There's something rather strange about Munich.
Maybe it's physical. Or spiritual. Or maybe we just have a Bavarian blind spot. Because despite having stayed there many times over the past 30 years or so, we can never seem to remember much about it!
Wags, of course, will put this down to a surfeit of suds in the Hofbrauhaus, or simply the onset of advanced age. But we think the cause may lie someplace else.
What makes our apparent amnesia all the more curious is that, almost without exception, travel guides and gurus give Munich an incredibly high "Wow" factor. Calling it "Little Paris" and "Athens on the Isar." Or as PBS and guide book maven, Rick Steves, blurbs it, "Germany's most livable and yuppie city."
Germans certainly seem to migrate there in vast numbers. As do tens of thousands of immigrants from other countries, all attracted by the same high-octane business scene, the cultural buzz, the city's unmistakable glamor and high style - not to mention its fun-loving and liberal atmosphere.
To us however, Munich always seems a bit lacking in heart. Or is it soul? And maybe that's a WWII thing. For despite returning its bombed out Old Town to original pre-war condition, what seems to have emerged is more of a scrolling, meandering agglomeration of small neighborhoods rather than one homogeneous city of a million-plus Muncheners.
Perhaps you just can't put Humpty Dumpty together again.
That said, Munich is still a place we could quite happily live. It's multi-cultural, comfortable, and chummy. Chockful of art and history. There are museums galore, as well as sports and entertainment for every conceivable preference.
It also has several very livable precincts, with good shop-ops and multi-ethnic restaurants. A wide-ranging and efficient public transit system of metros, trams, and buses can deposit you just about anywhere in town in a matter of minutes.
But best of all, just an hour's drive away lies some of Europe's most fantastic scenery. Sparkling lakes and peaky mountains, fairy-tale castles and medieval villages. Rustic inns with true rosy-cheek hospitality. And 5-star attractions such as Berchtesgarten, Oberammergau, and Garmisch, which returning generations of American tourists, and GIs, have been banging on about for the past 60 years!
But it was not the scenery that drew us to Munich in late September, 2004, but rather the suds. We were there to attend a pagan ritual that's been held since 1810. It attracts more than 7 million visitors in 16 days, and has become the real symbol of Munich.
It is, of course, the Oktoberfest, that mother of all beer parties, with its mega-tents and oompah bands, its dirndled waitresses and mugs of frothy beer, its parades and unrestrained conviviality.
We've been before. And we'll certainly go again.
But on our initial visit to the event, we had just 90 minutes to spare. And this is how it went:
It was Sunday morning. We walked right out of our quiet neighborhood hotel, The Adria, and in less than five minutes were underground, in the metro, rubbing cheeks with revelers - the young and the wrinkled - already decked out in their dirndls and lederhosen and feathered hats.
Four "U-bahn" stops later, we all popped out of our hole at the Theresenwiese (Oktoberfest Fair Grounds). We found a massive field of rides and booths and beer tents the size of football fields.
We poked our heads into several brewers' enclaves - Augustinerbrau and Lowenbrau, Hofbrau and Paulanerbrau - and finally found a couple of seats at one of the long tables in the Spatenbrau Festhalle and settled in. It was barely 11 a.m.
We ordered up our liter steins of beer ($9), chomped on succulent roast chicken ($10), clanked mugs with our tablemates, sang several choruses of "Prosit," and got kissed by Maria, a buxom blonde Hausfrau in her 70s.
On the next table over, we met Gary and Courtney from Brisbane, Australia, who were working construction in the UK and touring Europe by VW camper. They and several of their compatriots were all dressed in freshly minted traditional Oktoberfest outfits, shaukling (rocking) and rolling to the music of band leader Hermann Haberl, pouring beer over their heads to cool down, and dancing on the tables.
They were hardly alone.
Outside the tent, we bought a bag of sweet-smelling, toasted almonds for the short ride home.
Total time elapsed: 90 minutes. Money spent: $45. Fun quotient: Priceless.
Two days later, we spotted our Aussie drinking buddies, sacked out in front of the downtown tourist office, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, trying to find cheap passage to Prague.
"What did you do with those dirty leaderhosen and shirts and hats," we asked. Curious.
"Oh, we sent 'em all home to our mums," they chortled.
We tried to imagine the reaction, several weeks later, at some sedate Aussie ranch house as the postman dumps bags of smelly, beer-sodden lederhosen from their precious progenies onto the doorstep.
We suspect it'll be a bit more colorful than the usual laconic "No worries, mate!"
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