Portajohn Goes to Europe Part II, Is this heaven?

Thanks for tuning in to Part II of my European vacation remembrance. If you missed “Portajohn Goes to Europe Part I, The Warm Up” find it here!

I’ve been to Germany twice now – the first time in the summer of 2010 to a super small alpine village to attend our friends wedding, and now the beginning half of this trip. If you couldn’t tell from Part I of this journey – I’m smitten with the country, particularly with Bavaria. It’s pretty easy to see why  – the country is clean, the people are remarkably well dressed, the richness of culture, the pride of their heritage, beautiful scenery that never ends. Sure, the reality might be a little different if I were to live there – but if the opportunity arose I think I would jump on it! Let’s explore a few reasons why…

1) Biergartens and Picnic Culture

The US is doing it wrong. Coffeehouses, yeah great you go there, they are social hubs, you get work done – whatever. BIERGARTENS! Are they social – yes they are community meeting places! Can you get work done – yes if you want to. Are they cramped and small and every outlet is taken – No! Is the clientele determined to be isolated from the world in their electronic devices – no!

The biergartens in Munich were simply amazing. Nestled into some serene and beautiful nature, you can get a whole meal, plenty of beer, a picnic table to chat with your friends while your kid plays on the playground. Spend an afternoon, stop in for lunch or dinner – anything you want. After our camping trip ended we decided to head to the beirgarten for some relaxation and to eat dinner – and everyone had a great time. The toddler of the group made quick friends and ran around on the playground while the adults sipped some lagers and snacked on pretzels and various meat products. The biergartens in DC try to be authentic, and maybe some German locations are similar – but in the end they are just bars. I felt like the biergartens in Germany were much more social, relaxed and fun.

But wait, you are a DIY kind of person and don’t want restaurant food? No worries, in Munich the Isar river runs through town, and it is an incredibly popular picnic spot. Set up a grill on the rocky banks, set your beer in the river to stay cool, maybe wade in from time to time, or gaze at the nude sunbathers – can you imagine the National Park Service allowing beers and grilling on the national mall?

I'm a little excited. Also these are the smallest beer and pretzels I had in Germany!

I’m a little excited. Also these are the smallest beer and pretzels I had in Germany!

Our haul at the first biergarten

Our haul at the first biergarten

Plentiful bike parking! Not up to US snuff? No worries, you could sit only feet from your bike, and people used really minimal locks all around the city.

Plentiful bike parking! Not up to US snuff? No worries, you could sit only feet from your bike, and people used really minimal locks all around the city.

The Isar river is a common picnic spot, grill some food on the rocks, set your beers in the river to chill, steal a kiss on the bridge? Can you imagine a better setting...

The Isar river is a common picnic spot, and for this couple, a sunset makeout spot! Can you imagine a better setting for picnics…

... or picnicking to sunsets like this?!

… particularly with sunsets like this?!

A Weißbier and a currywurst at the Zeehaus biergarten

A Weißbier and a currywurst at the Zeehaus biergarten

The Zeehaus biergarten across the lake.

The Zeehaus biergarten across the lake.

2) Bike and pedestrian friendliness

Getting around Munich isn’t hard without a car – busses, trams, U-bahn, S-bahn, and of course walking and biking.  Now, perhaps my perspective is skewed because with the exception of two U-bahn trips, we walked and biked everywhere and only in a small portion of the city. That being said, the scale of the roads was in perfect harmony with the traffic volume and character of the neighborhoods. We did not encounter any stroads that I can recall.  The drivers seemed to drive at a very reasonable speed, and gave plenty of respect to cyclists – of which there were many.

The cyclists in Munich were very much unlike those in DC – first of all the bikes are simple, utilitarian, upright, urban machines or mountain bikes. I think we only saw a few road bikes – and they were all old steel ten-speeds. No carbon fiber madness, in fact very few cyclists seemed to be out there for exercise alone – most were using the bike as a means of travel. It is too easy to draw conclusions, but I wonder if the fact that the bicycle is used not as a “toy” for “sport and recreation”, but as a mode of transportation is what engenders that extra level of respect that we experienced. While in Munich we rented bikes from a system run my the transit agency called “Call-a-Bike” (yes, in english). This is a “dockless” bikeshare system, where you can reserve a bike from your computer or mobile phone (and you can pick the one closest to you as hey have a live updating map), and are given a four digit code. Walk to the bike, key in a code and you can unlock it – from whereever it is. Bike for however long you want, and key in the code to either return it to the system, or to indicate you are temporarily leaving it but will be back shortly. Much like Capital Bikeshare, the first 30 minutes are free, and a day-long rental is only 9 euro per bike. It’s a great system, the bikes come equipped with 8 speeds, lights that run off a bottle generator, and dual suspension to absorb urban potholes and curb hops. I highly recommend for any visitor to the city

The streets, beside from being a right size were not the only surface that cyclists used. Many of the wider sidewalks we traveled on (yes sidewalks) had dedicated space for pedestrians and for cyclists – and again the spaces and their occupants were respected. Low steel tubes offered plenty of space to lock up.

As a whole, as an foreigner who speaks only a dozen words of German, the city was so relaxing to get around thanks to the excellent transportation system.

City Biking

A map of our travels in two days – about 22 miles total.

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Our call-a-bikes

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A very complete street

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Separated spaces for bikes and for pedestrians. The low steel tubes that serve to delineate the tree box were often used for bike parking.

3) Old Stuff

Guys, old stuff is neat – whether run down and abandoned, well kept and sparkling, or somewhere inbetween – when you see some really old stuff (and basically all of europe is old compared to the US) your mind can’t help but wander. Who has been in this spot before me? What was the general mood of the public at that time? Can you imagine living here in ______ (insert year or era)?  It keeps an active imagination running at full speed to process these types of thoughts, and I love it. In Germany you can’t help but think about the thousand pound gorilla in the room – the Third Reich and World War II.  During my first trip to Germany (in the small village) we went into a couple of town halls for the wedding celebrations, and on the wall were pictures of the men who died fighting in both world wars. They weren’t glorifying the causes that were fought for, they were simply honoring their dead relatives – just like we see in the states. However I was first struck with an anger, that faded into confusion, and finally a general unease. It was simply surreal. We experienced many similar feelings later in the trip in France, though these surrounded the evolving role of the Catholic church in society. We left feeling like we had a deeper understanding of the day-to-day life of regular people, and their needs (that the church existed to serve) – as well as an unease at the grandiose nature of these places of worship.

Anyways – the old stuff certainly got you thinking, which helps take you from regular tourist to active explorer.

Numerous statues were found in the marketplace at Marienplatz

Numerous statues were found in the marketplace at Marienplatz

The Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) built between 1867 and 1908

The Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) built between 1867 and 1908

4) Wiesn (Oktoberfest)

The culture, the fun, the beer! What more can be said about Oktoberfest? Imagine the biggest state fair you can, plus a little Tour de Fat style events, and the biggest beer halls you can imagine – and plenty of dirndls and lederhosen. I can’t even express how amazing and fun this festival is, maybe the pictures will do it some justice – but it is better to see in person to experience.

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Blue and white checked patterns, pretzels, and fresh hops hung everywhere… it is time for Wiesn (the local name for Oktoberfest)

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The tourist shops sell many things – even pretzel ornaments!

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I did so many double takes walking around – its not often you see so many hop vines just waiting to be sold for decorations. I often grabbed one and rubbed the delicious hop oils onto my fingers to smell the aromas.

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Carnival rides galore! I’m not much of a carnival ride person – I went on one during the evening and everyone around me was happy I didn’t puke everywhere – I sure was green afterwards! Some of the carnival rides are quite old, and they look like such a blast!

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This was a tip from one of our new friends from the camping trip – pay the 3 euro fee to get into the Oide Wiesn (the traditional area). It is more relaxed, the food is great, and the carnival rides and games much more fun. There is even a history tent that was fun to explore. Once you’ve had a few beers, dinner, and your fill of the games – head out to the real tents for some debauchery!

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Only the six breweries within Munich are allowed to sell beer (and host tents) at Oktoberfest – Augustiner-Bräu, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner-Bräu, Spatenbräu, Hofbräu-München. The traditional tent served Augustiner, which we learned is the favored brewery of local residents (whereas Hofbrau is the “tourist” beer). It’s worth noting that the traditional tent is also the only place we saw these ceramic steins, everywhere else has the typical 1L glass variants.

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Inside the traditional tent. Not as rowdy, but many great cultural acts and outfits to go along with the oompah bands and food. I had the Schweinshaxe (a grilled ham hock) and knödel – and let me say – it was amazing.
This tent is also where I was mistaken for a German rapper. So that was fun.

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Wonderful decorations (the tent and the people!). These fellows were part of a traditional rancing ensemble (think lots of spinning, clapping, and sapping of thighs and calves)

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You thought the New Belgium Tour de Fat monster bikes were fun? We’ll they’ve been doing that for years in Germany at the velodrome in the traditional area. Lots of funky bikes to try (we did, for only a euro how could we resist!). It was great entertainment for ourselves, and the many observers. And of course, what goes better with beer than bikes!

7 thoughts on “Portajohn Goes to Europe Part II, Is this heaven?

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