As the last keg gets tapped today at Oktoberfest, the 201-year-old celebration of a royal wedding and horse race that's become a two-week beer-soaked bacchanal at the end of September in Munich, it's time to start planning for the 2012 festivities and reflect on my three-day blaze, which coincided with Rosa Montag, one of the festival's two gay days. Here's what I learned:
1. Gingham and lederhosen really gum up the Gay or European? game. It's not just a movie cliche: young or old, Bavarian or Brazilian, everybody dresses up in traditional garb at the fest. For the guys, that means embroidered leather shorts or trousers and a starched gingham shirt (sans-suspenders, if you're feeling trendy), with high socks or sexy calf warmers, and for the ladies, a bosom-boosting dirndl. The entire effect is a little bit fey yet surprisingly hot Men of Oktoberfest calendar hot and fun. You won't feel entirely left out if you don't, but if you spring for some (cheap Chinese imports available at stores all over town), you've got your Halloween costume covered for the rest of your life.
2. Nothing beats a local hookup. Seven million visitors a year drinking 7.5 million liters of beer and that gotta-do-it-once-in-a-lifetime vibe, it takes a bit of planning, a wad of cash, and a strong liver. But the payoff is spectacular. For a group of 11 people, I booked my hotels and AirBNB apartments in January and even then it was a dicey finding rooms. As for reservations at the tents? Forget it. Eight requests out, not a peep in return. The lesson: plan now and enlist help. For my part Thomas Bömkes of TomOnTour, an online gay travel guide and operator based in Munich, was invaluable. He got us tickets to the Rosa Montag gay day at the Fischer Vroni tent and convinced me that hitting up that instead of the larger Gay Sunday the first weekend was the way to go. Instead of tourists, it was packed with locals, featured a drag show I wish I had any memory of, and had the high-energy spiritedness of people who know what's what and the words to all the songs being sung. And for the other two days, since it was the second week, the Wiesn was less busy and you could snag a table during the day (you must be seated at a table to get served) and squish into rowdier tents at night. Tickets included a coupon for 1 maß (liter) of beer (about 10 euros with tip) and 10 euros towards food, the specialties at Fischer Vroni being 15 varieties of grilled fish on stick, the ubiquitous half roasted chicken, and a mean crispy duck. Everything else is à la carte. And that's your day. Drinking. Eating. Toasting. Singing. Flirting. Rinse and repeat. Just remember to tread lightly when buddying up to a random table to score a beer when you're not seated; reservations are hard to get and fiercely guarded. And, well, Germany likes its rules.
3. Thrill rides and beer, not such a bad idea after all. Like a state fair on steroids, Oktoberfest isn't all about the 14 massive bräu hauses and 20 or so smaller ones. It's also about the endless wurst stations and pretzel hawkers and candied fruit. (Sorry, Iowa, not a fried Kool-Aid ball in sight!) And of course: the rides. One half of the sprawling Theresienwiese grounds is dedicated to getting your thrill socks off. Ranging from kid-friendly haunted houses to pee-your-pants rollercoasters and topsy-turvy twirlers a hundred-plus feet up, its worth spending at least part of the day or night whooping your head off. At two to five euros a pop, it's cheap and fun, with nary a pile of sawdust in sight. (Just do everyone a favor and avoid the really, really spinny ones.) And despite your best intentions, you can't drink all the time.
4. The steins can actually shatter. Sure, those 1-Liter behemoths seem like they're nearly indestructible (and make an excellent forearm workout), but after the umptenth round of Ein Prosit (the Oktoberfest drinking song), there is such a thing as too vigorous of cheersing. Keep it classy. Keep your fingers.
5. Nobody wins in a chugging contest with a liter of beer. Yet for all the drinking and rowdy singing, it's not the shit show you'd expect. Germans can hold their alcohol. When you start drinking at noon, with Oktoberfest brew that's about 2 percent more alcoholic (and sweeter) than regular beer, it's all about the pacing. Prost!