|Check out the heels - and the dainty beer mug. On their way to Oktoberfest.|
It begins in September
That's the first thing to note about this, the world's biggest party. A little like May Week, which takes place in Cambridge in June, there at first doesn't seem too much logic to this. The celebrations date back over 200 years to when Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married his bride Therese in Munich on 12 October 1810.
Ludwig later became King and abdicated after a toe-sucking scandal with an exotic dancer called Lola Montez (real name Eliza Gilbert from County Sligo in Ireland). This caused a revolution - but that's another story. Ludwig I is not to be confused with his slightly odd, castle-building grandson Ludwig II. He definitely wasn't into sucking women's toes and I like to call him a "Queen amongst Kings"- click on the link if you want to learn about him in another of my posts.
Anyway, back to Ludwig I's wedding. This is Bavaria and they like a good party. 25% of the world's entire beer production comes from this one southern German state - there are 1600 breweries here. The average Bavarian drinks 46.5 gallons of beer a year, so they make a good dent in the beer production before they even get round to exporting it. Beer is actually known as "liquid bread" and is classed as a food-stuff. It's strictly brewed according to the purity law of 1516. This says that only water, barley and hops are allowed as ingredients.
Although sometimes much stronger than American, Australian or British stuff, it tends to give you less of a hangover. Apparently. Can't stand the stuff personally ;-)
|Bier macht stark (beer makes you strong)|
It can get cold in Bavaria at this time of year, however, and the story goes that one year it snowed, ruining the fun. You just try standing round in Lederhosen with snow blowing up your boxers. No one likes a cold sausage.
Therefore they moved the beginning of the party back to September - it generally lasts 16 days and always ends on the first Sunday of October (subject to some funny rules about the Sunday falling on German Unification Day on 3 October. Most people are too shit-faced to understand them, so don't worry too much about this aspect).
What is it? It's a HUGE party
As I mentioned it's the world's biggest party. A huge part of town is set aside for the festivities, though in reality the whole city of 1.4 million is transformed into a massive beer drinking zone. You need to book early: hotels book up 6 months in advance and they often double their prices. People come from all over the world to join in. Around 6 million people come to the Oktoberfest and they drink around 7 million litres of beer. There are soft drinks on sale too, but pretty much no other alcoholic drinks. It's ALL about beer.
It's not just about getting drunk though: there are lots of fairground rides and lots of food eating. Being dangled upside down on a roller coaster when you've got half an ox and several litres of strong Bavarian beer inside you is just what the doctor (didn't) order, I guess.
|Levitating Lederhosen and Flying Bavarian Balconies|
The beer is expensive, by usual German standards, at around €8.50 a glass. It's served in 1 litre glasses, and it's strong at 5.8-6.3%. That's £7.10 for a two-pint glass, so £3.55 a pint. You will literally see waiters and waitresses carrying 6 or 8 of these things in their arms in one go. Beer clearly makes you strong!
It's not actually called Oktoberfest
Well it is and it isn't. That's the official name. All the locals actually call it "die Wiesn" which means "the meadows" in Bavarian dialect. Wiesn is derived from the name of the place where all the big beer tents are set up: the Theresienwiese. It's a 42 hectare (104 acre) site with 14 massive tents that hold literally thousands of people each.
The party is worth an estimated €1.1 billion to the local economy. Here's a clever little thing: only breweries that produce beer within the city limits of Munich are allowed to take part. That means 7 of them in total, who would ordinarily have shifted production to cheaper sites outside the city. They don't, however, because of the value of beer sales and the prestige of taking part in Oktoberfest- thereby keeping employment in town. The huge copper vats of the breweries can be seen all round the city as a result.
|Inside the Löwenbräu Tent at Oktoberfest|
There are, of course, copies of Oktoberfest around the world, particularly in the US. German immigrants brought the tradition with them. Here in the UK I heard of one in Southsea in Hampshire, which included both the serving of wine AND ferret racing... *shudder*. You just can't trust the English with serious stuff like this.
The atmosphere is just brilliant. I've been once and I can't describe what a great time I had. It isn't some testosterone laden lads' drinking fest. The latest figures show women made up 49% of visitors. 6% of visitors were families with children under 14 years old. People tend to get very merry, but not obnoxiously drunk. The whole city seems to stop for the party and people will greet you with smiles and laughter on the street. It's not at all unusual to bump into a group of sozzled grannies. It is simply wunderbar.
|A party for everyone in modern day multi-cultural Germany|
Inside the tents you have thousands of people drinking, chatting, eating and listening to the cheesy oompah bands, who will often play contemporary pop songs too. Everyone is out to have a good time and the usual barriers about not talking to strangers don't apply. It's unique and it's lovely.
Last orders in the tents are at 10.30pm so it's not a late night thing. Sure, other places are open later, but given the tents start serving beer at 9am (or earlier) there's more than enough time to get merry.
Lederhosen and Dirndl
Thousands of people wear Lederhosen or Dirndl to the Oktoberfest. These are the traditional peasants' clothes that belong to Southern Germany and particularly Austria (not originally Switzerland). They had died out for a while after the War, but a little recognised fact is that the gay community of Munich is largely responsible for bringing them back to popularity from the early 90s onwards.
|My pal @FionaLaird looking stunning in her Dirndl|
The photo at the beginning of this post shows how Dirndl can be made contemporary by wearing killer heels, instead of the flat shoes that formed part of the original peasant dress. Or Fiona shows here how good they can look with a pair of slinky boots.
|Bavarian Balcony, complete with floral decoration|
Together the Lederhosen and Dirndl outfits are called "Tracht" in German. Dirndl pull in the waist, push up the boobs to create the cleavage of the famous "Bavarian Balcony" (often decorated with flowers, I jest not!), hide the backside, and just look great. As for Lederhosen, I'll come on to their attraction, and powers of attraction, in a moment...
Tracht tends to be worn on special occasions, but you'll see real life people, particularly younger ones, out in them at any time of year on the streets of Munich, Salzburg or in any number of smaller places. Lederhosen in particular are often worn for a hike in the mountains. As Benjamin below noted on a recent trip to Austria, they actually are a thing.
Despite being (properly) half-Prussian myself, I'm extremely happy to say that I own my own pair of Lederhosen and love wearing them when I'm in Southern Germany or Austria. I've even worn them in London in fact, a couple of times.
I'm also proud to say that a highlight of my sad, tragic life to date was when a group of Abercrombie & Fitch models with abs you could grate cheese on chased me down a street in Munich last October and asked me for a photo. Yup, you've got that right - they usually get asked all day long for photos of them - they asked me instead and dragged me back to the store especially for it.
|No.. I didn't photoshop myself onto this, as much as it might look like it|
Since the 1970s there's been a special part of the celebrations organised by the Munich LGBT community. It's called Rosa Wiesn - or pink meadows. It's a series of events, including the biggest, "Gay Sunday" in the Bräurosl tent. I went to one of the events and I've never experienced anything quite like it.
Half of the tent was straight - nice, bourgeois visitors eating Weisswurst for breakfast with a beer. The other half was utterly trashed by 10.30am. Gay boys were up on the tables dancing, shirts opened to the waist, in their little Lederhosen, socks rolled down their calves, with their cute checked neckerchiefs on. Is there a more flattering look for a fit guy than Lederhosen? No. Actually I hated it. Hated it, I tell you *cough*.
There were also lesbians with plaited hair in Dirndl (and some of course in Lederhosen!) The atmosphere was so incredibly friendly and electric. Everywhere people were joining in the singing and I've never been to a gay event so free of attitude. The fact that there were straight people tucking into breakfast on the other side of the tent (you could draw a line down the tent), who were utterly non-plussed by the drunken boys and girls next door, made it all the more fabulous.
|Boys in Lederhosen on the Munich subway. Nightmare.|
There we have it. I've used a combination of my own photos and ones from a recent article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung for this post, so I'd better just credit them for copyright purposes. If you ever get the chance to visit Oktoberfest, I can't recommend it more highly. Book early, wear Tracht, and Prost!