With over a year of advanced planning, four different lodgings, and taxis, trains, subways, cable cars, and a rented van as transportation modalities, our trip to Germany to join in the celebration of a friend's birthday was probably the most complicated trip we've undertaken as a family. I am happy to report it was worth every penny and every hour of planning!
It all began about 16 months ago when a good friend announced that his 60th birthday would be celebrated at Oktoberfest in Munich in late September 2017. We were the first group to commit outside of his family. I'll admit to having experienced moments of second-guessing the decision between then and now and having a few premonitions of concern over the actual Oktoberfest event, but it turned out to be such a great trip that we are already trying to figure out what future event we could use as an excuse to return.
We spent 5 nights in Munich, including 2 days at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds at the Theresienwiese. This was followed by 3 nights at Hopfen am See where our hotel apartment had views of castles from every window. We closed the trip with one night at the world's largest thermal bath / spa / waterpark, Therme Erding.
I relished the opportunity to dust off my diminished but not forgotten German skills. I was transported right back to 1984 the first time a waiter said “nehmen Sie Platz!” (take a seat), the phrase that seemed to start every class in high school.
We took the train and subway from the airport to our centrally located VRBO lodgings in Munich. This apartment came with a price premium at Oktoberfest, but we value being in walking distance of sights and good food. It was quite spacious and had a huge tiled shower room and a lighting system and appliances we never quite figured out. My German skills were immediately put to the test as the charming and elegant cleaning lady Litza, who spoke no English, walked us through the place. When it came to the light switches she just seemed to say try the switch here, try it there, until you get them to work.
Light switches. These were everywhere in the apartment, unlabeled, and many were 3-way switches linked to other switches
Lighting control system
Our first night out featured perhaps our worst meal of the trip, currywurst from a nearby restaurant. Maybe it was because my constitution and appetite were all out of whack from jet lag, but the too-sweet sauce and the big dollop of mayo made me a tiny bit nauseous. But currywurst was on my checklist for the trip, so at least that was resolved. After dinner I led the family on a walk through our neighborhood, passing through the lovely Gärtnerplatz circle, the Viktualienmarkt food market (where we saw all kinds of great food we could have had rather than currywurst), the Marienplatz plaza, and finally a tour through the ever-lively Hofbräuhaus.
Kim woke early due to the jet lag and by the time I got up she warned me the coffee should be warmed up in the microwave. OK I thought and went to do so only to have to inform her "That's no microwave!" but rather it is some kind of Miele steam oven with metal trays and a water reservoir.
On Friday we rented bikes from Mike's Bikes and rode through Englischer Garten. Didn’t see any nude sunbathers, probably due to the cooling weather. We stopped to watch the surfers. When I pointed out a nearby rope swing over the river our eldest proclaimed we should go back for our swimsuits. After a pause she added "or we could just strip naked and go now, because that's a thing here, right?"
We hit the Chinese Tower Biergarten just in time for lunch. I had to explain to the girls how a Chinese Tower in Germany is not racist, and that political correctness and cultural appropriation are concepts you generally leave behind in the US. We had a lovely afternoon sitting outside enjoying a Maß of helles bier for me, a radler (half helles, half sprite, and much better tasting than that might sound!), ribs, bratwurst, sauerkraut, schnitzel, cabbage salad, and other snacks. That made for an interesting ride back as we proceeded to get a little lost, but luckily Kim got us going in the right direction and we recovered in time to hit our 3 hour rental return window. We then overextended ourselves by taking on a visit to through The Residenz, the former royal palace of the Wittelsbach family. The relics were particularly interesting, but overall we were a bit weary and cranky by the time we got through it. And all of the signage indicating “this area was destroyed during the war and later recreated” kind of took the wind out of the sails for the whole historical authenticity thing.
Betty enjoying her first radler
Saturday the plan was to meet up with our friends at the Theresienwiese, the permanent site of Oktoberfest, to try to "casually” do Oktoberfest. We weren't planning to try to squeeze into any of the big tents on a busy Saturday, just check out the rides and visit some of the small tents. We got an earlier start and our friends got a later start, so we didn't end up seeing any of them until we met for dinner that evening. We did a bunch of the rides starting with the Ferris wheel. The girls were excited to have heard there would be almost 200 rides and were not disappointed. The fun house rides were more my speed, providing inspiration for new Halloween decorations. The girls finished by riding the Höhenrausch ride with some inebriated young men who spent most of the ride flipping each other off. When it looked like the ride was all over, they all chanted ONE MORE TIME, ONE MORE TIME and unbelievably they were obliged with a second round. This ride really did a number on the girls. Afterwards we got into a table that was open for an hour in a small tent and had a light lunch of salad and chicken noodle soup, and I of course enjoyed a Maß of the Wiesn fest bier. Went back to the apartment and crashed for naptime so the girls could recover from their ride.
The crowds are building on the main drag through the tent area
Nymphenberg Sekt is the huge wine tent on site. That's right, Oktoberfest isn't just about bier
That evening we dined with the whole birthday group at the Paulaner Bräuhaus. My friend has a nephew who lives in Munich and was just recently married. He had made the arrangements. As we entered we witnessed some skilled handling of a jolly but very drunk patron who needed to be ejected into a waiting taxi. It was good to meet the folks with whom we would be spending Monday afternoon in the Lowenbrau tent. I had my best meal of the trip, a crisp roasted ham hock or as they say auf Deutsch, a schweinshaxe or pork knuckle. It was very crispy on the outside and juicy tender on the inside, and came with two different dumplings. One was some kind of stuffing dumpling and the other a springy potato dumpling, which I didn't really care for. We closed out with the first of many delicious apple strudels to be sampled on this trip. The girls ordered the creme brulee which was the worst example of this dish I've ever encountered, so bad it could not be finished. Imagine a creme brulee that is about 1/3 inch deep and 10 inches wide and dark brown in color where it should be creamy yellow.
Sunday we took a day trip to tour Dachau. It was very crowded as it was a weekend during Oktoberfest, but we did get into an English language tour. I had visited Dachau on a trip in high school so it wasn't all new to me, but some of it was. I had not recalled how many of the prisoners were Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were over 3,000 Catholic priests there. And that there is no very little photographic evidence of the atrocities there: just cleaned up propaganda photos from the Nazis and then the photos taken when it was liberated. There was also quite a bit of discussion among the tour group regarding the brothel that operated briefly at Dachau, with one visitor making the leap to draw parallels to modern scandals of sex trafficking by UN security forces.
Sunday night we ate at Der Pschorr, a spot across from the Viktualienmarkt food market near our apartment. They serve an Edelhell which is poured by gravity feed from wood casks. You can see the cold storage room in the cellar where they keep the kegs cool with blocks of ice. We saw them tap a new cask with a massive wood mallet that just drives the big tap spigot into the cask, ejecting the bung into the beer inside the keg. Then the beer comes gushing out to fill, fill, fill a constant stream of glasses. Kim had a goulash that she declared to be one of the best restaurant meals of her life, and we closed the evening with some fine apfel strudel.
Wood casks chilling in Der Pschorr's Holzfasskeller (literally, "wood keg celler") Note the use of ice blocks
Oktoberfest at the Löwenbräu Tent
Monday was the big day. We had to shift lodgings to the Arthotel near the train station for our last night in Munich. We checked out of the VRBO and schlepped our bags through the subway to the main train station and then to drop them in the hotel's baggage storage room. Then it was a short walk back to the Theresienwiese grounds where we met up with the group and marched into the tent for our 12:00 - 4:30 shift. We had two tables for a total of 20 seats, and each seat came with vouchers for two liters of bier and a half roast chicken.
It turned out you can use these vouchers for any other food or drink of equal or lesser value. Some pooled their vouchers and got a massive mixed meat tray with pork knuckles, various sausages, and duck. Cathy used a bier voucher for a liter of soda. I stuck with the chicken, which was delicious but not really much different from a good grocery store rotisserie chicken. Like most dishes in Germany it was literally what it said it was: half a chicken, no more and no less. No veg or garnish or anything on that plate but half a chicken. We spent the whole trip a bit under-vegged in our diet and had to start ordering salads with everything in order to get some balance.
I had some apprehensions about this whole fest tent affair. I am not a fan of crowds in general, and especially jam packed tight crowds. I feared it was going to be butts to nuts packed in there and you would have to plan 20 minutes ahead of time to pee, and then they might give your seat away while you were doing so. I also had an expectation that there were going to be a bunch of songs the audience sings along with and does hand motions to such as the Airplane Song, and that not wearing lederhosen would be a big mistake. And I had 16 months for these anxieties to stew between committing to the trip and sitting down in that tent. Looking back, it is a little unbelievable to recall part of me was thinking "it is just 4 hours, you can get through anything for 4 hours." I guess I am a bit of a worry wart but anyone who knows me could tell you that.
All those concerns evaporated within about 10 minutes of entering the tent. What a great time. Being a Monday afternoon, it wasn't really crowded. It did get full but never felt overwhelmingly so.
Same hair stylist?
Adjacent to our group was a table with 10 young ladies all in festive attire. At one point I noticed them passing around a small glass vial from which they poured white powder onto the backs of their hands and snorted. It all seemed a bit too out in the open to be anything illicit, but what could it be? After it made the rounds you could see their eyes were watering and they were all a bit energized. Snuff seemed an obvious answer except for the color. Apparently one of our group chatted with them and confirmed it was snuff. And after searching the internet I see that white snuff exists. Who knew?
I bought two official Oktoberfest fidget spinners, thinking they might make cool prizes to give my students. What a dumb idea. They have little beer steins on them which pretty much makes them inappropriate to give to 12 year students. Later I redeemed myself by purchasing one of the wonderful new-this-year robotic chicken hats. Again, I justified my purchase by envisioning its use to inspire my robotics students.
Happy owner of a new chicken hat!
I particularly enjoyed my conversations with the locals who were part of our group, including a strong validation of our choice to end the trip at Therme Erding, and some nuanced discussion of the German election and the strains refugees are putting on the economy and German society.
Watch the video. It's a good one.
It seems like now is a good time to comment on the beer. I loved how the beer in Munich was integral to the culture, with the ubiquitous biergartens, and without any fussiness, pretension, or ceremony. The actual beer served in the tents and brew houses as the festival beer was quite different from what I had expected. In the US when we think of an Oktoberfest beer we think of the amber Märzen style which features significant darker roasted malted barley than a Helles or most lagers. In Munich the Helles style reigns, and I didn't find the Oktoberfest Wiesn or Festival beer in Munich to be terribly distinguished from the Helles also served there. The Wiesn is perhaps a little breadier than the Helles. Granted I don't have a very sensitive palate, but it was far lighter in body than any Märzen I've had. Apparently the Märzen brewed by German breweries today is primarily for export and is more of a historical style out of favor in the modern domestic market, which is why it is what we think of for an Oktoberfest beer. Well it turns out times have changed and we should revise our expectations of what the Oktoberfest style means, or maybe I was just ignorant and everyone else knows a modern Wiesn from a Märzen. It was a bit of a personal epiphany. I should also say that it was all delicious -- this is all just observation and not criticism.
We were very efficiently ejected promptly at 4:30. Once outside away from the din of the crowd I was delighted to discover that the chicken hat plays the chicken dance song and that the leg motions are in time with the song. What a great hat! We made our way to the Oide Wiesn or old-fashioned Oktoberfest, a separate area with a 3 euro admission charge. This is the area focusing on family activities, folk dancing, and historic rides some of which are almost 100 years old. It is so traditional that I was forbidden to wear my new chicken hat in the traditional fest tent.
This is the point at which the accounting for bier consumption gets a little fuzzy. I am confident I ended up over 3 liters but probably less than 5. There was also another round of traditional Bavarian meat dishes in there (sausages, pork knuckle, and duck). I made friends with some neighbors at the next table, a group of musicians from Bamberg who have been attending every year for 15 years. They offered me some snuff, and out of curioisity and a general sense of social manners I accepted a few taps on the back of my hand. It woke me up with a bit of a jolt but that was about it.
I really enjoyed the music in both tents. These are clearly skilled and hard-working musicians in tune with the crowd and venue. There were no American pop hits in the traditional tent. Our seats gave us a great view of the whole band including a woman who played trumpet and also sang duets with the band leader. The birthday boy even got to take his daughter for a few spins on the folk dancing floor.
I took my leave of the group maybe around 9:30 or so, the last non-family-member to depart. The lights of the rides at night were a great show, and I saw several casualties being handled around the exits from the fest, but no problems or sense of safety concerns at any time. I did experience quite a bit of difficulty finding my way back to the hotel, partly because we had just moved there that day and I had only walked the route once coming in that day, but mostly due to my dead flat cell phone battery and reliance on its powers of navigation. Oh, and my judgment may have been slightly impaired as well. I spent about 45 minutes on what should have been a 15-minute journey, during which I had the opportunity to use my high school German skills a half dozen times to ask directions. I finally swallowed my pride, admitted defeat, and took a 5 euro taxi to the hotel.
That hotel room at the Arthotel confirmed every reason why we prefer to book apartments. The cleanliness and quality were all great, as was the breakfast buffet, but there was barely room to turn around in this "quad" room. For one night it was tolerable and the location was great for our requirements.
The next day I was amazed to hear that after I left, the few remaining members of our group went back to the Löwenbräu Tent, where apparently the whole tent was raucously dancing on the table tops, and then rode the Skyfall high altitude free fall ride.
Tuesday was to be a travel and recovery day. We hopped in a nine-passenger rented van with our friends and took off south to our next hotel, Hartung’s Hotel Dorf at Hopfen am See, near Füssen and the famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.
We had a nice big two-bedroom apartment with great views across to the castles in the distance, framed by the alps. It was a bit of a hike up and down the hill to the town and was very nice having the van available for our day trips.
We visited the castles one day, and the next day went to the nearby Tegelbahn where we rode the cable car up, hiked around, enjoyed lunch, bier, and strudel, and came back down to the bottom to do the summer luge ride.
On our last night in Hopfen am See we took a break from the typical Bavarian fare and visited an Italian restaurant. Nothing too memorable except for our dessert order. Kim and I both ordered the Kaiserschmarrn, the most expensive dessert on the menu, on a bit of a flyer. I could decipher that there was going to be some apple sauce involved, and the use of the word “Kaiser” implied it must be something special, so why not take a chance? This elicited an arched eyebrow and incredulous request for clarification from our server as he asked “Zwei Kaiserschmarrn?!?” as if to say “Madness! who do you people think you are?!?”. It was quite large and we were grateful for the opportunity to reduce our order to just one plate of diced up sweet bready pancake bits for dipping in apple sauce.
I'm just here to do my part for the Landwirtschaft!
View from our bedroom window
That white speck is a cat stalking rodentia. Many fields featured resident feline guardians.
Help, we are feigning peril!
"the funny thing about regret is, it's better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven't done." -Gibby Haynes
Our hotel had a bit of a spa / wellness focus with a pool, steam room, and two different saunas. The girls were shocked to discover the pool has a “no playing” policy and were shushed for being too exuberant in their use. They also developed a youthful attitude of scorn for the pool and spa habits of the elderly, and had their first exposure to a little mixed-gender nudity around the sauna area. European adventure!
Speaking of nudity…on our final day we were on the 8:00 AM train back to Munich and our last hotel, the Hotel Victory at Therme Erding. Therme Erding is a hot spring mineral baths / waterpark. It claims to be the largest such spa facility IN THE WORLD! No vacation is complete for us without a bit of swimming, and this place is within a 20 minute drive of the airport, so it seemed a perfect place to spend our last day before flying home in the morning.
We took the train to the airport and then a taxi to the hotel. As we were making our way through the airport train station, some guy approached me and asked if we had just come from the city, and if so were we on a transit day pass and could he have it? I suspect he is running a hustle where he gets these day passes from departing travelers and turns around and sells them for cash to arriving travelers.
When you check in to the hotel at Therme Erding they let you get your swimsuit out of your bag then they take your bags to your room and just issue you with bathrobes, towels, and a bracelet with an RFID chip for all access control and payments. You can use the whole resort including the restaurants in your robe and swimsuit, and everything is cashless.
It is a huge complex. I am guessing we only saw about 75% of it at most, and used less than 25%. There was just too much for our short visit and much of it was a little intimidating. There are few concessions to non-German speakers here, and we ended up feeling we stuck out a bit already with our hotel-issued bathrobes when 90% of the folks there were clearly locals with their own robes and towels. Then there was the whole issue of grappling with the nude areas.
We hopped right into the wave pool before seeking out lunch. As we ate lunch in our robes, Elizabeth complained about all of the music being too American just as a decidedly non-American song was played. It was to become the girls' anthem for the trip, "Last Dance" by Swedish pop performer Rhys. The chorus of "we gave it every godamned chance" sung in a saccharine cheery voice awkwardly spoke to it being a song by someone whose first language is not English. Reminiscent of Bjork, ABBA, or a-ha. It might be grammatically correct, but there is something quite dissonant with this turn of phrase. Anyways the girls loved it and continued to employ this phrase at every godamned chance.
The girls loved the slide area which had over a dozen fun water slides, including some in the dark, some with floaty tubes to ride, and some extreme drops only for those over 15 (we didn’t try…they looked pretty intense). We enjoyed drinks from the swim-up bars and floating through the crazy river with its soaking nooks, most of which were occupied by canoodling teen couples.
Kim and I visited the nude area where most of the 26 saunas are. It also features the better restaurants, full of happy couples dining in just their robes and towels. I’m not sure what the point is for having 26 different saunas. To me a sauna is about having a decent wood bench to sit on and enjoy a specific temperature and humidity, and then the cooldown. Many of the saunas were a bit too cool for me with temps under 70c. We preferred the 80c Finnish sauna, one of about 8 saunas that are ringed around a cascading shower room of cold water falling from 20 foot high sculpted calla lilies.
There is also a Celtic Stonehenge sauna and the Russian Banya. The saunas are not really that different from one another. The differentiator seemed to be the cold water shower or plunge options that were paired with the sauna, the temperature of the sauna (too many were not really hot enough), and in some cases the addition of some scent or performance. For example, in the Stonehenge area the sauna is pretty bog standard but when you want to cool off you have to wade through a rushing river in a dark rocky cave before standing under free falling gushes of cold water from a simulated subterranean waterfall.
People were naked in the pools and saunas, but very few just strolled around in their birthday suits. Almost everyone was covered with a towel or robe except when entering or exiting whatever water or spa feature they had selected.
There is also yet another large pool area with swim-up bar and a nice recreation of a Roman villa with general naked lounging. Oh, and there is a warm nap room too!
The whole cashless RFID badge system was just slightly evocative of another German badge system we learned of on this trip, intended to manage groups of people in a confined and highly managed locale. Yeah I just went there, but if the analogy fits… There was a different colored badge for men vs. women, and a different color again for children. At first, we thought it was cute and quaint, but it didn’t take long to realize that the 12 year old (who can pass for 16 on casual inspection) was not going to get into the 16 and over area as her badge would make her stand out like a sore thumb, which I am sure was part of the intention. And then there was the alcohol policy posted in several places stating that for safety purposes, there is a maximum of three drinks per person. It did allow that after five hours you would be granted permission to purchase a fourth beverage. I thought again, how sweet they are thinking of our safety. Then I realized that with the badges they know exactly how many drinks have been purchased, at which locations and time intervals, and by whom, so this is not an idle unenforced policy but rather one where big brother is watching and ready to cut you off.
Things I learned on this trip which surprised me at least a little:
Most people pay the extra $35 per seat for pre-assigned seating on Lufthansa. The spendthrift in me figured this was just for suckers who didn’t have the organizational ability to get online and claim a seat when the online check-in window opened. I was sure glad that this plan freaked Kim out to the point that I actually checked the seat availability map a few weeks prior to the trip and discovered our only option to avoid middle seats was to book the very last row of the plane on the flight to Munich. Gulp! I guess that was $280 well spent after all.
If you aren’t in a tent at Oktoberfest, there is no place to sit down or take a break. On a crowded day like Saturday, this can pose a challenge.
There are very few garbage cans to speak of at Oktoberfest. I assume this is for security reasons. Again it can catch you by surprise holding a soiled napkin after eating a bratwurst and having no place to discard it.
Every bottle at Oktoberfest has a 1 euro deposit. Chug your water and take the bottle back to get your money back.
For how green and enviro-conscious it seems to be, waste management seems to lag in Germany in general, at least compared to Seattle. Recycling and composting options are very few and far between.
Cigarettes remain surprisingly popular, and are available everywhere including sidewalk vending machines.
Snuff is a popular pick-me-upper to keep the fest going!
Kim declared this to be the best family trip ever. We are already scheming for an excuse to return, hopefully with a big group of friends and family, to celebrate a future milestone. Perhaps our 30th wedding anniversary in 2023!
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