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TRAVEL STORY

Bier o’clock

Gambling editor Chris Lines went to Munich to soak up its many charms, including the enormous, epic Oktoberfest

Ask anybody to name a world city that they would associate with the month of October, and it’s highly probably they’ll say Munich. The whole Bavaria region buzzes with visitors this month, with the bulk of them heading for the region’s ancient capital. Like the Basque country in Spain, or (some would argue) Tyneside in England, Bavaria feels culturally very distinct from the rest of Germany. It’s not that we necessarily agree with the stereotype of Germans being stern, sensible and humourless – but the warmth and friendliness of your average Bavarian can come as something of a surprise. What’s not to like in a people who see beer as such a staple that they think nothing of having a frothing pilsner with their breakfast? Especially during Oktoberfest when Munich turns into party central in the best possible way.

München to the Germans, the city’s name is derived from the Old German word for monks (‘Mönche’). The story behind the name is that it was to honour the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city – hence the monk depicted on the city’s coat of arms.

The city is located on the River Isar, north of the Bavarian Alps. With a population of 1.35 million people with the city limits, it is Germany’s third-biggest city. The Munich Metropolitan Area is home to around five million people. In a summer 2007 survey, over three hundred thousand of those living within the city limits did not hold German citizenship, with Turkish and Balkan communities accounting for a large proportion of immigrants. This adds a pleasant multi-cultural feel to the city and opens up no shortage of interesting dining options – seek out one of the many Yugoslav barbeque restaurants for an incredible meat feast that you won’t forget in a hurry. My travel companion took me to one he knew would test my famous capacity for eating. The wager was that he’d pay for dinner if I cleared my plate. I’m not proud to admit that not only did I achieve this apparent ‘feat’ to his evident dismay; I ended up finishing what he couldn’t manage too. Not that I was rubbing in it, it was just too good to go to waste.

Another of Munich’s highlights is unquestionably the architecture. Old and new, there’s so much to see here. Many of the city’s historic buildings have been restored from ruins to their former glories.

At the centre of the city is the marvellous Marienplatz. This is a big open square featuring both the Old and New Town Hall. The latter’s tower houses the famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel, which features 32 life-sized figures and plays a jaunty little tune every 12-15 minutes throughout the day. Three gates of an otherwise long-since demolished medieval fortification have survived to this day, one of which leads through to an impressive square featuring the Justizpalast (Palace of Justice).

But architecture buffs will find just as much gratification in the city’s more modern structures. The Allianz Arena football stadium – shared between football teams Bayern Munich and 1860 Munich – has to be seen to be believed. It is encased by this highly unusual membrane, which can change colour to red, blue or white depending on whether Bayern, 1860 or the German national team are playing that night. Meanwhile the 1976 Olympic Park is still a charming venue, if starting to show its age a little, while the nearby BMW building is certainly a striking sight.

Oktoberfestivities!

Oktoberfest attracts millions of visitors every year. It takes place in an area of the city called Theresienwiese. This is an open space in the Munich borough of Ludwigsvorstadt-Isarvorstadt, where huge tents, marquees and even temporary buildings are erected ech year to house all the happy revellers. Many are laid on my major breweries, and the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl (the world-famous beer hall in the city centre) also operates the second largest tent at the festival.

The festival dates back to 1810 and commemorates the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (namesake of the Theresienwiese festival grounds) The party lasts for around a fortnight (it runs until October 4 this year), and starts early each day. Drinking hours are from 10am (gulp) through until 10.30pm, followed by an hour of drinking up time. You may only get 20 minutes in English pubs but you try getting through your sixth two-pint stein of Paulaner that day with only 20 minutes to do it – believe me, that hour is essential. It’s quite common for visitors to start arriving at around 9am in order to bag themselves decent seats.

There are fairground attractions too – its not all about the beer – but I won’t mislead you: the beer plays a big part. You’ll find all manner of tasty German beers to try here, particularly pilsner, wheat beers and dark beers (dunkels). The food’s incredible too – especially if you’re a bread addict like me. All manner of pretzels, wurst, dumplings, Steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick) and Käsespätzle (cheese noodles) will spoil you rotten.

Just mind out for the piles – literally – of folk who’ve had one stein too many. German beer isn’t always the strongest, but all-day drinking will inevitably have its casualties. Slow down, enjoy the taste, and you won’t find yourself wincing in a heap on the floor come closing time.

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Bier o’clock
Gambling editor Chris Lines
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