Sunday, September 23, 2012

The best of Oktoberfest - besides the beer

The world's biggest beer festival is kicking off in Munich this weekend - and its not just about beer.

Traditionally the Costume and Riflemen's parade on the first Sunday of the festival is used to showcase a display of Bavarian history and culture, together with the carriages and floats of the beer landlords.

I arrive at early, with some friends, in order to get a good standing view from the road. The parade starts off at Maximilian bridge but we decide to catch the procession as it comes around the circle at Odeonsplatz, which turns out to be a great spot.

The big names are all here: Hacker-Pshorr, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten as well as the most well-known Bavarian beer house, Hofbräu - and everyone's favourite, Augustiner. A special kind of beer is brewed for the Oktoberfest, according to strict criteria and of course the Reinheitsgebot. At 6%, Oktoberfest beer is also slightly higher in alcohol than the beer you would usually find at a Bavarian beer garden.

The parade is even more impressive than I expected, with the beer carriages drawn by beautiful horses or oxen wearing bells and ribbons and decorated harnesses. The various brass bands performing in the tents during the festival also do marching renditions of their top tunes.

'Oktoberfest is actually called the Wiesn' 

Some popular German brands are showing off and we are lucky enough to get our hands on some Lebkuchen (literally: life cakes) as they are tossed from the parade. These gingerbread hearts are as synonymous with the Oktoberfest as beer and is adorned with icing sugar messages meant for your sweetheart. Ours say: 'I love BMW'.

From where we are sitting the parade continues right through the city to the Theresienwiesen (Oktoberfest grounds) where the carriages are parked next to their respective beer tents and the marching bands each go and perform their celebrated tunes inside the beer tents. Local Bavarians, in fact, don't call it 'Oktoberfest'. To them it's the 'Wiesn' - the traditional name of the festival grounds.

There are two 'Wiesn' parades that normally set the scene. The first happens on the Saturday, when the first beer arrives at the Theresienwiesen in grand carriages and floats that also carry the workers and the families of the beer lords. The mayor then opens the event by tapping the first keg and the beer starts flowing freely.

Rain - and an inside tip to watch the Sunday parade instead - kept me away from the opening parade on Saturday. Which turned out to be a good decision - as today's parade was quite the experience. Some say this is one of the most spectacular events of the Oktoberfest - besides experiencing the atmosphere inside the beer tents, of course.

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