Oktoberfest in Munich
My German road trip will always stay with me for how purely, and sometimes weirdly, original Germany can get. The early October sun did to the German countryside what honey does to things - it sweetened it, it drowned it in an amber, seductive glow. Green meadows turned into a moire of gold light and grass tumbling together; the colour of children’s laughter. Open fields with a sudden copse of trees - conspiring, telling secrets - their voices are too loud, so the whole field knows what they were hushing-hushing about. Pumpkins spilling out of the ground like a tiny elf township with round, orange houses and round, orange supermarkets and round, orange churches and a round orange townhall. In the evenings, ballerina clouds in pink tutus swirl and blur the sky; a thin veil hangs over the now-purple fields like a silk petticoat held delicately over her ankles from the wet of the evening dew. While the opera in the sky gets more dramatic and splatters orange like it were free, we continue to test escape velocity on the autobahn. And presently, a huge gouda cheese moon with a penchant for fonduing into the night, turns the jet black sky into watersilk.
We meandered through gingerbread towns with gingerbread houses with crazy things that passed for garden decor - gnomes of every size and with a the-more-the-merrier sensibility, a giant 10-foot teddy that surveys the horizon from its high post hoisted atop an industrial/farm crane. Metal deer in the middle of the field; real deer in the middle of the field, quietly grazing with their ears coyly tucked back into their head - an undisturbed epitome of pastoral idyl. Falcons with thighs that are a credit to leg-day, swoop down on unsuspecting prey with a great flap of their beautiful wings. Two lost balloons in a field. White and green on a string. Far from any child’s fingers. Trapped in the crop knots. Missing the sky. Missing the breeze. Two plastic lungs full of air. Misplaced
Sprightly Germans, strut up and down the length of their expansive fields, with their muscular german dogs with names that, I’m sure, are probably just as muscular, beefy and pumped up on the steroids of German phonetische. There’s something about the German language that makes you think of solemn-faced alphabet and sounds and words wearing metal helmets and marching in unison in neat rows, consonants in combat boots making morning-cereal out of gravel, vowels saluting in full-throated command. And then there are warm, fuzzy-blankie words like apfel that warm you up inside like hot toddy, which just about sums up most of the Germans in my experience. Warm, round with soft-bread hearts.
Of all the days, we chose to drive down from Langenaltheim to Munich on a Sunday. If you only have day in Munich, please don’t make it a Sunday. Munich takes its Sundays very seriously. Massively seriously. Not a store was open in all of this crowded city, that was in the throes of Oktoberfest.
While we were still planning the trip, we’d actually planned to make Munich our base but obviously we took our time in booking. There weren’t any Airbnbs available and we had to choose adventure over convenience. Langenaltheim is about 140 km away from Munich and pretty much everywhere else!! But that’s a story for later. As for Munich, it welcomed us with a whole lot of Bavarian flags and statues of monks and lions. I’m guessing this has to do with the city’s origins, when a few monks established a Benedictine Monastery in 750 CE - München means Home of the Monks or by the monks. The city grew modestly until Henry the Lion, the duke of Bavaria allowed the monks to establish a market by the Isar river. This laid the foundation of the city that eventually grew to become Germany’s third largest city.
The whole city had a one-direction tide of dirndl-clad women and lederhosen-clad men in high spirits, pushing purposefully towards, what I suppose, was the biergarten. I had mixed feelings about going to Oktoberfest - I’m not much of a beer drinker and I did not want to spend a whole lot of the little time I had in Munich to go stand in queues and crowds. But first, Marienplatz, as the famous Munich Square called - all decisions for the day could be taken from there.
On the way we saw this curious statue of a young girl with a rather shiny boob. Boob. Singular. And some young fellow was getting his picture taken next to her and he was awkwardly CUPPING HER BOOB!! Willkommen zum oktoberfest people!!! Things get weird here, or what! Obviously I wanted to take a picture as well. Obviously Sahit vetoed it. I intended on dragging him to a palace later that day - so I decided it was best that I kept him in good humour. Later I found out that this was the statue of Juliet and rubbing her right boob, you’ll find true love. Now, that’s a great “And kids, that’s how I met your mother” story!!
1.Marienplatz. Or Saint Mary’s Plaza, Munich’s central square is where you should begin your acquaintance with Munich. It’s crowded, it’s pretty and it’s a pedestrian zone, so you can take all the pictures you want and do all the gawking at the elaborate architecture without getting run over. The square is named after the Marian column that was erected to mark the end of the Swedish occupation in 1638. On four corners of the squares are four dangerous creatures being annihilated by putti - or cherubic guardians - symbolising the victory of city over its adversaries. The dragon on Wurmeck (serpent’s corner) represents the terrible 1634 bubonic plague that wiped out one-third of the city’s population. But the highlight of the square is when the Rathaus-Glockenspiel comes alive. Between 11 am to 12 pm, (and 5 pm as well, in the summers), it comes alive with the best clockwork puppetry with 43 bells and 32 life sized figures. The show lasts for around 15 minutes and celebrates the wedding of the 16th century duke who built the very first brewery in Munich - and we walked into Marienplatz just as the show was about to start. Not too shabby for an Oktoberfest coincidence, huh?
2. Frauenkirche. Or otherwise known as Cathedral of Our Dear Lady. Our Dear Lady - what did I tell you about Germans? Never have I heard a sweeter way of addressing Mother Mary, even in that long-drawn, pompous litany that is dedicated to her. The church towers over Munich from right behind the Marienplatz and entry is free. The massive twin towers with their teal onion domes can be seen from most of the city. This is one thing I love about old European cities - this height restriction on buildings - you’re never accosted by johnny-come-lately glass towers that blot the skyline with their brazen corporateness. There’s an austerity to this late Gothic cathedral - no showy facade populated by saints, no intimidating pointy-Santa-Claus-hat gothic spires, no creepy yet awe-inspiring medieval vibes, no comforting extravagances and flourishes that flirt with the pagan like all things Catholic do.
Just a hardened, almost pentecostal severity. No wide embrace like all churches dedicated to Mother Mary offer; I found the place too stoic and I didn’t spend much time there. But for a fee, you can climb up the towers and get a Mama's Watching Over You view of the city. Also check out the Devil’s Step - a footprint at the entrance of the church believed to be the Devil’s, who apparently was so infuriated with the church that he stomped on the ground leaving behind his footprint and then appointed the wind to stay behind and howl his stormy rage until kingdom come. Most of the church has been reconstructed after sustaining severe damages from WWII bombings and even though it’s one of Munich’s oldest churches, it has a very recent air about it.
3. Hofbraeuhaus. A little away from the church is the first-ever brewery in Munich, built by Duke Wilhelm V - the same one whose wedding has been celebrated by the Glockenspiel for more than a hundred years. The brewery dates back to 1589, when the duke found Munich’s beer so awful, that he had better stuff imported before deciding it was high time to take matters into his own hands. It has since, become one of the biggest Bavarian beer brands in the world and may have even saved the city from complete destruction. The Maibock wheat brew, which was later developed by Maximilian I (son of Duke Wilhelm V) who shared his father’s fussy palate and little else. His outright rejection of the Braunbier - the brew his father had developed for the city - gave cause to the Maibock brew.
This peculiar act of aristocratic rebellion turned out to be the city’s saving grace - 600,000 barrels of Hofbräuhaus beer and some hostages was the price for which the city was bought back from King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. He claimed this as the spoils for his victory in Thirty Years' War in 1632 and in return promised not to burn the city down. This cheerful, welcoming place has a shadowy recent past as most places in Germany are wont to have. The upstairs hall hosted Hitler’s first meeting with the Nationalist Socialists and when he delivered his twenty-five point program. This place has hosted many too many Nazi events, and today has its past to reckon with and be accountable for. To its credit and from what I have seen of most of Germany, there’s always a sense accountability, of doing what it can to atone for the wrongs in the past and being better people today.
History has a way of making rubble of ideals, social structures, empires and other man-made constructs and today Hofbrauhaus is as touristy as it gets. Hitler must be going through a mincer in his grave at how his joint now welcomes a variety of skin colours. Most of this popular brewery was damaged by the bombings, all except for the old beer hall, where different accents happily butcher the word prost. Funny, that the one place that hosts the most nationalities and race today, is the one that escaped damage.
4. St Peter’s Church. One of Munich’s oldest parishes stands on top of a hill called Petersbergl and is often referred to as Alter Pete or Old Pete. Old Pete is where you should go to get the best views of Munich provided you can climb the 299 steps up to the observation deck.
5. Heilig-geistkirche. Just across the road from St. Peter’s is this church dedicated to the Holy Ghost, that for some reason doesn’t quite feature on most Must-do lists. It was pure happenstance and curiosity that made us walk into those doors and I must tell you, you’ll have all the time in the world to stare at its rich, pastel rococo ceiling frescoes. Why? Very few tourists , that’s why! These quiet, beautiful halls had us sitting in contemplation that was quite close to prayer for quite some time. The renowned Asam Brothers are responsible for the stucco ornamented interiors, while the church’s facade is done in a neo-Baroque style. To me, it all looked like cake and icing - so obviously, I still think about it, and a wave of delight zigzags through me in the pattern of those vaulted ceilings.
6. Viktualienmarkt (food market) I’m tracing Munich in this travelogue just like how would be if you were walking through its streets. And right behind the Heilig-geistkirche, is the centuries old market that has fed Munich with good produce through the ages. Obviously it was closed on a Sunday, and that tiny detail came in the way of me picking up all my favourite souvenirs - the edible kind. I really like eating my way through a city - pausing for a pastry, picking up an ice cream or a panini or wurst, downing, in this case, some schnapps. This is how we keep our costs down - eat on the go. Sit down meals are usually saved for dinners as they cost a bomb. Speaking of bomb, even though Sunday bombed all my souvenir shopping plans, a maypole stood in the middle of all the shut tents, making me feel like I was back in the middle ages - so that was fun.
4. Munich Stadtmuseum. A little away from the Viktualienmarkt is the quickest way to get to know Munich, if history is your thing. The city museum takes you through the fascinating and disturbingly often, evil history of this welcoming city right from its monastic backwater-town origins, to the post war, phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes.
5. Asamkirche. This tiny church is a kaleidoscope of art. The tiny space is covered in frescos and slathered in Baroque grandeur and rococo indulgence. The church gets its name from the Asam brothers, patrons of the arts and one of whom was a prominent architect in 18th century Munich. The place was meant to to be a private chapel and eventually their sepulchre - but the higher church demanded that the church be open to the public and so it is.
6. Munich Residenz. When one has just a few hours in Munich, museums and palaces are a bit ambitious. But since there was no way I could make it to the Nymphenburg Palace, I decided to make do with paying homage to Lugwig II at the Munich Residenz, which is a short walk away from Marienplatz. There’s a severity to its facade that initially startled me - this was hardly palace-like, this brick version of achtung! What looked and felt like a fortress quickly changed at as soon as I walked into the Antiquarian hall - a long banquet hall covered in frescoes and excesses that one might associate with palaces.
The Antiqaurian Hall is to the Residenz’s as the Hall of Mirrors is to Versailles - the motif room that ‘s most recognisable since it graces most of the travel blogs. I’m really not sure how much time Ludwig II spent at the Residenz, but I’m really glad I chose to go there. Sahit sometimes had his “Not another Palace” face, but hey, grand shiny things have a way of distracting a disgruntled boy. The best thing was that because everybody was busy out there in biergartens, we had the Residenz almost to ourselves. A palace to ourselves, now that’s a nice thought isn’t it? The WWII bombings and air raids had turned most of the Residenz to rubble, and everything was carefully put back together. You can see a fair amount of the Residenz in a couple of hours and get your money’s worth.
7. National Theatre Munich. Right next to the Residenz in stark contrast to the rest of the leather-breech and alpine-peasant deep neck-lined dirndls and the exhausted tourists cluttered around the Residenz was a crowd of really formally-dressed folk flocking in front of a really dignified-looking building. It would have screamed “Not a biergarten” if it weren’t so coarsened common to scream. So it simply stands aloof with its chin in the air. The National Theatre was hosting some really august gathering that day for sure, going by the fancy cars and the diamond twinkle of camera flashes that went off quite often. The theatre was commissioned by King Maximillian I who gives you a very red-carpet worthy wave from a tall chair in front of the theatre.
8. Bavarian National Museum. If I didn’t have to meet the rest of the gang at the Oktoberfest grounds, I’d probably have walked further down to the Bavarian National Museum. As one of the most important museums in Europe in decorative and folk arts, its collection covers right from late Antiquity to Late 20th century. This is how I like to acquaint myself with history, begin caring about architects and musicians and queens and kings and events I’d never heard of until then. Come home, read more about them and beat myself up for not reading about them BEFORE leaving for the trip, so it could have felt like a second date instead of an introduction at a noisy party. But that’s the kind of person I am, so this way it is.
9. BMW Welt (free) Heaven for car lovers. Entrance is free.
10. Nymphenburg Palace. Really I want to head back to Bavaria and spend a lot more time getting acquainted with its Palaces. In a non-Oktoberfest time. I haven’t been to Nymphenburg so I won’t pretend that I know anything about this gorgeous place with a siren name. It has this air of being charmed, which in probability it might be - it was spared a lot of damage from the bombings when the rest of Munich was in shambles. The Moon King or the Swan King or The Mad King Ludwig II was born here. He might have been a little too poetic in disposition for ruling a country but he certainly left behind a beautiful legacy with the whimsical castles he built. Neuschwanstein Castle (an hour and half away from Munich) is the very definition of a castle in the air and was the inspiration behind the Disney castle.
11. Oktoberfest. As much as I was reluctant about going to the fest, I’m thankful I did. For one, it was a beautiful evening and really, we had to raise a glass or stein or many of them, to this beautiful country that had hosted us with love and given us some great memories. Sahit and I walked down the golden-wheat-brew-sun dappled road to Theresienwiese, the official grounds of the Munich Oktoberfest. Theresienwiese is named after Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, wife of Crown Prince Ludwig I. Their wedding was held at Theresienwiese in 1810 and the country, and now the world, has been saying “Prost” to that union ever since. What was an anniversary celebration has become Oktoberfest as we know it. A mad revelry of people having the time of their lives, mixing beer with salty savouries, wurst and truckloads of bad decisions. I’m terrified of heights and so usually fairground games are a big, fat, definite “No thanks”. But a couple of schnapps down and I was ready to lose my rollercoaster virginity - cheers to Dutch courage in Germany from a drink derived etymologically from words that translated to a gulp, a mouthful. Literally swallow your fear!!
Oktoberfest is crowded and it’s best to arrive early. You don’t get served unless you have a table - but if you’re willing to wait a bit, it’s perfectly alright to stroll in just as you please - just like we did. For a few extra euros, you can take the glass back with you as a memento of the time you got plastered in a picturesque place, draped in a picturesque sunset with a picturesque Kirche St. Paul, providing a softly glowing silhouette backdrop to the cherry lollypop, hot swirls of fairground lights.