The Canstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart is a smaller version of Munich’s gigantic Oktoberfest, although the suds-fueled merry-making is just as raucuous. When some 5,000 people get together in a tent with mountains of food, rivers of foamy brews and a band encouraging sing-a-longs, it is just not possible to sit quietly for long.
Okay, I’ll admit it – yes, I did dance on the table, and yes, I had a giant liter of beer in one hand, swinging it side to side in unison with the rest of my body, occasionally clinking mugs with the similarly singing, swaying and laughing idiots on either side of me. I was embarrassed into the tabletop display by the adjoining table of locals, who chided me and my table of American friends for sitting, therefore not having enough fun.
The famed Munich Oktoberfest began with a royal wedding. Bavaria’s King Ludwig I – also known as Crazy Ludwig, most famous for building a fairytale castle that inspired the Disney design — wanted to celebrate his 1810 marriage by proclaiming a state fair, in Munich, Bavaria’s capital and largest city, and where my mother grew up. Ludwig’s festival was dedicated to the fall harvest and the region’s most famous agricultural product. That would be hops. And beer. The 2011 Munich Oktoberfest is Sept. 17th to October 3rd.
Stuttgart’s Oktoberfest began eight years later. It stretches for a mile along the Neckar River in the borough of Canstatt, for which it is named, in a collection of football field-sized tents serving food and music to accompany the beer, amusement park rides and games, and even agricultural displays from the surrounding Baden-Wurttenburg region. This year, the fun runs Sept. 22 to Oct. 10. The tents serve some 20,000 people a night. If each person has a couple or more beers – you do the math. No worries about driving, either, since the city’s public trolley system stops directly at the festival site.
Each local brewery has its own tent. I was inside Grandl’s Stuttgarter Hofbrau tent, where waiters in traditional lederhosen (leather knickers) and waitresses in dirndls thread their way through the crowds, weight-lifting up to six one-liter mugs of beer in each hand. Each filled mug weighs in at two pounds, so this is an Olympian two week work-out.
Other strong arms pull “helles” (light) or “dunkel” (dark) or the occasional “hefeweizen” (wheat beer, my favorite),) from kegs the size of tanker trucks. There’s even alcohol-free beer, usually served without snickering. At huge rotisseries, cooks juggle hundreds of schweinshaxe, crispy skinned ham hocks served with potato dumplings and red cabbage, and a menu of wursts. Counting calories or cholesterol at Oktobertfest is not allowed.
In the middle of it all, the band played on a raised platform, so when we were dancing on the tables, we were practically at eye-level, and they waved at us waving our beer mugs at them. Every 15 minutes or so, the band stops the oompah music for a couple of rounds of “Prosit”, the drinking song that commands table top swaying and ceremonial clinking of glasses.
The dancing is much more refined and elegant at the world-famous Stuttgart Ballet, founded by legendary choreographer John Cranko, unless you count the ballet troupe founded in 1609 by the Duke of Wurttemburg. The 452-room Wurttemburg Castle, modeled on Versailles, is one of the last Baroque palaces in Europe, a 30-minute trolley ride from downtown Stuttgart. My tour guide would not let me sit in the 22-karat throne built for Frederick I. That’s just as well, since he was 6’9” and I am just 5’2”, so it would have been quite a climb. The palace also contains a 350-seat theater where the original pulleys and machinery for scenery panels and turntables still work.
My evening at the Canstatter Volksfest was the perfect ending to a visit that included homages to Stuttgart’s most famous products, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche cars.
Ferdinand Porsche designed race cars for Gottlieb Daimler until he went off on his own in 1930. The ultra-modern Porsche Museum, opened in 2009, showcases a collection of legendary racecars, even a Porsche-designed fire engine. The museum is in the company’s factory complex in Zaffenhausen, a Stuttgart suburb also reachable by trolley from downtown – as is the sprawling Mercedes-Benz Museum. The Mercedes museum, with tours in a dozen languages, traces the history of our great love affair with motor cars from the first four-stroke engine Daimler produced in Cannstatt in 1885, to hybrid cars and the promise of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Related article: Ten best Oktoberfest Celebrations Outside Germany (MSNBC)
IF YOU GO:
- Flights: Fly to Frankfurt. Stuttgart is two hours by car on the Autobahn, 90 minutes by high-speed train.
- Germany Information official website
- Stuttgart Information official website
- Stuttgart Oktoberfest official website
- Munich Oktoberfest official website
- Porsche Museum official website
- Mercedes-Benz Museum official website