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Germany

Oktoberfest, the World's Biggest Beer Fest, Now Open

Every fall, the fragrance of malt wafts over Theresienwiese (Theresa's Meadow) in Munich, where women dressed in alpine-style dirndls and men in leather trousers gather for the world's most famous beer festival.

A woman in a dirndl holding up beer mugs

Massive beer mugs and the traditional dirndl are hallmarks of the event

Oktoberfest takes over Munich for two full weeks, bringing with it a unique atmosphere as revellers shrug off their daily trials and tribulations to concentrate on drinking beer.

This year, the event opens officially on September 20 with the traditional driving of a tap into the first cask of beer. By October 5, when the festivities end, around 6 million people will have enjoyed the alehouse joviality at the foot of the huge statue of Bavaria which towers over the venue which locals call the "Wiesn".

Munich's mayor Christian Ude about to hit a beer cask with a wooden mallet

Munich's mayor Christian Ude officially opens the ceremony

Ferris wheels and fairground rides are sure to pull the crowds this year too, along with many of the traditional features. In one of the world's last surviving flea circuses, real fleas can be seen hauling tiny carriages or playing a kind of football.

Another perennial favorite is the "Schichtl Variete" which has been wowing audiences since 1869 with gala performances "the like of which have never been seen before". For generations visitors have marveled at such grisly tricks as "a live decapitation by guillotine".

Celebrating with a pricy "Mass"

For many guests, Oktoberfest revolves around the German word "Mass". Not a reference to the Sunday church offerings, this Mass denotes the liter-sized glass tankards in which the strong beer is served -- no other kind of glass is permitted in the marquees and beer tents.

The beer served at the Oktoberfest is strong with an alcohol percentage of between 5.3 and 6.6 but the figure most partygoers are interested in is the price. This year a measure costs up to 8.30 euros (12 dollars).

Woman holding two mugs

A sample of a not-so-religious "Mass"

By way of compensation, it is possible to eat cheaply. Guests have always been allowed to bring their own rolls and sandwiches and eat them in the beer gardens outside the tents. Many a publican has tried to put a stop to this practice but city fathers have always fiercely defended the tradition.

The 175th Oktoberfest has been scaled down a little since it coincides with a Bavarian garden and agricultural festival in the city but event director, Gabriele Weishaeupl, expects an increase in attendance.

Accommodation for every pocketbook

For those planning a last-minute visit, however, there is still plenty of accommodation on hand in Germany's third-largest city. The city's hotels report healthy bookings and some hostelries have hiked their tariffs for the occasion "but there are plenty of rooms to be had," said Frank-Ulrich John, a spokesman for the Bavarian hoteliers' association. "It's nonsense to say that Munich is booked out." There are rooms to suit every pocketbook, he added.

A converted circus tent in the old part of Munich is one cheap and cheerful place to stay. The International Youth Camp at Kapuziner-Hoelzl and the Wiesn-Camp at the Riem Olympic Stadium are popular among young people. Visitors can rent tents which sleep up to four for around 12 euros a person. There are other reasonably-priced campgrounds at other locations in the city such as on Garmischer Straße and at Munich-Obermenzing.

Those planning to spend the Oktoberfest nights in their caravans or mobile homes in Munich may find parking difficult. The second week of the festival is particularly popular with motorized Italian tourists and space is at a premium. Those who park close to the festivities may arrive back from an evening out to find their sleeping quarters have been towed away by the police.

Finding a seat in a 6 million-plus crowd

Most of the seats in the beer tents have been booked out for months now but space is still available at the lunchtime "Wiesn" sessions during the week. During the 16 days of the event, there are a total of 1.63 million places available and 730,000 of those cannot be reserved in advance.

"Sixty percent of the seats around the meadow are still free," said Weishaeupl. “Admittedly, around 6 million visitors will be on the lookout for somewhere to sit down and enjoy their beer".

There are 14 huge festival tents, ranging from the "Schottenhamel" where the mayor of Munich dons an apron and grabs a mallet in order to inaugurate the first barrel, to the "Ochsenbraterei" where oxen are roasted on a spit and the Hofbraeu brewer's tent with space for 10,000 people. Stars from film and television are often seen at the Oktoberfest and their favorite haunts are the "Hippodrom" and "Kaefer Wiesn Schaenke" marquees.

The local tourist authority helps spot gaps in the beer tents with a daily "barometer" or guide to where places are still vacant. "In the daytime during the week is the best time to go to the Wiesn," said Munich landlords' spokesman Toni Roiderer.

Three women modelling dirndls

Women: make sure that dirndl's tied on right

It's an ideal time for those who like to sup their beer to the sound of traditional Bavarian brass-band music. In the evenings there are many more people milling in and around the marquees where loud disco music is played after 6 pm.

Many of the clientele like to dress up for the Oktoberfest but women visitors should be careful about their outfits.

Loferl socks, which seem to be a contradiction in terms, since they cover only the area above the foot, are not supposed to be worn dangling around the knees but completely cover the calves.

Even the wearing of a dirndl has its pitfalls. By placing the knot on the right side of the apron the wearer can signal to the world that she is engaged, married or otherwise taken. A knot on the left side means: "I'm single and open to advances."