The Hidden Oktoberfest, part two … Ein Prosit der Missmutigkeit

The mother of all festivals is up and running, and our series of blogs on the lesser known stories behind Oktoberfest continues …

Number Two. King Ludwig was not a fan of Oktoberfest.

King Ludwig heads north in a desperate attempt to escape that year's Oktoberfest.

King Ludwig flees north in a desperate attempt to escape that year’s Oktoberfest.

Bavaria’s most famous king, “mad” King Ludwig II of fairytale castle fame, hated Oktoberfest. Really loathed it, almost as much as he despised beer. And he disliked beer almost as much as he spurned the company of people. And he detested being in the company of people almost as much as he deprecated Munich.

And King Ludwig II really did not like Munich at all.

Such was his desire to remove himself as far as possible from Munich that he built castles on mountain peaks and palaces on islands in distant lakes, where he would brood in Wagnerian solitude. Such was his disdain for Bavarian speech that he would order his servants to elocution lessons. He preferred French to German in any case. And also had less need to see his servants than hear them. They were ordered to cover themselves in his presence.

No ruddy faced peasants bellowing “O’zapft is!” for Ludwig.

It’s hardly surprising that a misanthrope who abominated beer and disfavoured Munich would not enjoy the presence of a large number of people drinking beer in Munich. In his two decades as king, he visited Oktoberfest less than half a dozen times, all of them reluctantly.

It is, however, odd to think that the figure who is celebrated in folk memory and tourism here more than any other felt so estranged from the other iconic features of Munich that he shares space with on the postcards – Oktoberfest, beer, and Munich itself. It’s like finding out that Mickey Mouse hasn’t spoken to Donald Duck in years and that his relationship with Minnie is a sham kept up only for PR purposes.

King Ludwig's face is seen more often in Oktobefest today than it ever was when he was alive. He does not seem amused.

King Ludwig’s face, here wearing an appropriate expression of distinct non-amusment, is seen more often in Oktoberfest today than it ever was when he was alive.

Poor Ludwig. As kings go, he wasn’t the worst of them. It is sad to to think that he is doomed to spend all eternity grimacing from a thousand murals, gaudy paintings and t-shirts onto a bloated festival of beery folksiness that so offended his sensitive and secretive soul in life.

All he wanted was for his life to be a fairy tale. But his afterlife has turned out to be a ferris wheel.


The Hidden Oktoberfest, part one … Einstein’s General Theory of Conviviality

The world’s biggest Volksfest kicks off in Munich this weekend. The beer barrels are ready to roll, the flirty dirndls are primed for action, and a hundred thousand hangovers are coming this way like a weather front. Throughout the festival, we’ll be posting a series of blogs on the lesser known facts and stories behind Oktoberfest …

Number One: Albert Einstein installed the first electric lights at Oktoberfest.

"O'zapft is!"

“O’zapft is!”

No, seriously. This is true. Well maybe. In researching this, I’ve read three different articles that give three different versions of the story involving the young Albert hanging lights in the tents, one of which claims that he did so in 1880. Obviously the father of modern science could work wonders, but nevertheless that was an impressive feat for a one year old.

The most reliable version seems to be that the 17 year Einstein helped electrify the Schottenhamel tent in 1896. Living in Munich’s Lindwurmstrasse (today’s number 127), he was working as an assistant for the electrical firm established by his father and uncle, “J. Einstein & Cie”. The firm was contracted to bring electric light to an Oktoberfest tent for the first time, and young Albert had the onerous task of screwing in the bulbs (Oktoberfest tents are big).

What is even less well known is that Einstein’s famous equation, “e=mc²“, does not, as is commonly believed, mean that the energy (“e”) of matter is equal to the mass (“m”) of that matter times the speed of light (“c”) squared. This founding statement of modern theoretical physics was the result of a translation error. He was actually referring not to “mass” but “Maß“, the name given to the litre glasses of beer served at Oktoberfest.

Young Albert was constantly slacking off the job in order to sneak another beer from the waitresses, and noted that his energy levels for climbing the ladders, relative to the number of Maß litres he had consumed, completely squared up the speed with which he was able to screw in the light bulbs. Having a fondness for equations, he wrote this down in order to impress the waitresses, and it was later found among his papers and misunderstood. The result was that time and space got confused and everything went quantum.

Which can happen quite a lot after an evening in Oktoberfest.

Can dark history be enlightened tourism?

The site of the former Dachau Concentration Camp is now a major international Memorial Site.

Part of the historic grounds of the former Dachau Concentration Camp is now a major international Memorial Site.

“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” – Walter Benjamin.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, arrived in the town of Dachau a few weeks ago in order to address an election rally in a beer tent. On her way there, she found time to briefly make history by becoming the first post-war German leader to visit the Memorial Site that stands on the grounds of the former concentration camp. Not everyone was impressed. Wolfgang Benz, eminent historian of the darkest period in German history, criticised the timing as insultingly casual. Within 15 minutes of posing in silence with survivors of the concentration camp at a wreath-laying ceremony, Merkel was surrounded by a horde of beer-swilling political activists in a festival in the centre of town. Politicians from other parties described  the sequence as “tasteless.”

Merkel has normally shown herself to be adept at dealing with this most sensitive of issues, but this was a misstep. Past and present sit uneasily together in Germany. This is familiar territory to Radius, as we specialise in guided tours themed on Germany’s tragic 20th century history. Combining the structures of modern tourism with the sensitivities of a difficult history requires adeptness on our part. Not all commercial operators get it right, as this recent article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, shows.

The period 1933-45 is the history that is never merely “history” in this country. Not only is its legacy always present in the background in German attitudes to politics and foreign affairs, but it is a ubiquitous presence in the landscape of urban Germany: monuments, memorials, streets and public squares named in honour of victims and dissidents.

And that’s not counting the public buildings in everyday use that carry the shadow of a sinister history, like a stain that paint won’t quite cover.  Continue reading

Dachau Volksfest – the bite sized Oktoberfest

No, this is not Oktoberfest. This is Dachau's answer to Oktoberfest.

No, this is not Oktoberfest. This is Dachau’s answer to Oktoberfest.

Anyone passing by the Wiesn in the next few weeks will see preparations underway for the world’s most mammoth beer festival. Oktoberfest will be rolling into Munich next month like an invading army, and in the weeks leading up to 21st September it will almost be possible to feel a collective intake of breath in anticipation. Soon the joyous multitude in dirndls and lederhosen will be upon us, and the air will resound to the chiming bell note of Maß clinking on Maß and 1970s pop songs that didn’t sound much better the first time round.

Get ready. It’s coming.

What is less known to a surprisingly large number of people who live here, however, is Oktoberfest’s little brother festival that takes place in Dachau this month. The Dachau Volksfest runs from 10th – 19th August.  And it’s a gem.

For one thing, the setting is perfect. Dachau is one of the prettiest old world towns in Munich’s hinterland, and is just 20 minutes on the S2 from Hauptbahnhof. The festival grounds are in easy walking distance from the train station.

For another thing, it’s much more relaxed. The Dachau Fest has all the fun of Oktoberfest – no key element, from Hosen to Hendel, from Dirndl to Dunkles, is neglected – but without the manic intensity. It’s attended overwhelmingly by local people and has retained its traditional village fête atmosphere. You are less likely to be accosted by a drunken Australian asking if you can help them find their passport or if you don’t feel like that if you’d rather have sex with them instead. It’s much easier to find a place at a table, and it’s very family friendly.

They're drinking damned fine beer.

They’re drinking damned fine beer.

But above all else, the Dachau Volksfest has one over-riding USP. The beer. It’s good, very good. Dachau’s Schlossbrauerei has been around since 1608 – that’s 12 years before the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock – and produces an amber nectar to rival the best of Munich’s big six breweries. And not only is it good, it is almost surreally cheap. The Dachau Volksfest prides itself in offering the cheapest Maß litre of beer in Bavaria. Last year the organisers were almost embarrassed to announce that they had been forced to raise the price above the psychologically important €5 mark, and a Maß will now cost €5.30.

That’s not a typo. A litre of very fine beer costs just over €5. Contrast that with this year’s Oktoberfest, where you’ll be asked to pay up to €9.85 for the same.

If you want to experience the Bavarian beer festival equivalent of a pre-season warm-up game before the Champions League kicks off in September, pop along to Dachau next week. If you are a tourist and you’re reading this, go along and get a feel for what Oktoberfest is like, albeit on a smaller – but no less enjoyable for that – scale.

Dachau Volksfest

10th – 19th August

From Munich: S2 from Hauptbahnhof in the direction of Dachau or Petershausen (trains depart every 20 minutes). The festival is an approx. 10 minute walk from Dachau Bahnhof – just follow the signs (or the people in traditional dress). Alternatively, take a short taxi ride from the taxi rank in front of Dachau Bahnhof.

Bavarian rhapsody in blue …

Bavaria is blue. Blue is what Bavaria does. “Blue is the typical heavenly colour” wrote Wassily Kandinsky. “The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest.” His own Blaue Reiter (“Blue Rider”) group of pioneering modernist artists based in Munich and Murnau is only one of a number of associations between the free state and the cobalt colour. Strauss’s Blue Danube flows through Bavaria on its way to the Black Sea. We have Bavaria Blu stilton cheese, and Nuremberg’s annual Blue Night city festival. There is also the white and blue Bavarian flag, inherited from the heraldic colours of the former ruling family, the Wittelsbachs – one of whose most celebrated historic figures is Max Emanuel, the 18th century Blue Duke.

Lake Starnberg, south of Munich. "The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite." - Wassily Kandinsky.

Lake Starnberg, south of Munich. “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite.” – Wassily Kandinsky.

Popular lore has it that the white and blue lozenges of the flag represent the lakes and rivers of Bavaria – or, depending on who you ask, the lakes and sky, or other variations – but this is probably a later romantic reinterpretation of medieval heraldry that held no such meaning. People keep making the connection, however. The state anthem refers to “die Farben deines Himmels, Weiss und Blau” (“the colours of your heavens, white and blue”) and compares them to “unser Banner, Weiss and Blau“. The Munich writer Carl Amery described the Bavarian sky as our “white and blue canopy of state.” Associating nation with nature is very much a Bavarian thing.

The Bavarian landscape seems almost designed to grasp the sky. The mountains, fading blue into the horizon, draw the gaze upwards to the blue immensity of the heavens, and the crystalline lakes mirror and complement both. The white towers of a typical Bavarian church serve only to highlight and define the blue all around. Can there be a more typically postcard-perfect Bavarian sight than a blue and white maypole against an unblemished azure sky?

Bavarian blue.

Bavarian blue.

Perhaps the only area where Bavaria is not a kingdom of blue is in football, much to the chagrin of the blues of Munich 1860, forever in the shadow of the all-conquering reds of FC Bayern. They would probably agree with Kandinsky when he described red as a troubling colour, causing  a sensation like fire.

Neuschwanstein uncovered …

The scaffolding is finally removed from Neuschwanstein Castle.

The fairytale is more believable without the scaffolding.

The fairytale is more believable without the scaffolding.

As of this week, Neuschwanstein Castle is completely free of scaffolding for the first time in 10 years. The maintenance and cleaning work of the past decade is now finally complete. The authorities did their best to keep the scaffolding as discreet and unobtrusive as possible, with only specific sections covered at any one time. But still, it’s nice to be able to see King Ludwig’s Wagnerian fantasy in stone unveiled in its full glory, exactly as he intended it to be seen.

Except that he didn’t intend it to be seen by anyone other than himself. But that’s another post.

Waiting for the Glockenspiel …

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, actually it is a bird.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s … well, actually it is a bird. Sort of.

Every day Munich’s city hall is transformed into one large cuckoo clock for the amusement of tourists and anyone who happens to be in Marienplatz at the time. By ancient tradition – ok, just over a century, but why spoil it? – the Glockenspiel – or carillon, as the French would call it – cranks up and commences its 15 minute performance of dancing mannequins and clanking bells either once or three times daily depending on the time of year.

Possibly the most gazed-at figures in southern Germany.

Possibly the most gazed-at figures in southern Germany.

A much loved icon of Munich tourism, the Glockenspiel is embedded on the central tower of the imposing neo-Gothic (which is an intellectually polite way of saying “fake medieval”) Rathaus, built in the late 19th century after more authentic and therefore more humble medieval buildings were demolished to make way for it. The performance officially commemorates two events in the history and folklore of Munich. The first is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V (whose sainted memory is forever to be toasted as the founder of the Hofbräuhaus) to Renata of Lorraine. The happy couple were to 16th century Bavaria what Will and Kate are to Britain today. The second is the “cooper’s dance” of apprentice boys cavorting through the city in defiance of the plague in 1517. The first event actually happened; the second belongs more to the realm of popular fable. The show also features a horse jousting tournament – untold tens of thousands of daily contests and Bavaria has yet to lose – and, oh yes, what appears to be a chicken squawking three times at the end. Do not miss the chicken. You have not experienced the Glockenspiel if you miss the chicken.

Uniquely, Munich's city hall ("Rathaus") also double jobs as the world's largest cuckoo clock.

Uniquely, Munich’s city hall (“Rathaus”) also double-jobs as the world’s largest cuckoo clock.

The Glockenspiel primarily exists today to delight tourists and torture tour guides. After a guide has had to stand through the full show for roughly the hundredth time, some small signs of mission fatigue can manifest – the thousand yard stare, the soft mumbling and twitching, the tearful questioning of the purpose of life. This can be more entertaining than the Glockenspiel itself, but nevertheless we encourage our customers to report any such behaviour on the part of guides to us, as here in Radius we have an excellent rehabilitation programme involving some R & R in the salt mines of Obersalzberg. Before you know it, they are back, refreshed and chirpy, and happy to answer your questions about why the guy in red keeps falling off his horse, and is that a chicken?

The view from above the Glockenspiel

The view from above the Glockenspiel

You can see the Glockenspiel every day on our Priceless Munich city walking tour.

Radius through the ages …

Radius Tours - the artists formally known as bayern Bikes

Radius Tours – the artists formally known as Bayern Bikes

Like all the free market’s great and iconic institutions – Apple, KFC, Elton John’s hairline – Radius has felt the need to have an occasional makeover over the years. Re-branding is to tourism what being fast on the draw is to a gunslinger. There are only two types in this business: the quick and the dead. Among the latter are those companies who failed to regularly update their brochures to reflect ever changing tastes and expectations in visual advertising. As Bob Dylan – who knows a thing or two about reinvention – puts it: “he who is not busy being born is busy dying.”

As we celebrate our 25th birthday this weekend, we thought it would be nice to briefly look back at how our image and presentation has evolved.

What began as a bike rental service quickly grew into a tour company

What began as a bike rental service quickly grew into a tour company

Especially in our early years, before the Internet took over the world and our online presence became central to our identity, brochures distributed in tourist information offices and hostels and hotels were the company’s sole means of telling the public who we are. They still are hugely important today, especially for the all-important “walk in”: the visitor who has made a spontaneous decision that morning.

Over the past 10 years, we have grown rapidly

Over the past 10 years, we have grown rapidly

The brochure is the basic programming of the business. If it doesn’t work, everything else fails. One feature of Radius that has not changed in a quarter century is that we have wonderful guides – informed, passionate, and professional. They only get an opportunity to prove this, however, if we get our advertising right.

Radius today - one of Munich's premier tour operators in English, Spanish and German

Radius today – one of Munich’s premier tour operators in English, Spanish and German

Our identity has evolved over time – from Bayern Bikes to Radius Touristik to The Original Munich Walks to today’s Radius Tours and Bikes. And with it, our marketing has changed also. We know we have been successful at this because of the way the business has continuously grown, and also by the fact that competitors have paid us the universal compliment of imitation. The key to success here is very simple: change your advertising if need be, but not your standards. To borrow a phrase from football: form – in this case, marketing – is temporary; class is permanent.