Back in 2009, when Jenn and I were on a cruise around the Galápagos Islands, we met a German couple named Margot and Martin and quickly became friends. We chatted about a little bit of everything, spending a lot of the trip sharing their company. We stayed in touch over the years, and at the beginning of our year-long adventure, Margot insisted that we visit them in Munich after we reached Europe. She was also adamant that we stay with them, and they generously opened their home to the two of us. It had been 7 years, but we were both super excited to see them again.
Our arrival in Munich coincided with my birthday, so our first order of business – immediately after disembarking from our bus – was to walk to Hofbräuhaus, a famous brewery founded in 1589 that is a local institution in Munich. Apparently, the beer is so desirable that, during the 30 Years War, the king of Sweden threatened to burn the city unless he was given 600,000 barrels of the fine beverage. What better way is there to celebrate a birthday than with a liter of beer and a couple sausages? Fortunately, a local gentleman sharing our table made sure to educate me on the finer points of eating the weisswürst I had ordered – namely, that you weren’t supposed to eat the casings. With the social faux pas narrowly avoided, I made short work of the delicious meat.
Our next stop was Margot & Martin’s house. To our great delight, it felt like we had never been apart, easily talking and laughing together like we had seven years ago. Their lives had changed a great deal, having two children in the intervening years, so the house never lacked for lively activity. We had a lot of fun cooking on an impressive, home-built kid’s play stove that Martin made, and driving around a seemingly endless array of ‘Bulldogs’ (tractors). We also found out just how useful it is to have a 2-year-old around when trying to learn a foreign language, as he managed to expand our vocabulary a bit, teaching us about food, farm equipment, toys, and apple trees. Mouya, their enormous and extremely tolerant dog, patiently waited for a break in the action to receive a little attention.
The first day, we headed out on bikes after breakfast to explore the Isar River, which extends the length of the city and is surrounded for much of its length by sprawling green spaces. After swimming for a while, where their oldest pointed out many ‘grosse fisch’ (several large carp that were tame enough to approach people), Jenn and I rode off towards the downtown area, stopping occasionally to explore the riverside and take photos. Munich is a very bike-friendly city, with lots of bike lanes and fellow riders, so we cruised around for a while just enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. We arrived back at the house that night to enjoy a family cookout with Margot’s father and mother, capped off with a sampling of various schnapps in honor of her dad’s birthday.
The next day, Margot’s father offered to show us around the city. He provides guided historical tours for visitors, and we were lucky to receive the family discount – a beer and a pork knuckle after the tour! Gerold was a great source of trivia, history, and funny local legends that made up for in charm what they lacked in historical accuracy. We touched various statues and carvings, ensuring our luck and future return to Munich, and learned much about the city’s destruction and reconstruction during WWII. Shortly before noon, we returned to the main square to watch the performance by the Rathaus-Glockenspiel – several minutes of dancing figures, jousting horsemen and waving royals, accompanied by music and celebrating the history of Bavaria. The glockenspiel was constructed in 1908, and the spectacle kicks off every day at noon with a different song. From there we walked to a local restaurant and enjoyed some typical local dishes and beers, before spending the remainder of the afternoon doing some more biking around the city center.
While the timing of our arrival in Munich was less unexpected than a few of the other city festivals, we nonetheless were lucky enough to be there for the kickoff of Oktoberfest. This year was said to be special because it marked the 500th anniversary of Germany’s “Beer Purity Law” (Reinheitsgebot) – a law introduced in 1516 that states German beer must be made from only malted grains, hops, water and yeast. Despite dark skies and spitting rain, we found our way to one of the more famous and traditional Oktoberfest tents, the Augustiner tent. Augustiner continues the tradition of supplying their beer in wooden barrels, and eschews the pop music of some of the other tents in favor of a traditional oompah band. Worried we wouldn’t get a seat with the rain forcing everyone inside, we arrived before 11:00 and found the party already in full swing. We found a seat and were quickly joined by a couple groups of locals who immediately welcomed us into their ranks as if we were old friends. With our new companions, we chatted, toasted over and over – Prost! – ate giant pretzels, bags of sugared and roasted nuts, and worked our way through big beer after big beer. My attempts to pay for most of our beers were waved off, as our tablemates seemed to enjoy treating the foreign first-timers with incredible generosity, refusing to allow us to sit through a toast without mug-in-hand.
After far longer than we expected, we headed back out into the light rain to see what the rest of the festival had to offer. We stopped by a couple of other tents, but none of them lived up to the charm and laid back atmosphere of Augustiner. We took a spin on an unexpectedly intense ride, I snagged a grilled fish on a stick, and we watched one of the more traditional Oktoberfest games – the Teufelsrad, or ‘devil’s wheel.’ A slightly-inclined and smooth wheel sits in the center of the room, while the announcer calls groups up to try their luck. As the wheel spins faster and faster, the dizzy participants attempt to hold on. Should the spinning motion fail to dislodge everyone, a large stuffed pillow is swung back and forth, and ropes are tossed into the middle to entangle the contestants. The game does not stop until the last person is thrown into the padded boards, and there are no prizes – only the pride of surviving until the end. We practically laughed ourselves sick as people of all ages and sizes went flying, and cheered on a teenage girl who seemingly could not be shaken despite the game-owners’ increasingly desperate attempts to extricate her from the center.
From old friends to new festivals, we had a fabulous time in Munich, thanks in no small part to Margot and Martin’s wonderful hospitality. After a lot of months in guesthouses and empty apartments, it was great to spend a few days at home again.