A Bavarian Experience At The Hofbrauhaus

Richard’s recent post about his stay in Munich reminded me of my visit to that city, and to its legendary Hofbrauhaus, in the summer of 1980.

I was traveling around Europe on a shoestring after my college graduation and, like Richard, was conserving money by staying in hostels and not eating out.  However, I had heard about the Hofbrauhaus and decided I just had to drink a beer there.  So I scrimped even more on the days leading up to the Munich leg of my journey to make that dream a reality (and a windfall due to a surprise invitation to stay, for free, at an Odense commune sure helped).

After I arrived in Munich and found a hostel I went right to the Hofbrauhaus.  It was mid-afternoon and the place already was jammed.  Patrons sat at long common tables, and burly waitresses carrying fistfuls of beer steins and platters of food weaved through the mob.  I found an open spot, ordered a huge tankard of beer, and was promptly engaged in conversation by young women also seated at the table.  They said they were members of a local bowling team celebrating the end of their season.  They were happy, loud and red-faced, inhaling snuff and guzzling beer, and eager to practice their English with an American.

I don’t remember what we talked about — I doubt if they would, either — but they insisted I try some snuff, and after a few more gulps of beer I agreed.  They demonstrated that you tapped out the snuff onto a spot on your hand at the base of your thumb and snorted it up.  It was the only time I’ve ever tried snuff.  It was disgusting, but I appreciated their company and their generosity.  I felt welcome at that loud, bustling place, and the beer was good, too.

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Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Munich, from the spire of the Frauenkirche cathedral.

I’ve come up with a rule for hostels: if the hostel serves beer in the lobby, I probably won’t like it. Unfortunately, the hostels I stayed at in Hamburg and Munich – the Meininger Hamburg City Center and the Easy Palace City Hostel, respectively – both served beer right at the check-in desk. Overpriced 3-Euro beers.

I don’t have anything against beer, but I’ve found that the hostels that serve it (the ones that can afford the liquor license, probably) tend to be large, corporate-style hostels. They tend to be the type of hostel that charges 2.50 Euros an hour to use the internet, that has an understaffed reception desk, that doesn’t give out free maps, that doesn’t offer free breakfast. They are full of large groups of American college students and French and Italian high-schoolers, making it difficult for individual backpackers to meet each other.

A lot of my food was stolen at my hostel in Hamburg. The thief even opened a fresh can of pasta sauce and used three quarters of it, which particularly incensed me. There’s always a risk that someone will steal your food, but when you’re staying at large hostel, the risk that some jerk will pass through the kitchen and filch your food is, obviously, larger.

What angered me most about my hostel in Munich was the poor quality of the kitchen. There were only two plates and no bowls, forcing me to eat my cornflakes out of a pot. There was no table, so you had to carry your food two stories down to the bar to eat it. This made it especially hard to meet fellow lone backpackers, who can often be found eating their meals in the kitchen. I was also annoyed by the lack of a can-opener, which I needed to make my usual lunch of a tuna-salad sandwich. The first and second day, I walked to the Italian restaurant next door and asked an employee to open it for me. The first day, he did so cheerfully, but the second day he angrily asked if I would be doing this every day, so from then on I opened the cans with a knife.

Unbelievably, this hostel which had no can-opener, no table, no bowls and almost no plates in the kitchen, had a posh bar area in the lobby with rainbow disco lights running all day.

I managed to meet people at both hostels despite their anti-social ambiences. On my first night in Hamburg, I went to a bar on the Reeperbahn in the red-light district with a guy from Toronto, a girl from Montreal, and a girl from Brazil. Hamburg’s red-light district isn’t nearly as seedy as Amsterdam’s; there aren’t prostitutes tapping on windows everywhere you walk. It was in this area that the Beatles started their career playing at grungy clubs, and there’s a small monument to them on the sidewalk.

Hamburg's Rathaus.

The next day I walked around the city with the Brazilian girl, Natalya. We saw Hamburg’s beautiful Rathaus (a.k.a. courthouse), and the St. Nikolai church, which was almost destroyed in World War II and has been left in its ruined state as a memorial against war. We strolled through Hamburg’s high-end shopping district, where we stopped at the Lego store and marvelled at how expensive and cross-marketed (with Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.) Lego has become. Still, there were some sets in there I would have loved to have as a kid. On our way back to the hostel we walked by Hamburg’s magnificent port, a beautiful, colorful industrial vista.

The ruins of the St. Nikolai church.

Hamburg's port.

On my last day in Hamburg I took a day-trip to Lübeck, a small medieval town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the buildings were beautiful, such as the entrance gate and the cathedral (which, unlike St. Nicolai, was repaired after World War II), but I didn’t like Lübeck much. There was too much construction, too many tourists and too much traffic. It wasn’t the quiet town I was expecting.

Lübeck.

The next day I took a five-hour train to Munich. Munich seems to have suffered less damage in the war than Berlin and Hamburg, leaving more interesting architecture around. I spent a lot of my time walking around and taking pictures of the buildings I liked.

A church in Munich.

I also spent a lot of time in Munich’s beer gardens. On my second day in the city, I walked through the rain to the Hirschgarten park, where I ordered a large Augustiner beer. It was much bigger than I expected – I put the salt and pepper shakers next to the mug when I took a picture to give a sense of its size. I ordered some meatballs and potato salad to soak up some of the beer.

The Augustiner beer at Hirschgarten.

On the next day, a Sunday, there was a big Bavarian festival next to the Rathaus in the city center. I never found out for sure, but I think the festival is held every Sunday. When I first arrived there was a band playing traditional Bavarian music, with couples dancing in front of the stage in traditional Bavarian garb. Later, a younger band played music that seemed to be a Bavarian-rock hybrid. I ordered a Hofbrau beer and some sort of wurst in a bun. For desert, I bought a fist-sized wad of marshmallow and bread covered with chocolate.

The festival in front of Munich's Rathaus.

I spent my last day in Germany at the Neuschwanstein castle in Füssen. The castle was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late 19th century as a fantastical version of a medieval castle. Later, it served as the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland. It is, predictably, a very popular place for tourists, many of whom were having a lot of trouble hiking up to it.

Neuschwanstein.

Although Neuschwanstein was magnificent, I enjoyed my trip to Füssen more because it gave me one last day in the Alps. As soon as the train entered the mountains, I remembered why I loved the Alps so much when I was in Switzerland. The air smelled fresh and woodsy, and the sky and water were special shades of blue. After experiencing the castle, I hiked to the nearby Alpsee lake and spent some time sitting on a bench, enjoying the view, before I returned to the train station to go back to Munich.

A view from Neuschwanstein.

Alpsee.

I woke up at 5 AM the next morning to get on a bus to Vienna, wondering groggily whether I booked the early ride out of necessity or because I wasn’t thinking. I spent more than two weeks in Germany, but there were so many cities I didn’t get a chance to see – Dresden, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, etc. Hopefully, I will get a chance to return someday.

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

At An Odense Commune

Richard’s excellent reports on Eurotrip 2011 show how interesting travel can be.  You’re an American, knocking around Europe solo, and before you know it you’ve made some friends and had an interesting adventure or two.  My travels through Europe after college, three decades ago, involved similar experiences.

One notable adventure occurred in Odense, Denmark.  Odense is the third largest city in Denmark and was the birthplace of Han Christian Andersen.  It wasn’t on my itinerary.  However, I had met a fellow American, a Californian named Dan (last name now unrecalled), and we began traveling together to save a few bucks on rooms.  We were on an overnight train from Oslo to Copenhagen that I had booked as a cost-saving measure — if you slept on a train you didn’t need to pay for a hostel, of course — when Dan said he couldn’t sleep on the hard train seats and was going to pay for a sleeper car.  I stuck to my guns and dozed on the upright seats.  When I saw him the next morning he had made some new friends who had shared his sleeping compartment.  They were Danes who lives in an honest-to-god commune in Odense, and they insisted that we come and stay for a day or two.  How could we refuse?

I don’t remember their names, but they were about the friendliest folks I had ever met.  They opened their hearts and commune to us.  About a dozen commune members chipped in to pay for the house, which was in the middle of town, and supplies.  They plied us with food, beer, aquavit, and schnapps and were intensely curious about the United States.  What was it like, really?  Were some Americans really going to vote for a former movie actor for President?  What did we think of Europe in general and Denmark in particular?  Dan and I reciprocated by pooling our money one night and taking them all to a nearby pub where we drank a lot of strong beer, but that was all their generosity would allow.

The last night we were there they served a huge feast where we all drank too much and Dan hooked up with one of the commune residents named Oosa.  When we left on the train for Munich the next morning, heads pounding, they gave me a blurry Polaroid photo that I’ve long since lost.  And after we got to Munich, Dan decided it might be a good idea to go back to Odense and hang with Oosa some more — which he did.  I never saw him again.  For all I know, he’s still there.