Top of the hops

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am

An oompah band is blowing a brassy tune through the streets of Munich's Old Town. It passes our table outside Munich's oldest brewery, Augustiner Brau. The band is quite a spectacle, with everyone dressed in traditional lederhosen shorts and braces, their brass instruments gleaming in the sunshine. I raise my glass in a toast to Munich's amazing Oktoberfest, the world's biggest celebration of beer.

Fuelled on local lager, we summon the courage to tackle another local speciality, the formidable menu at Munich's oldest tavern, Hundskugel, on Hotterstrasse, which includes robust Bavarian dishes such as mildly spiced white veal sausage, plates of enormous chewy dumplings, and hunks of roast suckling pig served with noodles. The tavern has been filling bellies since it opened in 1440.

Adopting a brazen attitude to the pursuit of sheer enjoyment and fulfilment is essential if you hope to survive the famous autumn Oktoberfest. This colourful and noisy brewery love-in is a boisterous two-week affair during which time things tend to become slightly unhinged. This may help explain why an event named for October takes place mostly in September.

First held in October 1810, to honour the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, the public festival's runaway success prompted the city elders to make it an annual event - one that was later shifted to its September start, so everyone might enjoy slightly warmer nights while carousing.

Locals simply call this annual Bacchanalian blitz die Wiesn, after the festival grounds at Theresienwiese, a park in the city's west named in honour of the princess. Oktoberfest always draws massive crowds, but with Munich also celebrating its 850th birthday, this year's event promises to be bigger than ever.

Oktoberfest will last 16 days, from Saturday, September 20, to Sunday, October 5, during which time more than 6 million visitors will quaff about 30 per cent of the annual production of Munich's six major breweries and chomp their way through mountains of barbecued beef, chicken, smoked mackerel and sweet pancakes.

The drinking and eating begins at noon when the mayor of Munich taps open the first beer keg at a ceremony in the Schottenhamel, the biggest of 14 major festival tents. There are also medium-sized and smaller tents, including a solitary wine tent, but the serious Oktoberfest action occurs in the 14 big ones, each of which hosts several thousand drinkers.

In order to get a beer you must be seated, and this means arriving at the festival well before 11am, especially at the weekends. Waitresses dressed demurely in traditional costume patrol the tables inside the huge tents, distributing festival lager in 1-litre mugs called ein mass, or 'measure', which this year are likely to cost a hefty Euro8 (HK$98) each.

The giant Hofbrau tent is affiliated with Munich's most famous beer cellar and consequently it attracts the biggest crowd of young foreign visitors to Oktoberfest. It's also the only tent with a special standing area that's exempt from the festival's no seat, no beer rule and which, for obvious reasons, is extremely crowded and affectionately known as the 'pig pen'.

Find respite from the crush by visiting the smallest tent, the Glockle-wirt, which belongs to the family that runs a popular budget hotel near Munich's most vibrant social venue, the outdoor Viktualienmarkt south of Marienplatz. There are many restaurants in the area, or you can simply snack on a sausage and mustard washed down with a beer, although the Viktualienmarkt market's summer beer garden is one of the most expensive in town.

For cheaper food and drink try the Elisabethplatz market in the student district of Schwabing, which also has many restaurants, cosy cafes and bars.

Having conquered the suckling pig, we stagger from the restaurant and work off calories by climbing to the gallery in St Peter's Church to enjoy a view of the Old Town. A broad canvas of architectural styles is spread beneath, ranging from Gothic to postmodern, making Munich easy on the eye, even if most historic architecture is reproduction - the city was bombed to bits during the second world war.

Nonetheless, this 'period' architecture adds considerable charm to the modern cityscape. From this lofty lookout, we can see Munich's largest church, the Gothic Frauenkirche with its distinctive twin towers, and Marienplatz - heart of the Old Town - where crowds gather daily to watch the moving figures in the Town Hall's famous clock.

This central square hosts another major event on the Munich calendar called Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt, a street market that's held daily from late November until Christmas Eve. It's a magical experience of twinkling lights, flaming braziers and carol singing, with traditional decorations, toys and winter clothing on sale - fuelled by mugs of gluhwein, fresh-baked gingerbread, toasted nuts and sausage.

Munich last year was named 'the world's most liveable city' by the uber-chic style magazine Monocle. As a host of the 2006 World Cup, the city seduced a global audience with its appealing blend of German efficiency and Italian style. Visitors consistently remark on the ease in which tradition rubs shoulders with edgy avant garde - a harmonious civic relationship now perfectly reflected in the futuristic glass outlines of the sparkling new BMW World.

From atop the 290-metre Olympic Tower, a panorama reveals the green spaces which contribute so much to Munich's overall sense of gemutlichkeit, or conviviality, including the Isar River which bisects the city and provides beaches for sunbathing and swimming as well as fishing spots, picnic locations and riverside walks. Within the city limits there are also four small lakes open for nude sunbathing and water sports.

Continuing the green theme, the English Garden, within easy walking distance of Marienplatz, is Europe's largest city park, and seems to stretch north infinitely from Prinzregentenstrasse into the countryside.

On fine summer days, locals strip off in the sunshine along the banks of the Eisbach, the arm of the river flowing through the park. There's also an artificial lake with paddle boats, a lofty Chinese pagoda and, of course, two beer gardens.

Getting there: Lufthansa ( flies from Hong Kong to Munich via Frankfurt.