MUNICH, Germany -- They belong among the Seven Wonders of the World of Beer: hundreds of Bavarian waitresses who carry up to 22 liters at once. Day after day for weeks, these slight-of-build beauties labor mightily to deliver backbreaking loads — 7 million liters, in fact — to thirsty revelers, who feel duty-bound to do their part by drinking.

This is the legendary Oktoberfest, the annual festival first held in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Bavaria's King Ludwig and Princess Therese. But this event long ago abandoned any connection with royalty, horse races, or other forgotten distractions. First and foremost, it's about beer and properly consuming massive quantities of it, as I learned when I first visited.

I had joined a group of travelers from the youth hostel scene, and we luckily scored seats in a crowded hall. Each of us ordered a Mass, the massive liter-size beer that comes in a foot-tall stein.

Neighboring locals taught us the proper Bavarian way of toasting our brews: Everyone must clink every glass and make eye contact with each person before pounding the steins on the table. Only then can one start drinking. Germans take this custom seriously, we learned, because of the penalty for messing it up: seven years of bad sex, according to superstition.

When our waitress took our second order, one member of our group asked for a smaller glass. Das Fraulein rolled her eyes in disdain and shook her head at us, and our entire group felt as if we had let her down.


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Indulgence rules the day here, and that applies to more than just beer. A few statistics tell the story. Last year, the 6.2 million attendees consumed 521,000 chickens, 284,000 sausages, multiple truckloads of fish, and more than 100 oxen slow-roasted on a spit.

Outside the 14 beer halls, scores of fairground attractions entertain (and sometimes nauseate) the young and the young-at-heart. Roller coasters and other make-you-sick rides are ready for the uninhibited few who aren't dizzy enough already. One unique and amusing game is the Teubelsrad, or devil's wheel, a flat disk on which players try to anchor themselves as it spins faster and faster until the last contestant falls off. My advice: Try this one on an empty stomach.

A number of special events highlight Oktoberfest. To kick off the event, Munich's mayor taps the first keg and orders the celebration to begin with the words, "O'zapft ist!" (It's tapped.) On the first Sunday, the popular Costume and Riflemen's Parade takes place. Many brewing, cooking and dancing competitions occur throughout the festival. All the while, dozens of 20-piece bands play party tunes from classic "Oom, pah, pah" waltzes to the Rolling Stones.

People-watching is another diversion. Bavarian women wear traditional low-cut dresses with bows tied around their waists, knots on the right if they are single, and on the left if they are not. Men break out their lederhosen, suspenders and feathered caps. All of this thoroughly embarrasses their north German countrymen, though the happy locals couldn't care less.

Of course, Oktoberfest is just one attraction of Munich, and those who visit the city during the rest of the year will enjoy much lower prices and smaller crowds. History and architecture make this a fascinating destination.

Many attractions of Marienplatz town square delight visitors, none more so than the Glockenspiel on the clock tower of the town hall. This 100-year-old mechanical show involves 32 life-size figures and 43 bells, enacting two Bavarian tales each day. In the first, a Bavarian knight triumphs in a jousting contest held to celebrate a royal marriage in 1568. Afterward, survivors celebrate the end of a deadly plague in 1517.

Another popular tourist stop is the Hofbrauhaus, the city's most famous brewery, which dates back to 1589. Hitler spoke here in 1920 during the early days of the Nazi Party, but the establishment has more positive historical connections also. When Sweden occupied Munich during the Thirty Years War in 1632, the Hofbrauhaus provided the invaders with 1,000 buckets of beer in exchange for the city's safety. You won't need to raid the town to enjoy a brew in the beautiful upstairs ballroom.

Yet these well-known draws are just the beginning of Munich's charm. Try something different, like "... surfing? Experienced boarders catch waves on Eisbach River in the Englischer Garten. Be cautious, though, and wear a wet suit. Snowmelt from the nearby Alps provides the flow, and this icy water makes Northern California's beaches seem balmy.

Walking, cycling, boating and sunbathing (in varying states of undress) are other popular activities in this monumental city park.

Olympiapark, home of the 1972 Munich Games, offers a swimming hall and ice skating rink as well as tours of Olympia-Stadion. Nearby, the BMW company has a museum and tours of its assembly line that are bound to interest car and motorcycle enthusiasts.

Finally, those who visit Munich outside of the Oktoberfest revelry need not worry about going thirsty. Each of the breweries that runs halls in the festival operates in Munich and serves its brews all year. Can't choose? Taste an Augustiner, made by the oldest brewery in the city and sold nowhere else, and you'll understand why the Germans say, "Thank Gambrinus (the patron saint of brewers) for it!"

Matt Johanson teaches social studies and journalism at Castro Valley High School.

IF YOU GO
  • Oktoberfest 2008: The festival runs Sept. 20 through Oct. 5. Admission is free, but if you want to sit down inside the beer halls to eat and drink, it's imperative to arrive before lunch or reserve a space. Details: www.oktoberfest.de.
  • Language tips: Almost everyone you meet at Oktoberfest will speak English, but make an effort in the local tongue anyway. Germans refer to the event as "die Wiesn," (pronounced dee ways-in), an abbreviated name of the festival's grounds. "Ein Mass" (eye-n moss) will get you a large beer. If nothing else, learn to say thanks: "Danke."
  • Getting around: Take advantage of Munich's excellent subway and bus network. Oktoberfest is a short walk from the main train station (Hauptbahnhof). The closest stop to the festival is Theresienwiese. Renting an automobile makes no sense for most visitors. Gas in Germany typically costs at least double the U.S. price, and only a Dummkopf would try to park within a mile of the Oktoberfest.
  • Sightseeing: Mike's Bike Tours leads fun and informative half-day rides around the Altstadt (old town), led by English-speaking guides who show tourists a good time. Details: www.mikesbiketours.com.