When I expressed my desire to go to Oktoberfest back in June, a friend shook his head and chuckled, as if responding to a child’s silly question. “Have you booked anything yet? Because if not, you’re not going to make it. Everything has probably filled up by now.”
He had every reason to be doubtful. The 16-day festival attracts 6 million visitors from all corners of the globe to the host city of Munich, making it the world’s largest fair. While 60% of the visitors are from Munich and the surrounding areas, there are only so many hotels and hostels to accommodate the rest, most of them under 30, traveling in big groups, and ready to drop a combined total of nearly a billion euros on their beer adventure.
Sure enough, when my friends and I began to plan our Oktoberfest trip a mere two weeks before the opening day of September 19, we found everything to be full or available only for mind-boggling prices. Not ready to pay a hundred euros a night for a hostel, we decided to take advantage of Germany’s amazing transportation system and the far more affordable rates found in the neighboring city of Augsburg.
We weren’t the only ones with the idea as a few other groups of tourists joined the locals at 9am for the 45-minute train ride to Munich. My friends and I arrived to a sea of revelers dressed in traditional Bavarian costume – lederhosen for the men and the dirndl for women. Following the crowd, we soon arrived at the fairgrounds, where enormous tents each bearing the name of a different brauhaus, or brewery, stood, with carnival rides and food stands sandwiched in between.
As we pushed our way into the Hofbräu-Festzelt tent, for a second I thought I had died and gone to beer heaven. The second-largest at Oktoberfest, the Hofbräu-Festzelt tent was enormous and filled with an infectious energy. All 6,896 seats were already taken, and many more people, like us, were squished between tables, clogging up the aisles. But it didn’t matter. At noon, the first keg would be tapped, kicking off the 176th Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest began in 1810 as a celebration to commemorate the marriage of King Ludwig I and Princess Therese of Bavaria. It wasn’t until 1887 that the breweries took part in the festival, which has become the focus point of today’s celebrators. Wars have disrupted Oktoberfest 24 times in its history, and after World War II, the modern festival opening emerged. Yelling “O’zapft is!”, or “It’s tapped!”, the Mayor of Munich taps the keg at 12:00pm, then hands the first beer to the Minister-President of Bavaria.
At that moment, chaos erupts. As witnessed at the Hofbräu-Festzelt tent, spectators lunged towards the stage where the first beers were being poured, hoping to grab one of the precious mugs being handed down. We were all worshippers at the cult of beer, crushing each other to try to get closer to the precious first glasses. Dirndl-wearing waitresses started running around, carrying seven, eight, nine, or even ten one-liter mugs at a time. The lively music began, as did the dancing. And not too surprisingly, so did the ambulances, a few hours later.
Nearly 7 million beers will be consumed during Oktoberfest. Half a million chickens will be eaten during the 16 days, not to mention the countless sausages, hamburgers, and other snacks. Besides losing bits and pieces of your memory during the drinking binge, you will probably lose other things as well. In 2007, over 4000 lost items were collected, including wedding rings and crutches.
I was lucky enough not to lose any personal belongings, but how I managed is a mystery. Oktoberfest was a blur, a merry day filled with good beer, food and conversation. It is no surprise that the vast majority of attendants keep coming back. I, too, will definitely be returning to Oktoberfest. Prost!