More to Munich than Oktoberfest
Industrial-scale drinking at the city's beer festival is all very well, but what about a quieter brew? Will Hawkes goes in search of Gemütlichkeit
A group of young people are barrelling towards me. It's a cold day in Munich but these twentysomethings are dressed for the location, not the weather: the men are in lederhosen and felt hats with feathers in them, while the women have squeezed themselves into dirndls, the traditional Bavarian dress. It is an almost comically perfect scene ... until one of the young men turns and shouts at his friends in Australian-accented, profanity-peppered English.
Munich can be a strange place. Although a deeply traditional city, the pull of its world-renowned beer culture means what you see isn't necessarily what you get. At no time is this more true than during Oktoberfest (which begins next Saturday and runs until Sunday 6 October), when the globe's most committed drinkers descend on the city for a 16-day festival. Who can blame them? Drinking good beer in a jovial atmosphere is hard not to enjoy.
But it's overwhelming, too. The biggest tent at the festival, the Paulaner brewery's Winzerer Fähndl, seats 8,500, with room for thousands sitting outside and standing inside. According to the brewery itself, as many as 100,000 people might pass through on a busy weekend. This is drinking on an industrial scale.
Such gigantism does not appeal to everyone, so it's a relief that away from Oktoberfest things are rather more relaxed. There are plenty of places where you can go in Munich which have a rather different feel, where things are more human, and where you might get a sense of what the locals mean when they talk about Gemütlichkeit.
This word denotes cosiness and well-being, a happiness that derives from being in a comfortable place, having a good time. It's a quality that, one local told me, is more prevalent in countryside inns outside Munich, but there are still plenty of places where you can experience it in the big city.
In the shadow of Munich's cathedral you'll find Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom, a restaurant where all the decorative clichés of Bavarian culture are rigorously observed. Dark wood, tick; waitresses in dirndls, tick; patterned tablecloths, check. But it doesn't seem so forced here. When I visited, there was a real sense of warmth: the small main room was three-quarters full and there was the tell-tale buzz of gentle, happy conversation. One waitress sat down at the table next to mine and chatted to an elderly customer; in the corner by the bar, a big circular table hosted a large group of high-spirited businessmen.
The lubricant for all this bonhomie is the beer. Augustiner Helles, served "Bayerische Anstich" – by gravity from a wooden barrel – is a golden, bready, lightly carbonated brew that you could easily drink too much of (€3.70). Augustiner is one of Munich's six traditional big breweries and perhaps the most respected.
But it's not just about the beer. This place prides itself on its sausages, with a menu that runs the whole porky gamut. A plate of crispy roast pork with bread and potato dumplings (€11.50) demonstrated exactly why so many of the elderly, ruddy-faced gentlemen who frequent this place are comfortably well-padded around the middle.
You'll find a younger crowd at Nockherberg, the beer garden attached to the Paulaner brewery. This is one of the most popular beer gardens in a city that is addicted to drinking in the open air, even when the weather doesn't merit it.
Nockherberg is situated on a hill overlooking the city. Like most Bavarian beer gardens, you can bring your own food. The atmosphere is jolly and plenty of beer is being drunk, but I sensed little real risk of violence when I visited. Unlike too many of Britain's outdoor drinking areas, Nockherberg is well looked after and the patrons seem to respond to this care and attention. If you treat drinkers with respect, it seems, they repay the compliment. Who'd have thought?
Nockherberg can be lively, nonetheless, much like the most famous – or infamous – beer hall in Munich: the Hofbräuhaus, where (and without wishing to dwell on the subject) Hitler gave many of his early speeches. Nowadays, it's a huge tourist attraction, not because of that dismal bit of Bavarian history but because it boasts a special atmosphere and decent beer – in particular the nutty, toasted Dunkel, the traditional dark lager of Munich. For all its tourist reputation, the beer is not expensive: a litre of Dunkel costs €7.30.
There's somewhere much better a two-minute walk away, though. On Tal, you'll find Weisses Bräuhaus, the former home of the Schneider Weisse brewery. These days, the famous wheat beer is made solely in Kelheim, a town 60 miles to the north, the Schneiders having decamped at the end of the Second World War.
The brewery is now a magnificent beer hall where one of Bavaria's most charming and misunderstood traditions can be enjoyed: beer at breakfast. If you arrive before noon, you'll find the main room downstairs full of men and women tucking into weisswurst, pretzels and some of the best wheat beer on the planet.
Weisswurst (sausages) are interesting: not only are they stunningly white (they're boiled rather than fried or grilled) but they boast a smooth consistency that can be challenging for the squeamish. Nonetheless, when paired with sweet mustard, these gently herbed, lemony sausages are delicious. The perfect accompaniment to Schneider Weiss's clove and banana-heavy Blonde (€3.80 for a half-litre).
Nothing attests to the continuing popularity of Weisses Bräuhaus with locals more than the lack of English spoken here. This is no tourist trap, even if there is an English menu for those, like me, whose German extends to six, maybe seven words. It's a case of point-at-the-menu-and-smile. You might even get one back, although the waitresses here are well-known for a certain frostiness.
That, though, doesn't seem to detract from the atmosphere or to put the mockers on that all-pervasive Gemütlichkeit. Halfway through my breakfast, a trio of elderly Bavarian gents trooped in and joined me at my table (sharing tables is common in Munich, another thoroughly civilised convention) and the eldest-looking, who was sporting one of those dainty felt hats, pointed at my breakfast and made what appeared to be an approving remark. I smiled in return. Turns out you don't need to speak German or wear the local garb to fit it in Munich: an appreciation of good beer and hearty food is enough.
There are frequent flights to Munich from a range of UK airports on Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Another option is to travel to nearby Memmingen from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), connecting by train (bahn.de) or shuttle bus (allgaeu-airport-express.de) to Munich.
Eating and drinking there
Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom, 9 Frauenplatz (00 49 89 29 19 450; bratwurst-gloeckl.de).
Nockherberg, 77 Hochstrasse (00 49 89 45 99 130; nockherberg.com).
Hofbrauhaus, 9 Platzl (00 49 89 29 01 36; www.hofbraeuhaus.de).
Weisses Bräuhaus, 7 Tal (00 49 89 29 01 380; weisses-brauhaus.de).
Munich Tourism: muenchen.de
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