Bavaria beyond Oktoberfest: Why you should visit Germany’s ‘trad’ region outside of its famous festival

From great shaggy beasts to towns full of frescos, Vicky Smith finds much to discover besides the top tourist draws

Sunday 12 February 2023 10:57 GMT
<p>Wild-Berghof Buchet in the Bavarian Forest</p>

Wild-Berghof Buchet in the Bavarian Forest

The streets of Sonthofen, Germany’s southernmost town, were eerily quiet. A Christmas tree twinkled softly and restaurants cast warm pools of light, but darkness and silence reigned. Something was afoot… Suddenly, a cacophony of cowbells. And then they appeared: huge shaggy beasts with a human form and long curving horns.

These were Klausen, a variation on the infamous Krampus. Each year in early December, men (who must be unmarried) march through Sonthofen in fearsome furry costumes, whipping spectators with twigs. Women also take part in parades as “Bärbele”, dressed in witchy outfits. I was delighted to find how enthusiastically this ancient Alpine practice – likely pagan in origin, and designed to ward off winter’s evil spirits – had been embraced by younger generations.

Bavaria has many iconic tourist hallmarks: from rosy-cheeked men in lederhosen to King Ludwig II’s Disney-imitated castles. But the region’s biggest draw, for better or worse, remains Oktoberfest, with its swilling steins of beer and dirndl-clad waitresses. This sees millions of visitors descend on Munich for the rowdiest festival of its kind, pegged for an even bigger extended edition in 2023. But intrigued by German culture and history, I was here to explore Bavaria beyond the tents, steins and stereotypes.

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