Crossing Germany on the home straight

From the Austrian Tyrol, we took a short train north across the border into Bavaria for a couple of days in the beer capital of Germany, Munich. We’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Oktoberfest (which, controversially, mostly falls in September!) for a long time, but couldn’t quite make the dates fit this time. No matter, I think that visiting big beer halls is a legitimate pastime here anytime, so we made it work!

Our apartment was perfectly located next to the Englischer Garten in what was described as a student neighbourhood (as an aside, this lovely area did make us wonder what on earth international students at Southampton must think when they end up living in Portswood!), so on our first evening we headed into the park to our first beer garden. Having had very hot weather ever since we arrived in Lisbon 6 weeks ago, we didn’t realise at first how unseasonal this was for Munich, and the gardens were absolutely buzzing with people sunbathing, playing ball games, floating down a lazy river – there was even a choir rehearsing!

Once we got to the beer garden, we began our usual confusion while we tried to figure out how things work – there’s always a system but they are never the same! At length, we managed to order ourselves some food and drinks, with our only slight error that we accidentally bought three dinners between the two of us. To be honest, neither of us were that upset by this…

We chomped on our roast pork, macaroni cheese and currywurst while enjoying watching the diverse range of people spending time in the beer garden – from the groups playing cards, those having a quick catch-up, to those who were clearly many rounds deep. We loved that it is apparently perfectly legitimate to buy beers but then eat your own picnic on their tables – some people had pretty elaborate set-ups including tablecloths, crockery, serving boards and many, many tupperwares! The only downside of our evening was that the Lonely Planet had promised we would be “showered by the strained sounds of possibly the world’s drunkest oompah band,” but sadly they were nowhere to be heard while we were there.

The next day, we dutifully set out to explore the Aldstadt (old town). We saw the genuinely impressive Rathause (town hall), which looked extremely Bavarian (funny that) and the former royal palace, the Munich Residenz, before deciding that it was far too hot and decamping to another beer garden.

This time, we went to Hofbräuhaus München, which was described by the Lonely Planet as the “mothership,” which every visitor should try at least once. We enjoyed our beers under the horse-chestnut trees (these seem to be a common theme of lots of beer gardens), before deciding that it was too hot even for beer and heading back to the Englischer Garten.

We’d returned because we wanted to see for ourselves where people surfed on the Eisbach river. We’d read about this the previous day and were really sceptical until we started to notice the sheer number of people cycling around the city with surfboards tucked under their arms – this couldn’t be a coincidence! It wasn’t, and it was totally mesmerising – we watched for ages as people took turns to drop into the artificial wave and ride it back and forth as long as possible before falling off the back and being sent down the river at alarming speed. What a way to cool down on a hot day!

From Munich, we caught two trains north to our 157th and last (!) overnight stop of the trip, Cologne. The weather here finally broke, so we battled heavy rain showers on our last day – good preparation for returning to the UK! We began at Cologne’s most famous sight, its enormous cathedral. When it was completed in 1880, it was the tallest building in the world, despite having been built according to plans from 600 years previous. That’s quite some ambition!

Between rain showers, we also explored the old town – but there didn’t seem to be very much of it! A bit of reading gave us the answer: apparently Cologne was the unlucky recipient of a Nazi makeover, during which they tore down many of the oldest buildings to replace them with new stone and stucco buildings. This had been the plan for all old towns in Germany, but thankfully they didn’t get that far. After the Second World War, the old town was rebuilt again, but this time in a faux-medieval style. As a result, there was a little less atmosphere than we’ve experienced in other towns in Germany, but it’s hard to blame Cologne for this, given its history.

Our final stop was (surprise, surprise) another beer hall. This time, we wanted to try Cologne’s signature beer, Kölsch, which comes with a whole new way of ordering and keeping track of what you’ve consumed. The servers circulate with trays of narrow, 200 ml glasses, which they plonk down in front of you and mark your tally on a beer mat until you beg for mercy by popping a beer mat on top of your empty glass. At least, this is how it’s supposed to work, but somehow we ended up in a situation where every other table was being plied with beer while we were a dry little island in the middle, failing to attract anyone’s attention. Eventually, the waiters had an argument about who was supposed to be serving us (which seemed somehow our fault) and things improved, but it was a baffling experience! At least our dinner was more successful – Oli had pork knuckle (a beer hall classic) with red cabbage and roast potatoes, and I had spit-roast pork with broad beans and roast potatoes. The potatoes were SO good, it made me very excited to return home and eat a classic Sunday roast!

This concluded our time in Germany, and the following day we were truly on the final stretch, heading back to where it all began in London…

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