Bavaria and Austria

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September 30, 1994. If you’re the kind of person who prefers a quiet evening at home to a rip-roaring drunken free-for-all, then Oktoberfest is definitely not for you. But if you’re the kind of person who laughs at those do-nothing homebodies, the kind of person who invites wanton bacchanalia and incoherent revelry, then stuff a knackwurst in your lederhosen and head for the biggest party in the world.

Party Like it’s 1999

Oktoberfest is so huge it borders on the inconceivable. In just two weeks, Oktoberfest sees between six and eight million visitors and rakes in roughly 350 million Deutschmarks. That means on any given day, a half a million people are getting drunk, singing, dancing on tables, peeing on trees, eating sausages and giant pretzels, surviving nauseating carnival rides, and trying to squeeze through the crowd.

I went to Oktoberfest last week with my friend Dorothee, and several of her friends. It was not at all what I expected. First of all, it’s a fair. By that I mean that it has all the trappings of the state and county fairs you probably got sick of years ago. It has dozens of rollercoasters and carnival rides, hundreds of places to fecklessly eject your money at stuffed animals and cheesy souvenirs, and equally as many chapels dedicated to the worship of hot fat and pure sugar. But Oktoberfest has three notable differences:

  1. Unlike most fairs, there are relatively few children at Oktoberfest.
  2. It is the largest fair in the world.
  3. In place of the usual livestock exhibitions and crap vendors, there are vast halls packed to the rafters with exuberant beer drinkers.

Beer, by the way, comes in only one size: a one-liter glass mug.

Oompah-pah, Oompah-pah, That’s How it Goes

We crowded around a picnic bench-style table in one of the beer halls and listened to the oompah band alternating between raucous polkas and singalong medleys. Most everybody was singing. At tables on two sides of us, people were dancing on their benches (there wasn’t enough space between tables to stand, much less dance). Every minute or two, someone would start a toast, which involves vigorously clanging your hefty beer mug with everyone else at the table, and then banging it on the table before drinking.

After a liter of beer and a pretzel the size of a dinner plate, we headed for a few of the rides. First was an enormous indoor tube-track rollercoaster called Magic Mountain. As you hurtle through the dark, you can’t help but be reminded of Disneyland’s Space Mountain. However, with the pounding techno soundtrack, lasers, and spinning cars, this was more intense. It was also more expensive; tickets were 9 DM (about US$6) each. Next, we went on this whirling, tilting, vomit machine called Take Off. For just 6 DM, you get enough g-force pressure on your innards to make you queasy for hours.

So what did I think of Oktoberfest? I suppose my reaction was pretty typical: I was both fascinated and repulsed. It’s hard not to get swept up in all the excitement. And it’s quite a hoot to see so many drunks that really really want to talk to you (one pot-bellied German man was extremely proud of his New York Marathon T-shirt, insisting that he ran the marathon, and yelling over and over again “Ich liebe New York!”). On the other hand, the smothering crowds, the outrageous prices, the people throwing up on the subway, make it a not entirely pleasant experience.

I guess I’m a little naive. I guess I was expecting fewer people (or at least more space between them), more home-style Bavarian tasties, less boisterous drunkenness. I really wasn’t prepared for the size, the crowds, and the unrelenting merchandising. Nonetheless, I expect I’ll take the plunge again next weekend when a couple of friends from Seattle are in town. Pray for me.

Oh, one more thing. I noticed this enormous statue of a woman overlooking Theresienwiese (right next to the fairground). No one in our party seemed to know what it was. I found out later this status is called Bavaria and it is the largest bronze figure ever cast. It is over 100 feet tall and hollow on the inside so you can walk up and look out through her eyes. It stands in front of Ruhmeshalle, an outdoor hall honoring famous Bavarians.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

I’m staying in Mauern, in the apartment of my friend Dorothee who has gone away on vacation. Mauern is a tiny little “cow town” about 75 km northeast of Munich. It has a population of about 1000 friendly Germans, none of whom (it seems) speak English. My German is pretty poor, but I’m getting plenty of practice just doing simple things like getting an oil change or buying groceries. Instead of the “guten tag” I learned in high school German class, people in Bavaria greet one another with “Gruss Gott” (pronounced “gruse got”), which translates literally to “Greet God.” In other words: “If you die and go to Heaven, say hi to God for me.” It means more or less “hello.”

In Mauern, Dorothee introduced me to a delicious beer drink called Radler. It’s made by mixing a half-pint of weisbeer with a half-pint of Sprite. I recommend you try this recipe yourself. It’s easy to make and surprisingly good.

The thing I like most about Mauern is the quiet. It’s so quiet at night that you can hear the mosquitoes buzzing as you fall asleep. In the daytime, it’s easy to do nothing in Mauern. You can sit outside and read a book and watch the cars go by. I’ve spent a lot of time doing nothing here.

The thing I like least about Mauern is that I have found myself getting lonely. Fortunately, this has made me realize how much I like traveling with other people. It has helped me to get organized and start looking for other travelers. As a result, I’ve met a number of interesting people, which I’ll tell you about shortly.

Though Mauern is no tourist destination, it is very close to Landshut (pronounced “lahndz-hoot”). Landshut is not really a tourist destination either, but it is a quaint little 15th century town, full of cobbled streets and clean baroque facades. Landshut is also home to St. Martin’s church which, at 436 feet high is the largest brick tower in the world. Landshut is a great place to go shopping or eat lunch in an outdoor cafe on the main street of the altstadt (old town).

Ninety-Six Teardrops

Do you really want to hear about Dachau? I thought so. Okay, Dachau is a cozy little town about 25 km northwest of Munich. It has a beautiful castle and lovely old buildings. Unfortunately, Dachau is most famous for it’s WW II Nazi concentration camp which is now a memorial museum. The gates to the camp still bear the slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”: work makes you free.

None of the original barracks are still standing. There are two reconstructed barracks which show what the originals looked like, and concrete curbs marking off the areas where the rest of the barracks stood. At the front of the camp, in the building that used to house the kitchen, is a museum that shows the rise of the Nazis, the history of the camp at Dachau and the cruel living and working conditions within the camp. In front of the museum is an enormous abstract metal sculpture of starving people writhing in agony.

At the far end of the camp there are two crematories and a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. Though it is not understood why, this gas chamber was never actually used during the war. Prisoners were sent to other camps to be exterminated. That’s not to say people didn’t die at Dachau. An estimated 32,000 people died here. They died of torture, starvation, disease, and overwork. The sick were kept in the same barracks with the healthy and the barracks were crowded to ten times their normal capacity. Also at the far end of the camp are several memorial temples and chapels, built in the mid-Sixties.

Twice daily in the museum, there is a 22-minute film presentation in English. Though there are no movies of what actually took place while the camp was operational, there are many still photos of prisoners and camp life. In addition, there is film footage of what the Allied troops discovered at Dachau at the end of the war. Thousands of emaciated prisoners, piles of hundreds of skeletal bodies waiting to be cremated.

The whole time I was in Dachau I felt like I was about to cry. It’s a strange feeling, walking on the grounds of the camp and imagining what it was like when it was operational, filled with half-dead unwashed slave/prisoners, people who had nothing but one small meal a day and work until it kills you. It’s a feeling of reverence, of empathy, and of disbelief that something so monstrous could have happened in this century.

Ice Cream Castles In the Air

In the late 19th century, King Ludwig II built three magnificent castles in Germany — and planned a fourth — before he was declared mentally ill and unfit to rule. The most famous of his castles is Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), near the Bavarian town of Fussen on the Austrian border. Neuschwanstein is what Walt Disney used as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You have probably seen pictures of this so-called “fairy tale castle”. Only a third of the interior of the castle was ever completed. King Ludwig and his personal doctor both mysteriously drowned the day after he was arrested, and the castle was left unfinished.

I took the castle tour through the completed rooms. I recommend this tour to anyone who is traveling in Germany, because the inside of the castle is as spectacular as the outside. In King Ludwig’s bedroom alone, seven woodcarvers worked for four years to carve the bed and the room’s intricate molding. Most of the castle’s inside walls are gorgeously painted with scenes from Wagnerian operas.

After the tour of Schloss Neuschwanstein I struck up a conversation with an Australian couple Michael and Bronwen, who were backpacking through Europe. They said they were going to take a bus back to Munich, so I offered them a lift. Over dinner, they told me they were headed next to a small salt mining town in Austria called Hallstatt. I had read about this town, where they give you tours of the salt mines, so I asked if I could join them for a few days. They agreed.

The next day we drove to Austria. Our first stop was Salzburg, to have a look at Mozart’s birthplace. My friend Stan says that your reaction to a place greatly depends on the experiences you have there. He and his wife loved Salzburg because of the concerts they attended and the people they met. Perhaps if we had taken the “Sound of Music Tour” or spent more than just a few hours in Salzburg I might have felt differently, but I have to say I wasn’t impressed. Salzburg is just another big city, and everyone seems to be trying to make a buck off the name Mozart. After a quick look around the town, we pushed on to Hallstatt.

I Can’t Get it Out of My Head

Hallstatt, Austria sits on the edge of a clear deep lake surrounded by mountains rising over 2000 meters, with nearly vertical rock faces. You can walk the length of the town’s cobbled streets in 10 minutes, but it will probably take all day as you will be awestruck by the location’s scenic beauty and the coziness of the traditional Austrian houses and shops.

Michael, Bronwen and I came into Hallstatt at about 8 pm. It was so dark outside that we didn’t realize there were mountains here. With the help of some local kids, we found the youth hostel, but the people from reception had left early. The rooms that were open were occupied by a group of Australians, but there were a few extra bunks, so we made ourselves at home. The next morning when we walked outside we were blown away by the view. Hallstatt may well be the most beautiful place in the entire world. It is certainly the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

I should mention that Hallstatt is apparently overrun by tourists in the summer and winter months, but the spring and fall are pretty quiet. This was a good time to visit; the weather was perfect and the hotels were nearly empty. Beds in the hostel were 100 AS (Austrian Shillings, about US$9).

Hallstatt has been a salt mining town for over 3000 years. Today, with the aid of modern technology, they extract 25 tons of salt per hour from the mountain. We rode a tram up the mountain and took the tour of the salt mine. They give you a salt miner’s uniform to put on over your clothes, and take you for a one hour tour through the mine shafts, highlighted by a long train ride into the mountain, slides through sloping shafts, and a multi-lingual video presentation explaining how the salt is extracted.

During breakfast in a nearby restaurant, we met a couple of young American women, Jen and Christie, who are spending two months backpacking through Europe. After taking the salt mine tour we bumped into Jen and Christie again (not hard to do in a town this small), hiking in the mountains. We agreed to meet for dinner later in the evening. Dinner was Austrian culinary magic at a gemutlich — i.e., pleasant, cozy, warm and rustic — restaurant called Brauhof, on the lake’s edge. We arranged to meet up in Prague next Tuesday, along with another pair of Australians, Bernie and Claire. In the meantime, Michael and Bronwen would go to Amsterdam, Jen and Christie would go to Vienna, and I would go back to Munich to meet my friends from Seattle who were seeing Oktoberfest at the end of a month-long tour of Russia and Eastern Europe.

I’m now back in Mauern getting ready for my trip to Prague. After meeting so many backpackers and seeing how they travel, I’ve bought my own rucksack and a new pair of boots. I am considering seeing the Greek islands and Turkey. If I do, I will store my car and switch to trains and boats for a while.

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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt