Well, it’s that time of year in Munich again. The liter-sized steins are being filled by beefy barmaids. Lederhosen and silly hats are being donned. The plaster demons of Herr Schichtel’s horror show are fresh with newly sprayed cobwebs, while the calliopes roar and roller coasters whirl and turn.
Last year, 6.9 million people visited what the Munich Oktoberfest organizers claim is “the largest and most popular festival in the world.” Between them they drained 6,459,100 liters of beer, while washing down more than half a million pork sausages, 94 oxen and countless tons of salty, thirst-provoking pretzels (invented by shrewd Munich brewers).
Recent events have cast an inevitable shadow over the jolly proceedings; overall visitor numbers are predicted to have fallen, but it is still a gay and gorgeous revel.
Offering an eye of tranquillity and calm in this annual storm of accordions, brass bands and bawled-out drinking songs is the Englischer Garten (English Garden), among Europe’s greatest city parks and one of the finest assets of Munich. It is, in a word, blissful.
Before going into the English Garden, though, a bit about the Oktoberfest. After all, most people are only here for the beer.
Strictly speaking, it should be called the Septemberfest. Most of it takes place in September, because September (by and large) is warmer in Germany. The debauch lasts 16 days and ends on the first Sunday of October, so this year there’s more of it happening in October than usual. This is the 168th year for the event, which originated in a horse race held to mark the engagement of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Theresa in October 1810.
Munich, incidentally, despite Allied bombing in World War II, is a city blessed with a huge quantity of old buildings. (Some, admittedly, are new but exactly resemble the old ones that were flattened.)
More than 100 days in the year are designated a festival of some sort or other in Munich. The Fasching carnival in January is particularly prone to pandemonium, with 2,500-plus balls, masked marches and guild events. There are days when lots of beer is drunk to commemorate the departure of a plague or an enemy army, or the arrival of the year’s first strong beer, or some obscure marriage ages ago, or . . . well, frankly, any excuse seems to suffice, with the proviso that it involves beer. The stuff is in Munich’s blood.
Oktoberfest, though, is the biggest of the beer-drenched blowouts. Someone in a terribly silly hat and a sort of 13th-century peasant outfit lunged up to me in a beer tent and gave me a lot of what would have been really useful statistics on how many breweries there are in Bavaria and Munich, German brewing purity laws, etc. Fascinating. Jotted them all down on a beer mat. The beer mat, inexplicably, vanished several hours before my hangover did the next day. All a bit of a blur really, the Oktoberfest.
The English Garden! It opened in 1793 and extends almost 5 km in length. It abuts the Bohemian Schwabing district of the city, Germany’s answer to Montparnasse in Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village. Birthplace of the Blaue Reiter movement, beloved by such illustrious characters as Thomas Mann and Berthold Brecht, Schwabing is still, in the words of the cliche, “not so much a place as a state of mind.”
Although called English, the garden was the brainchild of an American loyalist adventurer called Benjamin Thompson who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Thompson was strongly influenced by the famous English landscape gardeners Capability Brown and William Chambers. French gardening notions such as geometric avenues and mercilessly regimented topiary, then favored by the Bavarian aristocracy, were chucked gaily out of the window by Thompson and his local counterpart, Ludwig von Sickell. Instead they planted woods, installed shady dells, sculpted rushing brooks, meadows, lawns, and hills and valleys.
Thompson also, for reasons of his own, introduced pigs and potato plantations. These features are now gone. The rest, though, are still there. It’s the sort of area, despite being a city park, where you would not be surprised to see wild boar or red deer charging about.
One thing you are guaranteed to see, at least on sunny days, are hordes of stark naked Germans rolling around on the lawns or wandering through the trees. Such behavior in an English English garden would lead to arrest and prosecution for indecent exposure. Not in a German English garden though. No one (apart from travel columnists trying to take a photo of the place that does not include a naked woman) seems to bat an eyelid.
The gardens boast a number of buildings of note. There is (but of course) a beer garden. On one grassy knoll stands the Monopteros love temple. There is a Cantonese pagoda rather similar to the one in London’s Kew Gardens. To commemorate the catastrophic 1972 Olympic Games, the Japanese government presented Munich and the gardens with a Japanese teahouse, which sits prettily on a small island in a lake of swans.
Of historical interest is the Haus der Kunst (House of Art), formerly known as the House of German Art. This Hitler-era structure hosted the infamous 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.” The plot was to stage two separate art exhibitions, one full of good old Aryan stuff painted with what Hitler called “normal” colors. The other, by contrast, was hung with “degenerate” avant-garde works by sickos like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Chagall.
The popular response to the shows must have considerably irritated Teutonic purists. More than five times as many people flocked to view the depravities as visited the German art.
So, that’s the English Garden for you. A green and private place to soothe those Oktoberfest headaches in tranquility. Prost!