropped altogether in Bavarian society, only to resurface as the ‘must-have’ item for Oktoberfest a little under ten years ago. For the women, it is the dirndl that grabs the attention — it’s a stunning yet conservative outfit that originated from Alpine peasantry. After sitting in Oktoberfest halls for the evening many Germans stay in their traditional outfits to hit the clubs. There is no better use of the word juxtaposition than when used to describe a modern nightclub, belting out techno music over a crowd of people, half of which look like they should be tilling the fields, the other half like they’ve wandered off from tending to the Milka cow.

The traditional, timeless, head-turning dirndl (Picture by Bayreuth2009 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The traditional, timeless, head-turning dirndl

(Picture by Bayreuth2009 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

            The dirndl is more than just a practical garment for life in the mountains; it’s also an indication to the other half as to whether or not a woman is married. If the bow on the front is tied to the left it means she’s not married, tied to the right then she is married. On the night, though, it didn’t seem as though many people were too interested in doing anything more than dance the night away. In the middle of every festival hall there’s a band that has limitless energy to pump out popular Oktoberfest hits to the crowd. They just keep on coming, many with their own inimitable dance, so that by the time the halls shut down — around 11pm — you’ll be thankful for that oxen you consumed on arrival.

            Of course, Oktoberfest only goes on for just over two weeks — much the pity some might say — so for those making the six-hour journey from the Gulf at other times of the year, or even if the festival isn’t your cup of tea, then fortunately Munich has much more to offer (with less table dancing, stein theft and misplacement of leather whips.)

            The city is ideal for one pastime not well known in the UAE — walking. Its central area is relaxed and inviting, with pedestrian-only squares and streets that help push Munich into the envious category of being in the Top Ten most desirable places to live (according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting). It’s a long way from its rather ignominious history of the past 100 years, being the place where Hitler’s band of Nazis were concentrated in the early 1920s, eventually earning the title Hauptstadt der Bewegung (Capital of the Movement) in appreciation of the city’s central role to the Nazi party. Along with most other German cities it suffered at the hands of Allied bombing, but unlike most other cities it was meticulously reconstructed following the war so that you would barely know the strife that Hitler’s mob put it through.

Munich city centre (Picture by Stefan Kühn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Munich city centre

(Picture by Stefan Kühn (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

            To find the modern side of Munich you have to leave the city centre. One of the most famous sites is the Olympic Park built for the 1972 Summer Olympics. In what must be a piece of inspiration to organisers for the Games in London in 2012, the stadia, swimming pool and surrounding areas are still used. Near to the swimming complex are manicured hills, clearly man-made, which cover the rubble that was cleared out of the city following the war. It is a stark reminder of what took place there, but also encouraging that such hideous times are now the basis for parkland which modern day Germans use for recreation.

            Near to the Olympic Park is yet another icon of Munich, the headquarters of the BMW car manufacturing company. Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works) is the company most associated with Munich and although the sound of visiting a car manufacturing plant might not interest everyone, it is worth a tour. Inside, as you might imagine, is a clean, modern, efficient centre. Buyers can tour various models, design a car to their preferred specs, then return to pick it up, saving on dealership fees and also becoming the centre of attention to the assembled looky-loos for 10-minutes as their car is spun on a rotating platform under a spotlight — before they drive it off down a ramp and out of the building.

            If you happen to pick up a new ‘Beamer,’ then you might consider — if you have time — to take a trip into the countryside. At just two hours from the city centre is one of the most exhilarating journeys you can take. I never thought we’d be tobogganing in late-September, but if you make it to the top of Zugspitze then that’s exactly what you could be enjoying. At 2967 metres it is the highest peak in Germany. To get to the top there are two options. Firstly, the cable car that carries you over four and half kilometres in distance, raising you 1950 metres. It opened in 1963 and still looks like it’s from the 60s, making for a nervous journey as you rise up through the clouds and into the snow. The more relaxed option is a cog train that takes much longer, but is on terra firma.

            Back in Munich you may want to explore the palace or tell fellow tourists in the famous Hofbräuhaus beer hall that you were tobogganing only a couple of hours back, but during September it would hard not to get drawn back into the fun that is Munich’s Oktoberfest. As they say in Germany, “Prost!"

Where to stay:

The Sofitel Munich Bayerpost is a great option, particularly if you’re looking for a modern, sleek hotel in a central location. It is built in the old post office so has a classical look from the outside, but all the mod cons on the inside. One Gulf resident stayed there for seven months straight, which might indicate its appeal. Room rates for November start at Dh1150 per night.

Getting there:

Fly with Lufthansa on its daily direct flights, leaving at 0830 from Dubai, returning at 2145 from Munich. Rates for November start at Dh2500. Travel during Oktoberfest and you might be lucky enough to travel on the special festival flights, where the cabin crew are dressed in traditional Bavarian outfits.

Oktoberfest:

It started in 1810 to celebrate a royal marriage and was so successful they decided to repeat it, leaving us with an annual festival now attracting over six million people. It starts in mid-September running for 16-18 days until the beginning of October. Visitors are highly recommended to book a table in a festival hall far in advance. Try the Shottenhammel Tent for first timers.

FIRST PUBLISHED IN KHALEEJ TIMES IN 2011