Friday 27 March 2020

Travel stories: Munich Oktoberfest

I was in the middle of a maelstrom, senses reeling, voices and screams around me batting through the air, the logic of noise making its point with the hammer of inevitability. A variety of coloured lights batted and bartered through the air, psychedelic in their movement but sly in meaning. The irony of a brass band playing The Sound of Silence at the sort of tempo punks used to pogo to was not lost on me, as all around drinkers, men and women, old and young, sensible and insensible, climbed onto tables to clink their bullet proof glasses and join in the singing, before breaking into raucous renditions of Ein Prosit, which struck me as perhaps an authentic version of stadium rock. 

On that night at Oktoberfest, in 2014, having just trained in from three (or was it four?) rather tranquil days of drinking beer and visiting small breweries in northern Bohemia, I felt overwhelmed in the midst of what seemed like a mini-world of well-tailored chaos. Drunken men, their lederhosen stained by the flights of a thousand draughts of beer, strode around, with the bow-legged hilarity of sailors on a sloping, heaving deck during a summer storm, while the waitresses, arm muscles bulging above their standard issue dirndls, carried pots of beer to the well-oiled crowd, which that night as the more time I spent in their company seemed to merge into one strange mass.

I stayed in Munich for three days and went back to the festival twice. I was on assignment for a glossy travel magazine and my plan was to get to the heart of the festival, for after all this was one of Europe’s celebrations of beer, drunkenness and the Bavarian identity. On that Sunday night, this heart seemed like an over-excited organ, overly strained and pulled this way and that by its elaborate anarchism, a wildness that even I, who has always travelled for beer (and will continue to do once this horrid little virus is put back in its box), thought was perhaps too much for me. And yet… I returned twice on the following two days, during the daylight hours, when the calm had settled on the festival like the hand of a parent on a fevered child’s brow. The fairground rides, high and haughty in their nighttime extravagance seemed normal, the screams that had made me think of the sounds of the damned in an ancient 1930s movie called Dante’s Inferno were now just all the fun of the fair. Families strolled, a small boy with a mohican and wearing lederhosen tried to look ferocious but failed when he smiled, while an American challenged an Italian to an arm wrestle, laughs and high fives all round. In the hall I was in, the music put on a speed accompanied by clapping and I felt a sense of communality pass through the crowd like a Mexican wave. It felt like the we’re-all-in-it-together of disco and then a woman passing by selling hats including one made of felt broke the spell.

The beer? I drank deep in Munich over that period, though more in the town’s taverns than in the festival, where my notebook was a constant presence. My favourite in the festival was Augustiner’s Oktoberfest with its light and appetising bitterness, though it was run close by Hofbräu’s with its caramel sweetness and hint of lemon. Outside in the town, I was a constant presence in the Ayinger tap, somewhere to I went back to in 2018 and devoured a dunkel that nearly wrote a hymn to its presence, a mighty fortress is our god perhaps. 

I doubt if I will return to Oktoberfest again, but to Munich I always want to go back (and then onto Bamburg and the upper reaches of Franconia), for after all travel broadens and stretches and tunes up the mind, which at this moment in time is rather restricted for all of us. But that will change.  

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