Munich's Oktoberfest: Beer-Sneyland

Almost seven thousand people sat under the big Hofbrau-Festhalle tent, all enjoying liter mugs flowing with fresh beer, swaying and clapping, hooting, hollering, and lustily singing that oh-so-traditional German song: "Sweet Home Alabama." The lively Oom-pah band churned it out in a way that Lynyrd Skynyrd would appreciate. Packed to the rafters, I spied a rare empty seat and grabbed it. Now seated, I ordered a beer (they serve only one kind, Oktoberfest) and watched the action.

"This is something special," said Thomas Klug, a Munich local, sitting with a few friends. "Oh yes, I come every year." Klug planned on riding his bicycle home after his third liter in order to be at work at 7:30 a.m. the next day.

I wouldn't bet on it, though; lots of habitually punctual Germans call in sick during Oktoberfest. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and totally free to enter, the festival grounds are a blast. It's like the Disneyland of beer. It's full of carnival attractions, a small roller coaster, bumper cars, a 13-story "drop zone," food stalls, kiddie rides, and other sorts of family fun — yet the 13 beer halls or tents sponsored by Munich breweries are clearly the main attraction. Everyone has a favorite for various reasons. Some tents attract a younger crowd, some skew older and less frenetic, while still others may offer different culinary specialties and types of music.

Oktoberfest showcases Bavarian culinary staples such as excellent hendl (rotisserie chicken), wursti (sausage), schweinsbraten (roast pork), haxn (pork knuckle — better than it sounds), and knodel (a potato pancake), as well as various salads, radishes, and pickles. Of course, you can't miss trying a brezn, a huge, soft, and very salty pretzel.

The historic Munich festival originated as a celebration of the marriage between Crown Prince Ludwig and Therese, Princess of Saxony, back in 1810. Parades, games, music, and (of course) beer flowed at their huge wedding party. In 1818, Oktoberfest became an official beer festival and has been going strong ever since. This year, Munich is celebrating its 203rd Oktoberfest (180th actual festival) as once again throngs will visit the Theresienwiese (or festival grounds) where an estimated 1.6 million people show up to consume beer in the tents every year.

Despite the beer and crowds, Oktoberfest is a wonderfully peaceful scene; people come from around the world to drink fresh beer and have fun, not fight or cause trouble. Some people bring the children and teens to the tents, usually earlier in the day to enjoy the scene.

At Oktoberfest, some men and women (of all ages) wear traditional outfits. Women wear the dirndl dresses (think Swiss Miss) with frilly white blouses and blue or red skirts. Often revealing and busty, women usually look lovely in these outfits, with the exception of the ugly "Mary Jane" type shoes. Men, on the other hand, wear lederhosen, which are brown leather pants with suspenders. The most common type ties off at the knee — supposedly designed to keep the critters out. There is also a cross section belt connecting the suspenders in the front. Underneath is a two-colored checked flannel shirt, most often red and white or blue and white, plus a green vest, and white- or cream-colored socks pulled up high. Some wear a short-brimmed country hat with a feather in the side. Suede loafers or short work boots complete the ensemble. Small shops as well as large department stores in Munich sell proper Oktoberfest gear, which costs anywhere from $100 to $600 (or more) for an entire outfit. (Makes a great Halloween costume back home though.) Visitors can also find used clothing stores around town. It should be noted that more and more people are dressing in traditional German garb nowadays, compared to the past.

"This is fantastic, there's nothing like this in England," said Tony, visiting from Ipswich.

The familiar strains of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" began and the crowd jumped in. Next, the old "traditional" (according to some locals) German disco classic "I Will Survive" got the throng going.

"It's a panic," remarked Michael Bannister, a distinguished gentleman visiting from Cambridge, England. "The thing is they all know the songs."

The Hacker-Pschorr tent is the prettiest at Oktoberfest. Its walls depict bucolic Bavarian scenes and the roof is painted like a big blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. Well-lit, you might think you're outside, eating and drinking with about 9,999 new friends. I was fortunate to get seated in the balcony so I could overlook the controlled chaos. The band now belted out the familiar "Que Sera Sera," followed by rousing rendition of "Those Were the Days" (the 1968 song by Mary Hopkin, produced by Paul McCartney). John Denver's "Country Road" was another smash hit with the audience. Waitresses expertly zipped by, blasting through the ever-thickening crowd, often carrying ten full, heavy steins of excellent Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest beer.

The din got louder and louder and I couldn't tell if I was inside or outside the asylum. Looking out through the windows of the balcony, I could see thousands of people massing, trying to get into this tent. Then the song "Mamma Mia" had people dancing in the aisles, seats, or on benches. After a short break, a rock band (the Cagey Strings) appeared and soon the chunky opening chords of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" rocked the building. It sounded great.

"We come here every year," shouted Gabriella Keck, visiting from Salzburg, Austria, as she clapped along with five friends. Next came AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," and the horde, young and old, local and international, went nuts.

Besides Bavarian locals, Italians seemed to be the largest non-German group of attendees, but I also met plenty of Americans, Brits, Aussies, Koreans, Kiwis, Hungarians, Swedes, Swiss, Japanese, and Russian visitors enjoying the party spirit.

"It's amazing how good a tuba can sound after a few beers," said Tom Carroll, visiting from Maryland.

He's right — and, in fact, this place is probably where the dorky tuba player from high school finally gets some respect.

"There is so much energy here," said visitor Jo Wegstein of Fremont, California. Energy, joy, food, music, and plenty of beer.