Oktoberfest in Munich celebrates much more than just beer

Bayern Munich's midfielder Xabi Alonso (L) and wife Nagore Aramburu (R) with their two children visited the Oktoberfest beer festival on the Theresienwiese in Munich on October 5, 2014.

There’s lots of folksy fun for everyone including toddlers and pensioners at the world’s largest public festival.

Is it all just about the beer?

By chance, I happened to be in Munich, southern Germany, for this year’s Oktoberfest. Here, I discovered more to the festival than raucously downing litres of amber ale.

We left for the festival with our German hosts who were dressed in traditional garb of dirndl and lederhosen. From squealing toddlers to grizzled pensioners, many were dressed in similar livery, transforming customary peasant-wear to saccharine-sweet leisure wear at the Theresienwiese festival site.

These are the very grounds where the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig invited his citizens to celebrate his wedding to Princess Therese in 1810. What began as a royal initiative to engage people is now touted as the world’s largest public festival. Each year, Oktoberfest attracts more than six million revellers.

Beer is only served in one of the 14 beer tents (halls). You must acquire a seat before you are allowed to order the specially brewed six-percent Oktoberfest beers. And you can only get into the tents if you have a reservation - unless you are prepared to queue long before 9am when the doors swing open. Not only were we without reservations, we had no luck gaining entry into several tents, which were packed to overflowing.

Our hosts, however, refused to give up. While we were at the Ochsenbraterei tent, sampling their favourite festival food – shredded roast beef sandwich – we miraculously found ourselves inside the tent. Right in front of the kitchen service area, with a mostly sliced-off ox still turning on a spit.

While finding a seat proved a monumental task, we could not complain. The tableau unfolding in front of us was unlike anything I had witnessed. Good-natured gaiety, convivial camaraderie and rousing cries of “Prost!” On chairs, tables, balconies and floors, the crowd was dancing and singing along to 1970s and 1980s English hits belted out by the brass band. Buxom barmaids in dirndl wove their way through the throng, singlehandedly carrying up to eight 1-litre mugs of freshly poured beer.

Finally, all four of us squeezed into a bench-table with two Bavarian men, staunch supporters of Bayern Munich, whose young families had gone off to enjoy the fairground. Over frothy beers and enormous salted pretzels, we made new friends. One of the men, a farmer from north of Munich, revealed that he religiously made this pilgrimage every year. And what he loves most about the festival is meeting new people. He also chided us, jokingly calling out “Malaysia!” for not drinking more.

Language was not a barrier, as the conversation and beer flowed at our table. Next to us was a continental cross-cultural attempt at flirtation as a group of young men and women talked, laughed and made eyes at each other. One man proudly walked through the area balancing a mug on his head, pleased at the generous applause. It was so much fun.

After a couple of hours in the tent, we emerged into the fairground, as enticing as a fairyland version. Alongside highly intense and surely scary sky-high rides and roller coasters, more traditional shows like the flea race were pulling in the crowds. We watched two racing fleas, each pulling a minute copper cart, inside a stuffy tent.

A slap-stick magic show included a “beheading”. The most fun was the Toboggan, on its 80th-year run. People were practically jostling one another to get onto this high-speed uphill walk-a-lator (where many people fell flat on their backsides) to the top of a wooden tower, from which they would toboggan down the outside of the tower on a rug.

No one told me that the Oktoberfest was this enjoyable. Rides, shows, contests, candy, nuts and gingerbread hearts amidst much jocularity and flights of whimsy. The revered spirit of the festival has very much been retained for almost two centuries.

The full-on funfair attracts both the young and the aged, the near and far, the old and new. All in celebration of a nation’s pride in its history and culture, holding on unapologetically to its past while in attendance at an ever-evolving present.

Oktoberfest, most certainly, wasn’t just about the beer.

> Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.

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