Over the past 7 years¹, Oktoberfest has been an event I faithfully observe. Either in the Seattle district of Fremont, the Bavarian-themed town of Leavenworth in the Cascades or a random bar promotion. They are all microcosmic tributes to the original world-famous Oktoberfest held in Munich, Germany. But my observance didn’t really take on ‘faith’ proportions until I started attending Leavenworth’s Oktoberfest, which over 4 years evolved from an evenings’ entertainment into a 3-day retreat, complete with scheduled time off work.
Mid-”Leavenworth” in 2003 (it’s now just “Leavenworth”, due the pale comparison it offers and the tyrannical door-pricing/beer-pouring schemes of late), the proposal was put before the faithful to—effectively—”put our money where our mouths are”. We would pilgrimage to the real event in Germany. Armed with a limited concept of what that meant, a core group of beer-drinkers planned and bought tickets. Some serendipitous factors came into planning, namely the relocation of two dear friends to London; two other dear friends dividing their honeymoon into two trips—one amongst a group of friends, even; and the selection of our token minor, which everyone knows is a prerequisite to any beer-drinking overseas adventure, taking along a minor. So, long planning story short, in various waves we shoved off for Europe.
[Photo provided under creative commons by Ewan-M on flickr] I can’t account for the adventures of my traveling group before I joined them. They spent 8 days in England while I suffered through the usual Q3 onslaught of work. But most of their adventures seemed to revolve around a pub called “The Ship“, just behind the Underground Station of Holburn.
I joined the group at—you guessed it—”The Ship” and promptly met my buddy Jeff’s co-workers, some of whom would figure into Oktoberfest itself. After pints of bitter (glorious bitter!), we moseyed to a club in Covent Garden, led by the late-night enthusiasms of a German duo named Till and Ena. But weighing over the evening was an 8 a.m. flight out of Gatwick—an hour from London by taxi—plus your average two-hour airport padding, more padding for waking and packing, etc. So here’s a chronology, after we made lame excuses and left the club around midnight:
Around 3 p.m. we arrived at the much touted Hostel Chalet Martin of Gryon, Switzerland. I mildly freaked out when a hobbit opened the door.
[Photograph by walknboston on Flickr] Chalet Martin rules. As far as hostels go, it’s more like a co-op ski lodge than your average eastern-bloc dormitory hostel. Gorgeous Swiss woodwork, impossible mountain vistas even with fog, cozy rooms, friendly people sitting about kitchens, music, puzzles, warm comforters and an instant invite to participate in the next night’s BBQ. But within a few hours of arriving, we headed back down the mountain to Les Baines de Lavey, a thermal spa resort with a hostel-guest discount: Three hours of all-the-spa-you-can-, well, -absorb for 25 Swiss francs and a few “frankencents” (or “beans²“; we couldn’t decide which was more amusing). Recall we got up at 5 a.m. the same day, then consider peppermint-infused steam rooms, massaging pressure showers and jets, a current pool, what can only be described as “bubble mats”, a light misty rain, saunas at volcanic temperatures, 5-degree kick-a-hole-in-the-ice nordic plunge baths…. You know, just like your bathroom at home.
After two days solid traveling with barely a nap in the UK, it was bliss. Half-comatose, warm bliss. After the spa, we returned to the hostel via death-wish mountain driving and applied wine therapy internally with fellow hostellers until some absurd hour, when I realized I was hallucinating from sleep-deprivation.
When we first checked in, Gaz the hostel admin (our own private Frodo!) expressed skepticism that we planned to only stay a day. Most guests stay for weeks at a time, which seemed to be true of 90% the current hostellers. But following the trend, the place was so phenomenal we duly wrote off Sunday. Sunday we tried to find a grocery store, but only found a smattering of pasta ingredients from Bex and a thoroughly harassed kebab-making family. Which would be the first of an entire kebab-related theme. By evening we were back up in the mountains with excellent steaks (thanks, boys!), more wine, music, a puzzle, books, a banana-bread bake-off and an opportunity to harass high-school PIRGies. All the hallmarks of a good Sunday.
I wish we’d had time to go uphill to Glacier 3000 and the Diablerets in the clouds (the most badass name for a glacier; add reverb and laser effects in your head). But Monday morning as we left—sad-hearted—the sun broke through and we found ourselves surrounded by freshly snow-kissed Alps, panoramas bigger when you look up-and-down than side-to-side. So, the long and the short of it: Gryon rules and I highly suggest you go there. Now. They have Internet access, you can finish reading this there.
Monday we loosely planned to venture into the Jungfrau region of the Alps in central Switzerland above Interlaken, via the Golden Pass between Montreax and Gstaad. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time; we arrived just before dusk with overcast skies. So we stayed in Interlaken at the “world famous” Balmer’s hostel. I wasn’t all that impressed, but it did offer 2-for-1 VB beers. Good stuff, nice flavor. After beer, travel, a nice meal and many jokes about a stinky fellow roomer, I fell asleep laughing for reasons I don’t really recall clearly now. Probably beer-related. Good times.
Tuesday night we had reservations at a hostel in Munich. So most of Tuesday was traveling by train from Interlaken through Bern, the lakes, Zurich, southern Germany and into Munich. In Munich (München in German, Minga in Bavarian), the hostel we booked worked out well:
And for your hangover-magnifying hoppy stank in the mornings, the hostel sat across the street from the Augustiner brewery. Overall, a choice set-up. We unpacked, hydrated and headed for Teresienplatz, the fairgrounds where Oktoberfest throws down every year.
As a kid, I visited the Hofbrauhaus in München and feel a natural comfort in beer halls (probably genetic). Childhood, Leavenworth, the Hofbrau-recreation in Vegas or other other imitation beer halls all covered the basic rituals of any Oktoberfest. All are various degrees of a “great time”. But now I know the scale is ALL wrong. Oktoberfest in München is Mecca; at a basic level, seven giant tents with a full amusement park around them, on the scale of your average state fairgrounds. Though you should note, by “giant tents” I mean airplane-hanger sized buildings with no canvas in sight, complete with kitchens, balconies and decorations as elaborate as holiday department store trappings in a big city. Oh, and seating for 10,000 people per tent. But if 70% of those people are standing on the endless rows of benches and tables, I expect you could easily double or treble that number per tent. Which they do.
By the official stats, on weekends 700,000 people visit Oktoberfest, or Wies’n as the locals call it. Completing the atmosphere, mentally add raised bandstands with 20-piece oompah bands playing pop medleys or traditional tunes and so much heat from the collected humanity that a tank top is comfy. But in fact, it’s nearly impossible to describe. Within 10 minutes of arriving, we sat at an outdoor biergarten table with Maß’es (the 1 Liter tankards) of festival bier for everyone and the first of many renditions of the two 2004 Wies’n songs: “Hey, Baby” and “Country Road”. I’m not joking. An Australian family later told me “Hey, Baby” won a Wies’n theme song contest. And some cold-hearted (or dark-humored) bastard told Germans that “Country Road” is fun to sing in inebriated groups. Which—let’s be honest—it is. So imagine 10,000-30,000 Germans, many in lederhosen, standing on tables with giant festival biers and torso-sized pretzels, gustily singing along to John Denver.
It’s hard to convey the absurdity at a proper scale.
Jeff’s company just opened a new office in München, so close to last call we joined his co-workers in their reserved box of the “hipster” tent, Schottenhamel. It was too late for more beer—Wies’n closes at 11 p.m.—so after sloppy introductions, drunken planning and magically hailing a minivan cab, most of the party wound up at a local bar, Alter Simpl (”Old Simpleton”, sort of, and birthplace of the satirical magazine Simplicissimus) on Türkenstraße. Fantastic food; go late. Wiener Schnitzel the size of your entire plate, I kid you not. Somehow Kyle, our 19-year-old, got into a beer-chugging contest drinking quality German bier against a real German. Till is probably twice his age and four times his drinking experience. But Kyle held his own after an initial ass-kicking; it was quite impressive. We have video. The second attempt resulted in an unfortunate incident I will only refer to as Blackmail Item #2043. I personally entertained myself speaking a 3-year-old’s German at the extremely patient and boisterous Ena. It was a trend I would continue—stuttering German at native speakers, assuming the conversation must be fun for them.
The group was largely hangover-free the next morning. Well, at least we all could walk. We toured the Altstadt (old city) and strategized some shopping at Europe’s H&M chain, but coincidence and mobile phone ran us into my Seattle-side roommate Rob and his native companion ³ Daniel. Rob was on his own overseas adventure—staying with Daniel—and both detoured into München to join us, along with another local friend, Babsi. I’m sure it was the company they wanted and not the beer. But our intentions being the same—beer—the whole crew touristically trooped over to the legendary Hofbrauhaus for some historic bierhall action. After a few Maß’es, delicious food and watching DJ eat an entire pork knuckle, we were prepped for even more drinking. Back to Wies’n!
Day Two at Wies’n was less auspicious, because it was raining. Every tent filled to the brim with half-drunk and half-soaked people, putting most over-capacity. We squeezed under an eave outside one tent (or, in Daniel’s case, under a flowerbox on the wall under the eave) while the group fully assembled. The rain let up, but the halls stayed full for the rest of the evening. We found one of the smaller halls and an entire table to ourselves. The tent sported awesome hops-themed decorations, a large portion of which came home in my hair and hoodie. We put in a long evening of true Oktoberfesting. We sang “Country Road” at least three times; “Hey, Baby” nearly incessantly (with or without the band depending on what drunken individual started up) and many others I can’t recall. Oddly enough, no “Birdie/Chicken Dance” which is, I suppose, only an American beerhall standard. Go figure. Also—a retrospective low point—at some point I decided to chat at Daniel, at shouting volume as we stood on benches, about various aspects of European history. Some having nothing to do with Germany at all. In a 3-year-olds’ German. Daniel, my apologies.
After Wies’n closed, our bar-hopping group rapidly dwindled, along with my recollection of events in their full detail. We found a bar serving Augustiner bier in Maß sizes. Something about the waitress not serving us food. Babsi drank a full stein of white wine which thoroughly impressed me. Overall I recall laughing a lot, often at my own German. Or Rob’s, who sounds like Babelfish translations read aloud by a Canadian child. At a random sports bar around 3 a.m., I fell asleep at the table. Had the day NOT been a beer-drinkers’ equivalent of (blasphemy alert) prayer before the temple, I would be ashamed of myself. Very bad form. Our collective benevolence somehow got me home to the hostel. I recall falling asleep feeling sad that the evening had to end at all.
Rob’s description of how he felt the next morning on his way to the airport involved violence and baseball bats. I’m sure I was not much better. But given my vaguely masochistic enthusiasm for the darker side of human nature and history, my hangover and I went to Dachau. After years of studying WWII history, I would have been plenty pissed if I missed visting a concentration camp memorial site. A nasty head-hangover seemed appropriate. Dachau was riveting and inexpressibly hard. I’ll offer twisted thanks that my visit was limited by closing hours. Everyone else rallied to finish the shopping plans, which I regretted right up until I saw how many extra bags everyone bought. Regrouping back in the city, we moved slowly for dinner. Which ended up being on the hallowed grounds of Wies’n again.
Our party-karma being 99% exhausted, I took a full Maß of beer onto my lap, courtesy of a wasted German local. Thankfully the saucy waitress liked my slaughtered German efforts and made the bastard pay for a new bier. Or, rather, his woman-companion paid and at that point resentfully stopped her half-English, half-German anti-Bush diatribe (irregardless that we fully agreed with her). I mopped myself back to tolerably damp and suffered the rest with a plate of spätzle. God bless spätzle. Two local girls gave Kyle a chance to flirt via my German, which was abstractedly amusing. We spent a good deal of time waiting through Penny’s bathroom-finding adventures. The bathroom situation at Wies’n was its own event entirely.
After closing, Kyle left to pack since he, DJ and Rena had a flight back to the States the next morning. Jeff, Penny and I tried out the bierhall at the Augustiner brewery, across from the hostel. Great find! What a fantastic place. Excellent bier and the hall had stables for their draft horses built right into the side of the hall. The creatures were coal black and had to be nearly 24 hands high. After a nice visit, we went home a bit “early”. I wrapped my beer-soaked jeans in a plastic bag. Where they still are today.
Compared to the ruckus of Wies’n, Salzburg seemed like an empty movie set. A goddamned gorgeous movie set with nicely scaled medieval, rococo and renaissance attractions placed along convenient walking routes. I wish I had a more intelligent reason to visit Salzburg besides sight-seeing, but honestly we were in detox. I go to the home of Stiegl beer to detox; as you could guess, that worked out well. We ambled around the Altstadt, situated directly below their awesome medieval castle. Jeff and I pondered what castle aspects we’d prefer to figuratively defend during pre- and post-gunpowder warfare: I’m a gate-person; Jeff seemed inclined to forward ramparts. Penny preferred a windowed room somewhere high above our hypothetical warfare, which was the most intelligent answer.
On Saturday before our flight , we walked 5k south of town to Hellbrunn Palace. My former-expat cousins told me about the place as a kid. The palace is a whimsical yellow tribute to megalomania, but Hellbrunn has a unique feature—it is full of springs. The builders created an entire water-works, including raining grottos, pools, fountains, etc. But they also used hydropower to booby-trap as much as they could. And the tour makes thorough use of the booby-traps: doorways that gleek water up your pants, elk statues that shower whole plazas from their antlers, etc. One phenomenal item used water to power a whole mechanical theater, simulating the city square during the construction of the renaissance cathedral. 200+ moving figurines and a water-organ to cover the noise, all powered by water. Then, of course, water jets into the back of the crowd watching the theater during the finale. It was a quality touristy thing to do. And then we went back to London.
My parents happen to be passing through London on Sunday en route to South Africa, so met them for lunch. And their entire tour squad, which took up so much time I missed my big London goal—visiting the Imperial War Museum again. Very sad. But I consoled myself with a dork-tour of fixtures referenced in O’Brien’s “Master and Commander” series. Jeff made chili for dinner with homemade tortillas, to ease me back into being from the Western US. At 7 a.m. the next morning I left for home. The rest of the trip can be summed up with: travel, travel, travel, laundry, bed. And frantic keep-the-straining-gates-of-hell-shut work the next morning.
All in all, a fantastic trip. The next pilgrimage (possibly the Winter Olympics in Torino in 2006?), we’re going to finish in Gryon’s mountain spa retreat. Detox there. But there’s so much to do, I could plan 10 trips and barely cover all the places I want to go. So, until next time, a big thanks to all involved who made the trip fantastic!
¹ This is a truthful number, and more amusing as I’m only 26 at time of writing, in 2004. (click to go back up the page)
² The real unit is “centimes”
³ Everyone loves a completely obscure David Foster Wallace reference. Don’t lie, you do.