This past weekend I enjoyed the full Oktoberfest experience in Munich, Germany! Munich (or München) was the birthplace of Oktoberfest, which began in 1810 with the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese on October 12th. Obviously, things have evolved a bit since then, and today Oktoberfest is a 16-to-18-day affair attended by more than six million people from around the world – this year including me! 😀
Waking up at 3 am last Friday to try to catch a train Munich where I might actually get to sit down, I started my journey to Oktoberfest. About halfway through the journey, I heard some distinctly American-sounding voices speaking English in front of me. Intrigued by this rather rare occurrence, I turned to them, “I have to ask – where are you guys from?” As it turns out, this group of four guys was from Wisconsin! The world really is a small place. We introduced ourselves, chatted a bit (most of them were from the University of Eau Claire on a study abroad program), and then parted ways, wishing each other enjoyable Oktoberfest experiences.
The closer I got to Munich, the more I began to see lederhosen and dirndels around me, and by the time I was in Munich they were decidedly prolific! It would have been awfully fun to wear onto Oktoberfest, but they are far too expensive to purchase just to wear for a day. Rather ironically, my family actually has a dirndel! My mom got one on a music tour she took back in high school, and it fits me quite well. Sadly, coming here in one suitcase, the dirndel most definitely did not make the cut. But perhaps someday I’ll return and get to experience Oktoberfest anew, complete with the dirndel!
Once arrived, I explored Munich a bit on my own. I visited several beautiful churches – the Frauenkirche, or Münchner Dom, was particularly stunning. It’s a Gothic church, and is designed much more plainly than many other churches I’ve seen, but the effect of this simplicity is to make it feel even more impressively immense than it is. The huge, domed hall, lined overhead by hanging lamps, truly inspires awe.
After visiting some of the main squares, including Marienplatz with the beautiful Neues Rathaus, or town hall, I visited the Victuals Market. No ordinary farmer’s market, this lively place offers everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese dips (with samples), olives (more samples!), meats, cheeses, honey, special mushroom products, fresh-squeezed juices, restaurants, and more. I stopped to rest and enjoy some delicious Kaiserschmarrn, a typical Austrian/Bavarian dessert consisting of an egg-y pancake, scrambled and lightly caramelized, served with applesauce or various fruits – mine was served with applesauce and berries – and topped with powdered sugar. Delicious!
With a full stomach, I headed off to meet up with Claire, a fellow Fulbright student studying in Munich, and together we headed to Oktoberfest! As it was a Friday, things were busy. We didn’t purchase tickets or reserve a table in advance, so we were looking for tents that were open and letting everyone in – it doesn’t actually cost money to go into the tents, if you’re willing to take your chances. After a few tries, we found a tent that let us in.
Wow, what a place! There was music playing from a band on a high platform, packed tables in every direction, waitresses rushing about carrying incredible numbers of beer mugs, people in dürndels and lederhosen dancing and singing on benches, pretzel sellers moving about, food plates floating by, and more! Of course, having found a tent that let us in, we still needed to find an open, unreserved place to sit. This proved challenging. After wandering around for what felt like ages, a group of men, apparently colleagues there for a work event, offered my friend and I some empty spots at their reserved table. And how nice they were! Giving us food recommendations, offering to flag down the busy waitress for us, laughing when colleagues returned and saw that their seats were gone (given away to us – whoops!), and chatting with us, we had fun together. Claire and I shared a GIANT pretzel (whatever you’re picturing, I promise you it was bigger), and settled down to wait until two other Fulbright friends joined us. In the meantime things got yet rowdier – people standing on benches, belting out songs (many American ones!). When the guys at our table stood up on their benches to join the fun, they encouraged us to stand, sing, and dance right along with them – and so we did!
A bit later, we heard back from our Fulbright friend that they were no longer letting people without tickets into our tent – apparently we’d gotten lucky with our timing! Satisfied to have gotten a taste of the authentic tent/beer hall Oktoberfest experience, we headed back out to join our friends. It might have been fun to order a meal or a beer in the tent, but everything there is also exorbitantly expensive, so it’s perhaps just as well that we didn’t. Instead, now with our little group of four, we shared a crepe, Weisswurzel, and currywurst, and wandered around the Oktoberfest grounds. I don’t think I had any particular expectations for Oktoberfest, but I will say that it was more like a fair than I had expected. It isn’t just beer and halls and pretzels – there are also rides, many different food stands (TONS selling various spiced/roasted nuts), souvenir stands, and more. It truly feels rather like a state fair, or something of that sort! Two of our group tried a ride, we all shared some delicious chocolate covered fruit, I almost bought some spiced nuts about twelve times but refrained, Claire and I bought little Oktoberfest gingerbread heart souvenirs, and we even ran into a fellow Fulbright friend from Stuttgart – just visiting for the evening! All in all, it was a wonderful Oktoberfest adventure! Snagging some free Leitungswasser (tap water – you have to know how to ask for it to find it!) from a Starbucks, Claire and I said goodbye to our friends and headed back to her apartment
The following day – in a stark change of mood – Claire, Alia, and I visited the Dachau concentration camp. This was, as one might imagine, a difficult place to visit, but I’m glad we went. Dachau has been on my list to visit for a while; it’s a bit unique among concentration camps, in that it never played a major role in the extermination of Jews, and also in the fact that it was the first camp set up, and the only one to remain open and running for the entirety of the Third Reich’s operation.
I won’t say too much about the visit, as I think it’s the sort of place each person needs to see and reflect on for him or herself. But for a few brief reflections: the place was massive, larger than I had expected (though I suppose it makes sense). I had read that it was difficult to get a sense of the camp with it being empty, because it was so overpacked with people for most of the time it was running, and I think this is true. To me, it felt incredibly massive and empty, and I’m sure filled with people it would have felt much more cramped and confining. To walk into this complex, and realize that you are standing where thousands stood, thousands starved and died – to stand on the site of this terrible history – was a moving, and frankly almost creepy experience. We went on a tour, which was good – to try to see and guide yourself through the massive complex alone would feel overwhelming, I think. The guide was good, and clearly very knowledgeable about the camp, and German history, in general. His dad was also a tour guide, as well as being former military/border person between east and west Germany, so I think he probably grew up surrounded by conversations about the historical and political changes taking place in Germany. I’m glad I went to the camp with people, and yet it was also something you sort of had to reflect about and appreciate on your own – we didn’t chat much on the tour. I don’t think there’s any way to understand what happened there, but I think there is value in visiting, witnessing, and gaining some sense of what it might have been like to be there. And I admire Germany for setting up the memorial, for trying to recognize the tragedy that took place and educate its citizens, so that it never happens again.
We were all fairly quiet on the walk back, and shortly thereafter, I got on a train back to Bonn. Perks of traveling light (just a backpack) – I brought it with us to the camp, wore it all day, and then was able to go straight to the Hauptbahnhof to head home! I do love efficiency, though I will say my back was slightly less of a fan – we’ll call it training for future backpacking travels! A bit of a whirlwind trip, including some very contrasting elements, but a good one. And I even made it back home to Bonn in time to partake in farewell festivities for my departing housemate, Sonja!