Canstatter Volksfest Part 2: Surviving a Tent

So, you’re committed to experiencing the whole enchilada at Volksfest or Oktoberfest - spending several hours in a beer tent. This guide will tell you everything you need to know for having a great time and not getting into (too much) trouble.

Dress:

You can wear whatever you want. It has become increasingly popular to wear "tracht" or traditional costume (i.e. "lederhosen", leather shorts, and "dirndls", a dress) over the last 10 years. This gets a little complicated.

Tracht is worn by normal people all over the neighboring state of Bavaria for all sorts of occasions such as weddings, christenings, or just drinking at the biergarten on a Sunday. This is because Bavaria is…unique. 20 years ago, no one wore traditional dress in the Stuttgart area, to fest or otherwise. It helps to think of Bavaria as the Texas of Germany and lederhosen as a cowboy hat and boots. Normal in Texas, kind of weird in Los Angeles.

This all changed with "Germany's Next Top Model" hosted by Heidi Klum (you might of heard of her). Every season there was an episode where the contestants modeled Dirndls, and not traditional ones, but souped-up sexier versions. Suddenly, this traditional Bavarian dress was en vogue and festivals all over Southern Germany were a good excuse to wear one.

 Typical modern fest tracht

Typical modern fest tracht

And why not? They are fun and flattering. Older local folks will say, “Why would I wear this Bavarian costume?” but the Swabians under 30 aren't listening. What does this mean for you as an expat or visitor?

It means you can wear tracht if you want but you shouldn’t feel obligated. And don’t worry about “cultural appropriation” - The Swabians in Stuttgart are already appropriating it from the Bavarians, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest it’s anything but fun for people from other countries to wear it, too.

But what to buy? My personal advice is go big or go home. That is, either invest in good quality and yes, expensive tracht (a full outfit for a man or woman of decent quality will be at least $200 and can go much higher) or just wear normal clothes. You can buy cheaper tracht at stores like C&A but the quality isn't great and they wear out quickly.

The basic dindl consists of a dress, a small blouse, and an apron. Pay attention to which side you tie your bow to show your relationship status (pre-Facebook!) For lederhosen, it's the leather pants and a checkered shirt.

There are lots of accessories, but you don't need them to put together a great look. For women, black flats or low heeled shoes are traditional, but you can also wear any matching color flat and brightly colored Converse are trendy with the youth. Guys can also wear Converse with their lederhosen, or other leather shoes, although regular sneakers aren't as popular.

Whatever you do, don't wear a "beer maiden" costume from a Halloween shop or vinyl "lederhosen." That is embarrassing.

If you want an in between of feeling a little dressed up without going full tracht, many men wear checkered shirts with jeans, and there are cute women's checkered blouses available at places that sell dirndls for women that are flattering and a LOT cheaper than going for a full getup. Add cute braids and you've got a fun casual look without spending hundreds of dollars.

What is this "Schlager" you mentioned?

Schlager has a set definition, but overall fest music is weird. Really weird. It's part 70s rock, part homegrown German cheese, part Top 40, all performed by largely terrible cover bands (and occasionally, some with serious talent).

The strangest thing for Americans new to Germany is the affinity for "Country Roads" and other rock-counry hits. 25 year old Germans will know every word to that song. "Sweet Home Alabama" is another hit you'll hear at any German beer fest.

Some songs, however, are literally written for fest. Others are hits from the Cologne-based Karneval, and yet others are from the slopes of Austria's "Apres-Ski" scene. These songs tend to be simple, even childish, with rousing choruses meant to be shouted at fests. Songs in this category include "Furstenfeld", "Fleigerleid", "Schatzi Shink Mir Ein Photo", and "Traum Von Amsterdam".

There's also a more poppy and somewhat more sophsisticated version of schlager that is a lot closer to international pop music. Helene Fischer's "Altemlos" is a good example of that.

But you'll hear everything from 50s and 60s classics to the Village People and ABBA to current pop hits. Think of a wedding DJ gone mental, but also German, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect.

It doesn't hurt to memorize the classic drinking song "Ein Prosit" because you'll hear it 20 million times and be expected to sing and cheers with it every time.

That's all great, but you promised me survival strategies!

It's a shame this is at the end of my post, because this is the most important part if you're spending the evening in a tent.

-If you are new to Germany or a visitor, write the address of the place you're staying on a peice of paper then use a safety pin to affix it somewhere on your person. When you are incoherently getting in a cab later and you can't remember or pronounce German street names, this will be invaluable.

-Tipping 80 cents per item (beer or food) is mandatory in the tents. Don't nickle and dime these hard working servers. Just tip them a euro per item, which means, bring plenty of cash (or if you only have bills, cover the tip of your friends). If you want really good service, which can make of break a night, tip your server more at the at the beginning (depending on the size of your group). It makes a difference.

 This is heavier than you can imagine.  Do not get in her way!

This is heavier than you can imagine. Do not get in her way!

-Learn to recognize the words "Vorsicht!!!" and "Achtung!!" Servers are often carrying literally door-sized platters of food or 10 liters of beer at a time. Jump out of their way just as you would if you heard a bicycle bell coming behind you.

-Just pay for a bottle of water (or 3). Yes, it's ridiculous that this country charges you an arm and a leg for water but you're already spending a lot to be here . Order some water and drink it.

-Eat the chicken. Even if you're not hungry. Eat the chicken. Or eat something else. Trust me. Eat.

-Bring a big trash bag. Once seated, everyone's coats and bags goes into the trash bag, which is sealed up. No one's stuff gets beer and god knows what else on it. And your friends will think you're a genius.

-Ignore the shot girls. Pick you posion and stick with it. Obviously, generally it's beer. People who don't like beer can get a weinschorle (wine and sparkling water mix). Pick one or the other and stick with it, and hydrate with water periodically. I've been through at least 14 fests and I know what I'm talking about.

-Do not wait until the last minute to go to the bathroom, have plenty of small change to pay the 50 cent fee, and don't try to cut in line.

-Do not mess with security. There is a "fest jail". It's not fun, it's an non-contested 350 euro fine if you get thrown in, and if you're US military personel that will get reported to your command. Don't be that guy. Stay chill and don't get offended if other drunken partygoers bump into you, instead diffuse the situation. Don't try to exit the tent with a beer mug. German security is unobtrsive but they are watching you so don't do anything stupid.

Finally, if this all seems too much for you, you could just take one of my public Stuttgart tours (or hire me for a private one), which as the option of finishing the tour at fest FOR FREE in which I'll tell you all my hard-earned knowledge, show you where the most delicious food is, take you for a spin on the rotating bar, and did I mention this is an extra 45 minutes of my time FOR FREE that you can enjoy for just signing on to a Stuttgart City Walking Tour, or hell, even an Esslingen Tour? That's kind of an amazing deal. Contact me today to reserve your spot on a tour!

Prost and good (and smart) festing!

Beginner's Guide to the 200th Canstatter Volksfest!

Fest season is upon us and it's bigger and better than ever! This blog post will be longer than usual but I want to provide a definitive, comprehensive guide to Stuttgart's 200th annual Volksfest with tips and tricks to make sure you have the best experience ever!

What is Volksfest?

 The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

Technically, it's a German beer fest. Beer nerds shouldn't get too excited, because the focus is more on quantity than quality. This isn't an event where people take small sips of craft beers while brewers explain their process. Instead, you drink beer in liter mugs, standing on benches while a mixture of Top 40 hits and traditional "schlager" music is played. This takes place in 7 beer tents. But there's also a huge area that looks more like a state fair, with carnival games, food and drink stands, and rides.

How did Volksfest start?

Long story short, there were two years of bad harvest in 1817 and 1818 due to a volcanic eruption in the south Pacific. The ash cloud created colder than normal temperatures all over Europe, which resulted in "The year without a summer." The resulting famine was devastating to many communities.

 We party thanks to these two!  (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

We party thanks to these two! (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

Luckily, King Wilhelm of Wurttemberg was married to Queen Katherina, the sister of the Tsar of Russia. This familial relationship resulted in Wurttemberg getting low-priced shipments of Russian grain to the area, which helped stave off the famine. But Wilhelm, a relatively progressive monarch in his early years, wanted a long-term solution to help his subjects in his realm, the breadbasket of Germany. So he decided to have a festival the day after his birthday in 1816 in which he'd introduce Wurttemberg's peasant farmers to modern agricultural methods. But because it was Germany, there was also beer, and a fest was born.

Is Volksfest like Oktoberfest?

Yes and no. In many ways they are similar. Both have a state-fair atmosphere, both have beer tents, and Volksfest is the second largest beer festival in the world, with 4 million visitors annually, after Oktoberfest's 6 million. But they have unique histories (Oktoberfest was started around a horse race to celebrate a royal wedding, 8 years prior to Volksfest) and Oktoberfest was traditionally more Bavarian in style, although in recent years the trend at Volksfest has been to ape this. Generally, Volksfest is far less touristy than Oktoberfest. Many travel to attend, but they're more likely to be from neighboring countries than Australia or Japan.

How do I attend?

Quite easily, you take the U-bahn to Mercedesstrasse or the S-Bahn or U-bahn to Bad Canstatt (Wilhelmsplatz) and follow the dirndl-wearing crowd, and just walk in. Security guards will want to check your bags before you enter and outside beverages are not allowed, but that’s it - and there’s no cost to enter.

RIdes and games are paid on an individual basis. There are many beer stands outside so it's easy to enjoy a wurst and beer without even dealing with the tents.

Best yet is the "Almhuttendorf", or "Alpine Hut Village". This area recreates the charm of a Bavarian alpine village with some of the best food stands in the fest, an outdoor stage with a band that plays evenings and weekends, and yes, a rotating bar. It's very easy to have a great time at fest without ever entering a beer tent just by hanging out at the Almhuttendorf.

But I want to go into a tent!

Wasen.jpg

Ok, this is where things get a bit trickier, but it's doable. The 7 beer tents at Volksfest are run by local breweries or families and they each are similar but have their own character. For example, Sonja Merz tent is classy and clean, but a little more sedate. Zum Wasenwirt attracts a youngish party crowd. Glockelsmaier is somewhere inbetween. Day and time factor in a big way. Without reservations, it will be difficult to get into a tent on weekends, especially in the evening. Also take a look at a German calendar: the night before a German bank holiday is like a Friday night - getting in without a reservation will be difficult.

Reservation? What are you talking about?

So all the tents take reservations. Generally they're for a whole table, which seats 10 (squished a bit). Yes, it costs money, but it’s not a “cover charge” - you pay for tokens for beer and a meal. On weekends, reservations usually include 3 liters of beer and a half chicken (or another dish at the same price, around 10 euros) - times 10. So every person at the table has paid roughly 40 euros for their 3 liters of beer and dinner. Not too bad! Some tents will let you use any beer or food tokens any time during the fest, so you don’t have to drink all 3. Check your tokens to find out.

Some tents now will do half-table reservations for 4-6 as well, but that will mean you're sharing your table with strangers. Generally tents have two seatings per day, a lunch seating around 11:30 and a dinner seating around 17:30. That one goes until the tent closes between 23:00-00:00. That's the party time where things get a bit nuts.

Can I get a reservation now?

Fest started last Thursday, so probably not. For weekend seats you need to reserve months in advance. You might want to check for weekday slots, though. All the different tents have websites with online reservation forms.

Wait, so can I go into a tent without a reservation?

Totally! On a weekday. Or maybe on a weekend at midday. It depends. On the weekends and weekdays in good weather there will be a line but you may be able to get in. Finding a seat once you're in may be difficult during busy times, but even in the evening Monday-Wednesday it's easy to go into a tent.

Wait, why do I want to go into a tent, anyway?

A beer tent, especially on a weekend night is a unique and transformative experience. It will be hot (no matter how cold it is outside). Everyone around you will be drunk. It will be sticky, loud, infuriating, until you finish your first liter of beer, when suddenly the music hits you and you've never had so much fun in your life with your 9 new best friends.

This...doesn't sound so great for me (or my children).

Nah, fest is great. But if the drunken insanity of a beer tent isn't for you, it's easy to go on a week night, pop your head in, get a quick drink from one of the bars inside the tent )they always seem to have room) and say you did it. Then you can spend the rest of the time exploring the rest of the fairgrounds (called "Wasen", Swabian for "meadow" although it's just a big patch of asphalt along the Neckar river). The nice thing about Volksfest is the majority of the drunken behavior is reserved for the tents, unlike some other fests (like Oktoberfest).

So...can I bring my kids to this thing?

Absolutely! There's usually one or two "family days" where rides are discounted, early in the week. Half the fest is children's rides and games and candy booths. It's absolutely a family-friendly event. Again, the beer tents are where the party is but it's fine to bring the kids in to the tents at lunchtime during the week as well.

Should I drive to Volksfest?

No. Parking is a pain, you'll still be walking a lot to and within the Wasen. It's much better to just get on public transit. If you live out far in the 'burbs, consider using one of Stuttgart's many park and ride lots (only if you have a designated driver). Honestly, public transit is so good here you have no excuse for not using it. Don't forget about the amazing value of the "gruppentageskarte" or "group day ticket" which is good for up to 5 adults, all day, on any form of transit for around $13. It's a steal.

Want more information? Attend one of my public Stuttgart tours during the remainder of fest season, and for no extra charge I will be happy to take you to fest free of charge and spend 30 minutes or so showing you around (including where to get the absolute best fest food!)

Tours are at 11:00 on Tuesdays, 13:00 on Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations are needed, via email.

Prost!

prost.jpg

Catch World Cup Fever!

Every four years, the excitement and the drama of the world's most watched sporting tournament takes over.  And yet, if you're an American , statistics show you're not probably not paying attention this year.  This is a shame, especially if you are lucky enough to be visiting or living in a soccer-crazy country like Germany during the World Cup.  The quarter-finals begin on Friday, and the whole shebang will be over in just 10 short days.  So even if you're someone who thinks of soccer as a kid's game, I'm going to list a few reasons why you should tune in.


1. Public Viewings: An excuse to waste a day at a biergarten

 2014 was a lot of fun...sigh.

2014 was a lot of fun...sigh.

As Rog Bennett of the US-based soccer podcast "Men in Blazers" recently explained, normally if you're in a pub drinking a beer at 7:00 a.m., people are going to think you have a problem.  But if you're doing so while a World Cup match is on TV, then you're simply a normal soccer fan. Of course, thanks to the time zone difference, fans in the US have to begin watching many games in the early hours of the morning.  But in Germany we're in a good time zone for watching the remaining 8 matches: all the games start between 16:00 and 20:00 and all but two are on weekends.  

Now, I am not encouraging excess drinking, but it is wonderful to just set aside an afternoon to gather with a few dozen or a few hundred people on a sunny day and cheer on a team.  Most pubs show the games indoors and out, and the larger biergartens bring in huge screens so the crowd can comfortably watch the match.  My recommended venues are Biergarten am Schlossgarten in downtown Stuttgart, Augustiner Biergarten in Bad Canstatt, Schwabengarten in Leinfelden, or Brauhaus Schoenbuch in Boeblingen.  All conveniently close to Robinson Barracks, Kelley Barracks, and Panzer Kaserne respectively.


2. This World Cup is completely insane!

In the last decade, just a handful of teams have been consistently dominant - Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina most notably.  This time only Brazil has made it to the quarter-finals, which is a huge upset!  Italy, which has won two World Cups in my lifetime, didn't even qualify.  (Neither did the U.S., much to our shame, as it's the first time we didn't qualify since 1986!) 

 He may be the world's best player, but Lionel Messi didn't advance...

He may be the world's best player, but Lionel Messi didn't advance...

It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't follow international soccer what a huge upset this is!  It's as if the New England Patriots failed to make it out of the playoffs!  Even more bizarre are the plucky little countries who have managed to triumph over these giants of soccer, even up against the greatest players in the world such as Christiano Renaldo and Lionel Messi. Reigning champions Germany lost to both Mexico and South Korea, sending them back at the earliest stage of the game.  Spain lost to World Cup host country Russia, a team that at the start of the tournament was ranked 70th in the world.  And England, a soccer-loving country with a painful record of poor showings at the tournament, advanced via nail-biting penalty kicks for the first time in their history. 

Smaller, dark-horse countries like Croatia, Belgium, and Sweden have all done remarkably well.  While Brazil is still the favorite to win, for the first World Cup in a very long time, anything is possible.  How can you resist the drama?

3. A little knowledge adds a lot of enjoyment

One of the reasons soccer has failed to take off in the USA is that a lot of us simply don't understand the game, at least not the tactics and strategy used at the professional level.  I admittedly am not great at spotting "offsides" yet, but taking a little time to learn about the game makes it a lot more fun to watch (and makes the fouls a lot less confusing!) Here are some great resources to get started:

4. Did I mention this only happens every four years?!

 It's coming home, lads!

It's coming home, lads!

Seriously!  And it's way more fun than the Olympics.  Pick a team to root for (I recommend England because it's coming home) or a favored team to root against (Brazil is the clear answer here), grab a tisch at the biergarten, make some new friends, and get ready to say "Goooooooooaaaaaaaaaallllllllll!"


In honor of the World Cup, public Stuttgart tours will cost only 10 euro per person, and the schedule will be arranged so tours end 60-90 minutes before the start of the remaining afternoon games. I will be happy to give you advice and directions on where to best watch the game after the tour.  (Go England!)

Hidden Hotels and History Right Beneath Your Feet...

 The Marktplatz as it appears today.

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

If you're living near or visiting Stuttgart, chances are you've visited the Marktplatz.  The historic Marketplace has been a scene of trade since earlier than 1283, when the then small city of Stuttgart was granted the right to hold a market by the Holy Roman Emperor.  Continuing in that tradition, the Marktplatz is both the scene for 3 weekly farmers markets (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 9:00 -13:00) and a host of seasonal festivals like the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  


But hidden history lurks beneath.  Bunkers to protect Stuttgart's citizens from Allied air raids during World War II were constructed all over Stuttgart, including right under the Marktplatz.  The Bunker im Marktplatz was completed in June 1941 and could house 1,010 people long term, or 3,000 people in the event of an emergency air raid.

 The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".


Because of the immense destruction to the center of Stuttgart by the end of the war, there was a housing shortage, let alone enough space to provide shelter for visitors.  Out of 30 large hotels, only 3 survived the war, making the space available from 3,600 rooms pre-war to less than 300 by 1945.  So the highly practical Swabians devised to turn their air shelter bunkers into hotels.  Thus the "Bunker hotel" was born.


There were actually 6 bunker hotels operating in Stuttgart after the war - in addition to the largest at the Marktplatz, there were hotels at Marienplatz, Wilhelmsplatz, Leonardsplatz, and near the Rosensteinbruke.  They gradually fell out of favor as the city rebuilt into the modern form known today, but the "Hotel am Marktplatz" survived all the way until 1985, when it was closed for health and safety reasons.

 The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!


Today, this unique artifact of the war and Swabian resourcefulness can only be visited by the public one day out of the year - the famous "Lange Nacht der Museen" or "Long Museum Night".  On this night, dozens of museums across Stuttgart open their doors after 19:00 for special events, tours, music, drinks, and dancing.  But because of it's mystery, the line for the Bunker Hotel at the Marktplatz is always the longest.


The "Lange Nacht" provides special shuttle service in between the far-flung venues including the Mercedes Museum, the Neckar River port, wineries in Unterturkheim, and much, much more - over 80 exhibitions and special events ake place all over Stuttgart for this very special annual event.  You can find out about more with the English FAQ on the


Want to make a day of it?  To kick off the Spring tour season, I'll be providing a Stuttgart City Tour at 16:00 this Saturday, March 17th ending with enough time to grab dinner before the event starts.  I'll point out some of my favorite exhibits of the Lange Nacht in between deep diving into Stuttgart's hidden history.

Unlike most tours, you do NOT have to reserve in advance, (although you're welcome to if you wish!)  so if you're feeling spontaneous, it's no issue to roll up to the meeting spot.  Just be aware that tours do depart promptly.  Hope to see you there!

 A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

5 Tips You Should Know About German Christmas Markets

Wow, it's been quite a while between blog posts, hasn't it?  I've been so busy with tours, and anyone who's ever started a blog knows how easy it is to fall behind.  But it's a very exciting time of the year for us at Stuttgart Steps so I figured I'd share some of my hard-earned tips from my six seasons of Christmas Market-ing!  

1. Not all Markets are created equal!

 The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

I've visited, by my count, nearly 50 markets throughout Germany, Austria, and France, but that doesn't mean they're all the same or equally worth your time and travel!  Some of the most-visited markets can seem like carbon copies of each other, while other, less famous markets are unique and distinct.  

Luckily for us in Stuttgart, some of the most unique markets are right in our backyard - such as Esslingen's "middle ages market" and the beautiful baroque market of Ludwigsburg.  In the nearby Black Forest, you can even experience a market in the beautiful Ravenna gorge.  And don't forget that Stuttgart's market, with it's elaborately decorated booths, is considered to be one of the very best in Germany.

2. When possible, take public transit

Stuttgart's "staus" or traffic jams, are actually rated the worst in Germany, and with high numbers of visitors, Christmas markets make an already bad problem worse.  Then there's trying to find parking or navigating a car into the tiny spaces of German parking garages.  With an excellent public transportation network, there's no reason to drive!  Plus drinking "gluhwein" (mulled wine) to warm up is one of the great pleasures of these markets, and no one wants to risk a DUI.  

Just go to the English-language trip planner of the Stuttgart's regional transit authority (VVS) or better yet, download the app on your smartphone!  For long-distance trips, consult the Bahn.com.

3. Speaking of Gluhwein...

 Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Gluhwein is a real highlight of my visits to the markets, but like the markets themselves, not all Gluhwein is created equal.  Some booths simply take pre-spiced bottled gluhwein and dump it in a cauldron.  These tend to be sweeter and not as delicious as booths that make the gluhwein from scratch with their own special recipes of spices.  If you come on one of my tours, I'll sure and point out my personal favorite gluhwein stands, as well as point out other options, like hot apple cider or the famous (and hard to pronounce) "feuerzangenbowle" a special alcoholic punch.  

Because it's so warming, it is easy to overindulge in gluhwein, so do take it easy and keep in mind the high sugar content tends to lead to nasty hangovers if you have too much.  Don't forget to drink water or switch to equally cozy glasses of "kinderpunsch" if needed.

4. Check the dates!

Larger cities have markets that run the entire advent season, usually until the 22rd or 23rd, but smaller markets may only run on weekends, or in certain cases, only one weekend.  So be sure and check the dates before you go!  Booklets (in German) with information on all the Christmas markets in Baden-Wurttemberg are available at many local kiosks (the stores that sell tobacco proucts and lottery tickets) and there are many websites that also contain this information.  

Keep in mind that some markets in Alsace, France stay open through the New Year, making for an ideal day trip when much of the businesses in Germany are shut down.  Strasbourg and Colmar are especially worth visiting for a day trip!

5.  Overwhelmed?  We can help!  

For the first time ever, Stuttgart Steps has created a tour to help you visit 3 of the best markets Southern Germany has to offer in one fun-filled day.  No need to worry about dates or how to navigate public transit or how to find the best food and drink - I've done the legwork, all you have to do is sign up, show up, and follow me.  

And as always, if you have any questions, want recommendations, just drop me a line!  

 The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!