Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Beer, bratwurst, and football - Sounds like Munich!

Here's what I knew about Munich before I came:

- it is the home of Oktoberfest, the world-renowned festival of all things beer, which actually takes place in September for reasons that I don't quite understand;
- Hitler made a bit of a name for himself rallying support to the National Socialist cause in the beer houses of Munich (thank you, history degree); and
- it is in Germany (thank you, grade 10 geography).

Here is what I know now that I have been to Munich:

Oktoberfest or no Oktoberfest, beer is king

Hubby may be a sommelier, but Munich is no place to get wine. Unless you want really shitty wine. In fact, if you ask someone where to get a good glass of wine, they will laugh at you and point you to the nearest beer house. Because bratwurst doesn't pair well with wine. It pairs well with beer. See:

Bratwurst in the Munich market - with beer

Now in an alcohol match-up, I prefer wine over beer. But I'm also a prairie girl, who went away to university and who hung out with engineers and football players. So I like beer. And it turns out that I don't really even miss wine, as long as there is good beer to be had. 

And there is good beer to be had in Munich. Lots of good beer. Beer by the litre, in fact. 

Good thing I work out those biceps!

Hubby showing off his 1-arm technique

These particular litres of beer were consumed at the oldest beer house in Munich, the Hofbräuhaus. So the story goes, the Bavarian king grew tired of drinking beer from Savoy, and ordered his subjects to find a way to brew beer in his backyard. And so they did. The beer itself was pretty good. But the place is really a must see. Historically speaking, it is not only the oldest watering hole in Munich but it is also the site of the first meeting on February 20, 1920 of the newly-formed National Socialist Party. But mostly, it is tourism kitsch at its best, interspersed with a few locals who simply enjoy connecting with their Bavarian roots. The place is decked out in Bavarian flags and colourful ceiling frescoes. There is a band playing polka music. The lady servers have their cleavage on display in their "beer wench" outfits. (Oddly enough, the boy servers aren't made to wear lederhosen, which I find a wee bit irritating and sexist, but I digress...) And of course, beer is served by the litre. (And in case you are counting, that is 3 bottles of beer). 

The oldest beer house in Munich - a tourist Mecca

The polka band

Some locals imbibing in their favourite brew

The best way to sell kitschy souvenirs to tourists... Get'em drunk... On a litre of beer

In this same watering hole, I discovered the most ingenious way to get tourists to buy kitschy souvenirs: place the souvenir stand right near the WC. 

Think about it. You walk into the oldest beer house in Munich. You have never been served a full litre of beer before because you are from North America and we are a puritanical society when it comes to alcohol. So of course, you order one. Within an hour, you are feeling a little tipsy - probably because you wouldn't normally drink 1 litre of beer in an hour. Also, you have to pee. Because beer is a diuretic. So you set off to find the WC, which is completely at the other end of the beer hall. On your way there, you see a souvenir stand. And fresh off of drinking a full litre of beer in an hour, you think to yourself, "Cool! Beer steins that hold a litre of beer! I need those!" 

That is exactly what happened to me. Except that, luckily, I really had to pee first. This gave me the opportunity to rethink my brilliant idea of buying a set of 8 litre-each beer steins. I mean really. When am I ever going to serve guests a litre of beer? (Well, unless certain members of my extended family come up to Ottawa to visit me, and that hasn't happened yet in the 19 years that I've been here). 

And so, I proudly walked past this carefully-laid tourist trap, and stumbled back to my table, smugly judging the suckers who fell for the ploy and who were dropping euros by the hundreds into the delighted hands of those rascally beer house owners. 

I still hate potato salad and cold cuts. And bratwurst. I still hate that too.

Now I enjoy a good steamed hot dog on occasion. Usually when I am taking in a sporting event. But I hate, and I mean hate, cold cuts. When I was a kid, if Mom would make me a salami sandwich, I would starve rather than eat it. As for bratwurst, well, lets just say that one too many family barbecues featured smokies. I just can't eat them anymore. Add to that potato salad laced with mayonnaise, something that I have always considered to be one of the most disgusting food substances ever produced. Well, let's just say that my trip to Munich has confirmed that I still hate all of the above. 

Which makes it pretty difficult to eat. I mean, about the only thing left is pork roast - which I love - and dumplings. And while the thought of dumplings originally had me thrilled to bits - because who doesn't love to overload on gooey carbs - I've reached my saturation point when it comes to the consumption of round balls of sticky gluten. And no matter how crispy they get that pig skin, I can't eat another bite of pork roast either. Which leaves me with some pretty slim pickings. On the plus side, though, this is probably one of the few vacations where I have lost weight! 

Too much of this is not a good thing
Canadian hockey fans have nothing on European football fans

(Soccer for the Canucks and Yankees reading this blog.)

We arrived in Munich by train on the same day as FC Bayern, Munich's beloved football club, was set to face off against another German team, Dortmund, in the Champion's League game. Now if you want to know about the Champion's League and what it takes to get there, you'll have to Google it. I know nothing about such things. But here is what I did manage to piece together:

- FC Bayern has made it to the Champion's League match 3 years in a row, yet they have not won; 
- it is a pretty special thing to have two German teams facing off against one another; and 
- the city of Munich was raking in major euros because of this event. 

On this latter point, people were coming in to Munich, not only from across Germany, but from across Europe. Seriously. We met a foursome who took a 14-hour bus ride from Paris, just so that they could be in Munich for this game. Beer houses were selling tickets to those who wanted to sit indoors to watch the game. Outdoor screens were being set up and tickets were being sold for viewing the game at the stadium where Bayern plays (capacity = 50,000) and on the Oktoberfest grounds (capacity = 30,000).

Oh, and did I mention that the game itself was played in London? That's right. At Wembley stadium. It wasn't even in Munich. Yet over a hundred thousand people flocked to Bavaria for the chance to watch their team in this all-important final. And the fact that it was cold and rainy did not dampen any of the enthusiasm. Of course, that was probably helped out by the copious amounts of beer that fans were consuming before kick-off. This is, after all, the beer capital of the world. 

FC Bayern fans pouring out of the trains on game day at the central train station
FC Bayern fans pouring out of the subway to get to the beer garden festival grounds for outdoor viewing

The crowds gathering on Marionplatz before kick-off, drinking beer and chanting in the streets

The police stand guard to make sure the crowds don't get too rowdy


Smashed beer bottles everywhere

To my Canuck friends who swear that there is no greater sports fan than a Canadian cheering on hockey... WRONG. Hockey may be a matter of national pride for Canada, but our love of the game does not come close to what Hubby and I witnessed on the streets of Munich. Seriously, if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup fin...  Oh, wait a minute. Let's choose a more realistic scenario...  If the Vancouver Canucks ever made it back to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, 100,000 rabid hockey fans would not descend on the city, gathering in public squares, drinking beer, and singing team chants. No way. Best sports fans in the world have to be European football fans. Have to be.

Oh, and Munich won.  So yes, it was pretty special to be in Munich on this particular day. 

There is always a church that is at least 9 centuries old

In Munich's case, this is St. Peter's church. It's foundations date back to the 1100s, and it has been rebuilt numerous times and in numerous styles since. It also offers a pretty great view of the city to those tourists willing to climb somewhere between 270 and 300 stairs (I counted on the way up and on the way down but got two different numbers, even though I did this before I drank a litre of beer) to the top of the tower. Now if it hadn't been so damn rainy and misty, we might have actually seen the spectacular Alps. But we didn't. So we'll just have to have faith that those postcards we sent to our niece and nephew did not have mountains photoshopped into them to impress tourists like us. 

The view from atop St. Peter's church

The altar at St. Peter's

The ceiling at St. Peter's

Perhaps one of the funnier moments on the trip came when, on our way back down the tower stairs, we passed a middle-age couple walking up who, as they were huffing and puffing, asked us how much further. "You're halfway there!" I shouted enthusiastically, like a cheerleader. At which point he just looked at me as though he wanted to punch me, and said, "Fuck!" I laughed so hard that I almost rolled down the rest of the stairs.  

Gargoyles rock. Life size cuckoo clocks do not.

Another attractive downtown sight is Old Town Hall. 

Old Town Hall on Marionplatz

It is fashioned in the gothic style, reminding me quite a bit of our own Parliament buildings. And since I do love a mean-looking gargoyle (who doesn't), I did quite enjoy gazing upon this structure the numerous times that we walked by. 

Now according to Lonely Planet, the "highlight" of this building is the Glockenspiel, a giant cuckoo clock that chimes daily at certain times, including 5:00pm. Not really my thing, but cause everyone else was stopping in the public square to check it out, so did we. Let me just say, Lonely Planet, that there are about a million things more impressive about that building than the freaking Glockenspiel. If ever there were an anti-climactic, overly-hyped tourist attraction, this was it. Even the 8-year-old boy standing beside us looked up at his parents and said, "This is getting on my nerves." Truer words have never been spoken, kid. So following this young man's lead, we left before the display was over, and instead went for ice cream. Much more satisfying. 

Sometimes, there are just no words

On our last day in Munich, Hubby and I decided to visit the suburb of Dachau. That's right. The Dachau. As in the concentration camp. The first camp, in fact, and the one on which all others were modelled. Somewhat fittingly, it was rainy and cold. We spent three hours there. We probably could have spent three more. 

I am still struggling to articulate the feelings and the emotions that I have as a result of visiting this grim place.  Sometimes, even for someone like me who talks too much, there simply are no words. No words can ever explain the inhumanity. No words can ever ease the suffering of those affected by the camps. No words can ever bring back the dead. But hopefully, we have honoured their memory by recognizing the importance of this terrible moment in human history. 

A memorial statue, representing those in the camps who, out of desperation, threw themselves into the electrified barbed wire fence rather than face another day of starvation and torture

The barbed wire fence that kept the prisoners in

We are all connected, despite our differences

On our first day in Munich, the day that the streets were filled with screaming football fans, Hubby and I stuck out like sore thumbs. Not only because we are so obviously tourists, walking around in our sneakers and holding our maps. But also because we were among the very few not wearing FC Bayern clothing. In no place was this more evident than in the market, where we grabbed a bite to eat among the hordes of fans singing football chants and guzzling back beer after beer after beer. 

As is so often the case, we discovered, restaurants and places to eat are very crowded. And so you end up sitting at a table with complete strangers. On this particular night, as we were enjoying our first Munich beer, a gentleman about our age asked, in heavily accented English, if he could sit at our table. Of course, we said yes. 

For a few minutes, we struggled through the requisite pleasantries. Where are you from? Is this your first time in Munich? The weather sucks right now. That sort of thing. And then our new friend said, "I don't think you are here for the Bayern game." I smiled and said, "No. We're actually here for a concert."

Our new friend's face lit up. "You here to see Springsteen?" He asked. 

"Yes."

"Me too!" he exclaimed.

We were instantly friends. 

A few moments later, his wife joined us. By then, we had learned that he has seen Springsteen 30 times, and that he is going to 3 more shows after this one. When he introduced us to his wife, he told her that we were even crazier than him, because we came all the way from Canada for a show. Then we showed him pictures from the Ottawa concert, where a friend's boys were pulled up on stage to sing Waitin' on a Sunny Day with Springsteen. "You know those boys?!?" he screamed. "Oh my God! You guys are crazy!" he said. And then he bought us a beer. 

We talked a little while longer. About their trip to Vancouver a few years ago. About the time they ran the New York marathon. About our trip to Provence and Bordeaux last year. And then it was time to go and watch the game, so we went our separate ways. 

This moment has been the highlight of our 10 days in Europe. Even more of a highlight than the concert itself. Because it serves to remind us that oceans and language may separate us. But what we have in common unites us. And that feeling of connectedness simply can't be beat. 

Farewell, Munich! And congrats on winning that Champion's League thingy.