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Munich's Oktoberfest stems from tradition, draws millions

MUNICH - If you dislike crowds, noise or beer, this is not the time to visit Munich. Even though it is called Oktoberfest, one of the world's largest fun fairs has already started and is drawing in its usual crowd of millions.

But if you do like them, or want the beer despite those other distractions, now's the time to go. The fair, whose start was moved forward into September long ago to profit from the late summer, goes on this year until Oct. 5.

Oktoberfest was first celebrated in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese and invited Munich's citizens to join the party on the Theresienwiesen ("Therese's meadow"), the fields in front of the then city gates.

The traditional Bavarian clothes worn back then are still in fashion now in the huge beer tents run by the city's breweries. Men wear leather shorts called "lederhosen" and women don the dirndl, a dress with an old-fashioned bodice that can range from the austere to the rather revealing.

If you're up for the local look, you can lay your hands on the kit anywhere in Munich from luxury boutiques on Maximilianstrasse to second hand shops in the side streets.

Clad in your new outfit, stroll across the "Wiesn" (fair grounds) and soak up the aroma of cotton candy and roasted almonds and the scent of barley and hops from all that beer.

More than 6 million visitors from Germany and around the world attend the Oktoberfest every year.

SO, WHERE'S THE BEER?

One place to look is the new Marstal beer tent, the first big new tent in a generation, a change which tradition-conscious Munich locals have been sceptical about. The tent may therefore not be as crowded as others.

Young locals favour the Schuetzen-Festzelt tent, famous for its suckling pig in malt beer. The even younger ones head to the Schottenhamel, where the Oktoberfest's first keg is tapped.

The tapping of the first keg gets local hearts going, not just because the beer will finally flow, but also because everybody is keen to see how many times the city's mayor has to hit the tap to hammer it in. It was four for Munich's new mayor this year, leaving room for improvement in succeeding years.

Traditional charm can be found in the Hacker tent, decked out in the Bavarian colours white and blue, and at the Braeurosl or Augustiner tents. The latter is the only brewery that still uses wooden kegs for storage.

The Oktoberfest tents serve local delicacies such as thirst-provoking oxen, pork knuckles and salty pretzels. But for a less pricey version and possibly more authentic Munich meal, try one of the city's many beer halls or gardens.

The Augustiner beer hall in Munich's main pedestrian zone is a favourite after-work meeting spot. The Chinese Tower beer garden in the English Garden park, known for its tall wooden pagoda, is a classic, but farther away from the festivities.

Once you are inside a tent, where the oompah of the brass bands mingles with sing-alongs and the cheer of merry drinkers, find a table, order drinks and food, and have fun. Prost!

Remember the beer not only comes in a 1 litre (1.8 pint) 'mass' glass, but at around 6 percent is also stronger than the brew you might be used to. Pace yourself or risk passing out and becoming a "Bierleiche" ("beer corpse").

The litre will cost 9.70-10.10 euros ($12.40-12.90) this year, roughly 30 cents more than last year.

If you want to get into a beer tent but have no reservation, be ready to turn up before noon. Tents open at 9 a.m. on the weekends. While there is seating for some 115,000 people in total, they shut once they are full. On rare occasions, access is shut to the entire Wiesn site due to overcrowding.

OTHER ACTIVITIES

For your first view of the fair, try a turn on the Ferris wheel. For the more adventurous, try one of the stomach-turning rollercoasters before, rather than after, sampling the beer.

The Toboggan, offering the sight of punters struggling to stay upright on an uphill conveyor belt, is a favourite and explains why "Schadenfreude" (deriving pleasure from someone else's misfortune) is a German word. Its entertainment value makes up for its lack of gut-churning potential.

If the weather is not kind to you, you could head to the Marienplatz in the heart of Munich to check out the city hall and the cathedral and find a restaurant in the pedestrian zone.

LATE NIGHT

All but a few beer tents have served their last round at about 11 p.m. A few places, like the Schuetzen-Festzelt, have a ritual last song of the night.

If you're into Rainhard Fendrich, an Austrian pop star who goes down well with the Bavarian crowd, head to the Schuetzen for a recital of his love song "Weus'd a Herz host wia a Bergwerk" ("Because you have a heart like a mine" - yes, it works better in German).

You can either go on to Weinzelt ("wine tent") or the Kaefer tent, both of which still serve alcohol after midnight.

Alternatively, there are after-parties all over the city. Follow the locals. Surely by now you will have befriended some. If you've been tongue-tied, it may be because you didn't check out Oktoberfest's very own Bavarian dictionary at: www.oktoberfest.de/en/lexikon/.

In Schwanthalerhoehe, the district that lies downtown just beyond the monumental statue of Bavaria, many bars remain open and rowdy all night long.

If clubbing is your thing, however, and you want to dance off some of those beer-calories, try out the stylish - if a tad pretentious - P1 club.

Located underneath the Haus der Kunst art museum, a Nazi-built structure which hosted the infamous 1937 exhibition of "degenerate art," P1 is a haunt for Munich's upper class and celebrities and those that would like to be either.

The doormen are ruthless in their entrance policy, so glam up or you'll be left standing in the cold.

OTHER SIGHTS

For some fresh air, or maybe to cure a hangover, try a walk around the English Gardens, a rare oasis of tranquillity during the Oktoberfest and one of the world's largest urban parks.

Don't be taken by surprise if you wander into the area reserved for naked sunbathers. The Free Body Culture (FKK) movement was founded in the early 20th century and succeeded in taking much of the smut and embarrassment out of nudity.

Another curiosity is the surfers riding the small waves at the mouth of an artificial stream running through the gardens, not far from the P1.

An alternative relaxing destination just out of town is Lake Starnberg, formed from Ice Age glaciers from the Alps and offering stunning mountain views on a clear day.

The hardy can attempt a dip in the 21-km- (13-mile-)long freshwater lake, go windsurfing or sailing, while the more laid-back can simply stroll along the shore with its brightly painted wooden boathouses or hop on a ferry.

If you're in Munich on the first Oktoberfest weekend, check out the Costume and Riflemen's Parade, a must-see if you want to know what traditional garb used to look like in the old days.

And if you still haven't had enough of the Oktoberfest, return to the Wiesn to check out more beer, rollercoasters and amusement rides.

Look after your belongings, however. Every year, the list of more than 4,000 items lost does not just include the obvious: hundreds of keys, wallets, identity cards and mobile phones, but also curiosities like pets, dentures, and wedding rings.

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