The biggest surprise of the Oktoberfest, if you’ve never been to Munich’s legendary beer bash, is that people actually wear dirndl dresses and lederhosen.
Such getups are not just for large-breasted B-list celebrities and old dodderers with big moustaches who live in a mental alpine farm. No, plenty of ‘regular’ people wear them. For a fortnight every autumn, the city is awash in Bavarian sartorial splendour harking back to yesteryear.
It’s this dogmatic insistence on folk costume that helps set Oktoberfest apart from so many other generic festivities with fairground rides across Europe. It also helps explain why the decision to create a historical quarter at this year’s festival has proved so popular. The re-introduction of farm animals and clay beer-mugs has taken Munich’s beer bash back to its roots.
The other thing that makes it special is the fact that you have to pay to get in. The most dominant emotion when you hand over your €4 ticket and enter the nostalgia zone is relief that you’ve left the riff-raff outside. The drunken Hogarthian grotesques can squeal all they want on the terrifying torture machines that modern fairground rides have become. Let the hordes sink into their delirium of drinking, fighting and the desperate search for sexual relief. You are going to spend some time looking at a well-groomed horse.
I discovered that this veiled snobbery is a common motivation for those entering the historical zone. An opinion column in Munich’s local newspaper the Abendzeitung had this to say: “The historical Wiesn is salvation! Since drunken people don’t like to queue for a ticket at the ticket hut, the area behind the fence is beer-corpse-free.”
“It’s much better for my generation,” one gentle, affluent old lady told me. “I don’t go to the main beer tents at all anymore. They’re nothing like what they used to be. You know, they get up and dance on the tables now?”
“What, they didn’t used to?” I asked. As an Oktoberfest virgin, I had assumed this was a longstanding custom. She looked shocked. “No!” she exclaimed, as this geriatric bourgeois Munich dame and I were briefly united in our disapproval of modern ideas about appropriate dancing surfaces.
These are the main differences between inside the historical zone and outside: the beer is served in grey clay mugs rather than glasses, the rides are less likely to be used by the CIA as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, and you only hear DJ Ötzi’s ‘Hey Baby’ once an hour, rather than once every five minutes.
In the historical beer tent, the decorations do not look like they were designed by a frenzied Bavarian lunatic with a taste for clashing colours and cartoon pigs. Or they were, but he only had half his usual budget. In short: everything is simpler, slower, more quiet, less delirious, slightly more boring, but in a pleasant way – just like the olden days.
Outside, in the real Oktoberfest, kids can have fun in a variety of unhinged ways, including firing metal darts with a brutal crossbow or riding a train at high speed through a huge edifice made to look like Indiana Jones’s ‘Temple of Doom.’
By contrast, the main entertainment options in the historical area are throwing a ball at some wooden pegs, listening to jaunty organ music, or stroking a Shetland pony. And, of course, you can always watch one of the interminable parades of costumed people in dirndls and lederhosen. It’s charming enough, but it’s not a dizzying Bacchanalia.
The beer, too, has a nostalgic twist to it, having been specially brewed for this anniversary. It is darker, cloudier, bitterer, and leaves a slightly unnerving brown film on the inside of your mug roughly the colour of a smoker’s fingers. After a while of this, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that, while it’s nice and all to see how things used to be, the historical days were also a bit rubbish.
Though it must be said what is meant by ‘historical’ is fairly non-specific here. There are fairground rides from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but there is also horseracing, which dates back to the founding myths of the Oktoberfest itself.
“I can’t remember that we had some of this stuff back then,” one rather serious woman told me. “I guess they were just going for a general impression.”
Some Munich residents have now set up a campaign to have the historical Wiesn every year. Those I talked to liked the idea, but weren’t especially bothered. Its role as an oasis of family-friendly calm has certainly enriched Oktoberfest as it tipsily saunters into its third century.
Ben Knight ([email protected])
Munich’s Oktoberfest runs from September 18 until October 4 this year. A special historical area offering old carousels, special beer and other attractions will open one day earlier for the 200th anniversary celebrations.