My Oktoberfest journey concluded back home in Buenos Aires yesterday morning with builders starting to punctually puncture the neighbours’ wall at nine – the least conducive way to be woken following 48 hours of alcohol-fuelled mayhem at Villa General Belgrano’s annual beer festival.
This trip was organised fun, a tour operator taking five coach loads of fun seekers to the world’s third-largest Oktoberfest, and the idea of obligatory activity participation in the search for frolics and fun is less than appealing. Fortunately, our three-day weekend was disorganised fun from the start: first, we went to the wrong pick-up point on Friday in Plaza San Martín and then our tickets and itinerary were stashed away at the bottom of our team leader’s suitcase, which was buried underneath everyone else’s luggage. (Rich was first in line, so keen was he to get this show on the road.) Boarding the coach was touch and go, given that the drivers weren’t prepared to begin excavating for anybody…
The last package tour I took was to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast in 1998, so despite bad thoughts directed towards enforced volleyball games and obstacle courses, it was refreshing to allow someone else the helm, just for a few days. I haven’t unearthed any statistics as to the number of alcohol-related Oktoberfest accidents per year, but health insurance was also included in the deal. But that wretched itinerary was nowhere to be found so meal and bus times involved guesswork, and to top it off the six of us hadn’t the least idea as to where we were actually heading. A genuine magical mystery tour ending some 10 hours later.
WHERE IN THE WORLD? Córdoba province was destination in general at some 770km from Buenos Aires, and despite a hazy guess of an estimated arrival time between nine and 11 in the morning from the co-ordinator, we rumbled up a two-km drive at precisely nine-oh-two in Villa del Dique, a half-hour drive from Villa General Belgrano, the heart and soul of Oktoberfest. This Bavarian-style town’s numbers swell from 6,000 to around four times that over the two-week Oktoberfest period as revellers from Argentina and other nooks of the world looking to down some beers in the garden head there.
So what makes the Córdoba province town’s festival, now in its 46th year, so popular? Founded by Paul Heintze and Jorge Kappuhn in the 1930s, the physical landscape is pure Bavaria: Villa General Belgrano is a small town nestling in the Calamuchita valley with that typical Germanic geometrical architecture of square church steeples, cones atop roofs and plenty of wood. But residents’ roots don’t just stem from Deutschland but also Austria, Switzerland, Russia and Hungary, so the blend of pageant participants who dance and sing and play their hearts out is truly international – and it’s this racial mixture that makes Argentina’s Oktoberfest stand out from Munich’s. Besides the designated beer garden, the whole town turns into a watering hole (although it is illegal to walk down the street with a beer in hand) and it has an intimate feel to it, although you are sharing this little piece of southern hemisphere Bavaria with thousands of other boozers. The added bonus, thanks to its compact size, means that it’s practically impossible to get lost, no matter how drunken your haze.
WILL RAIN STOP PLAY? Shipped into Villa General Belgrano late Saturday afternoon, no sooner than we stepped off the bus than the heavens well and truly delivered. Our group, comprising four Brits, a North American and an Argentine, brazened it out as we weaved our way down the street. Squelching along in flip-flops, I reflected that at least my footwear would dry out quickly. A white minibus roared up next to us. “Come on, get in,” the driver shouted. We threw away our barely smoking cigarettes and clambered on, sitting on laps or anywhere there was a space, happy to be getting closer to our goal of the sacred beet garden. That little act of generosity was a sure sign of things to come, and the nature of going drinking in Villa General Belgrano. These guys simply loaded up their bus with strangers, happy to help and make new friends. We didn’t see them again, although they also gave a lift to some guys staying in Villa del Dique with us who did keep popping up. By coincidence, on the walk down to the beer garden on San Martín street, I bumped into a South African friend who had been on the sauce since lunchtime, and was headed home as the clouds decided to play ball.
Our organised fun providers had already given out admission tickets so there was no need to queue to pay the $30 entrance, the price for the final weekend. A quick frisk and we were walking under the famous Oktoberfest sign and into the beer garden! The plan was to head directly to one of the many wooden stands selling sausages bursting at the seams and laden with chucrut and fill our jugs with the main reason for our being there: beer. But two metres in and we were drawn to the very first hut that was selling red, black and yellow belts to sling diagonally across your body and then attach your glass to. “I want one,” Verónica and I said, as if we were one. At $15, it seemed a great souvenir to show the grandchildren although on reflection pointless, given that the aim of my game was to have a foamy and frothy jug on the go, not a barren, empty one with a musty smell of hops. A cowboy hat plus tankard plus belt combo were snapped up for a reasonable $40 by both Vero and Harry.
REASON FOR EXISTENCE. The grassy beer garden had taken a hammering with the downpour, and there was plenty more to come. As we finally got to a beer stand, down it came again, and people were grabbing white plastic chairs and covering themselves with light-blue plastic sheets as makeshift protection. Only those who I’d call smug foreigners, prepared for every travelling eventuality, were wearing sensible outdoor coats to beat off the unexpected elements.
Turns out the rain wasn’t unexpected at all and everyone I met knew it always rained on the second Saturday of Oktoberfest. So why hadn’t anyone mentioned that to us? In the end it was all part of the disorganised fun, as the men in our group built a variety of Wendy house out of tables and trestles, we women cleaned and dried the seats and the group of six took up residence. I was thankful for the allocated health insurance when a “roof” fell on my head although it may have simply knocked some sense into me.
Being unprepared for a storm sounds like no fun at the best of times, but frankly it couldn’t have worked out any better. Harry and I wandered off to watch the outstanding Russian male dancers buck and leap about on stage – my word, what admirable upper-arm strength – and I started chatting to a student journalist about said upper-arm strength. Once my half-litre tankard of porter beer had run dry (refills varied between $15 and an outrageous $25 depending on the stand) and my new drinking partner had reached the end of his one-and-a-half litre lager ceramic jug (refill $60), we headed back to camp to find a new bunch of friends taking refuge, some kilted, shivering Cordobeses chatting animatedly about The Beatles and conversely, death metal. Our Wendy house was a good ‘un and attracted a surprisingly eloquent mix of people to pass through its non-existent doors.
By dark, Oktoberfest had morphed into a miniature Glastonbury, that most famous of muddy music festivals, and all those people who had put on their best white trainers for the occasion would be regretting it by dawn. But that didn’t stop the good times from rolling, oh no, there was dancing and jigging with jugs, and beer bongs (a sliced plastic bottle with a funnel attached), and the small crowd braving the rain at the front of the stage roared their approval at the Russians. Nobody’s spirits were dampened.
MORE BEER, DEAR? Once the rain relented and the threat of squatters moving in had passed, it was time to find pastures new. To the right of the main stage were some independent breweries, including local companies Interlaken (red, dark beer), Viejo Munich (double bock, honey and strawberry), Brunnen (fruit beer, lager, honey) and Cassaro from Córdoba city (pilsen, stock, red), which all specialise in artesenal beers. More recognisable brands included the Mar del Plata microbrewery Antares, which will open up a bar in Pinamar this summer, and Duff, the fictitious beer drunk by Homer Simpson now turned into reality by some enterprising Argentines. Dave bought a litre of Duff strawberry beer for $35, overly sweet for his palate, but I managed to help him out with it substantially. Mmm, beer.
When drinking at Oktoberfest one needs a tankard and not a family heirloom which is bound to end up in smithereens. Try to take one that denotes an experienced drinker, one with a lid or a musical one. Something attention-grabbing. We’d been on a pre-Oktoberfest shopping spree in San Telmo to pick up some original ceramics but needless to say my dreams were shattered Saturday night when a guy staggered into me and my tankard, which was swinging about at hip level (and I’m damn certain it wasn’t the other way round). The indignity of treading on my own broken tankard and cutting the sole of my left foot remains with me three days later.
Bella had in her possession a charming chunky moss-green tankard, which she managed to convince most of the bar staff measured just 330ml. The same capacity as a can of coke, she could top up for $10 a pop, but remains convinced it was a bottomless pit, a deceptive half-litre jug. Strong as an ox, that little green baby made it back to BA safe and sound.
My San Telmo find, however, was replaced Sunday with a brand new one for the price of $18. The weather was now impeccable and despite the infamous second Saturday Oktoberfest downpours, a precise 49,438 tickets had been bought up by Sunday, the day before Oktoberfest shut up for another year.
Organised fun meant that there simply wasn’t enough time to wander the streets or celebrate the different nations’ traditions: our emphasis was strictly drinking and we had a timetable to stick to.
But socialising in the enormous beer garden gave us the chance to meet and make merry with people from all over Argentina, all friendly, happy, charming and interested in the four Brits, the North American and the Argentine and why we were at Oktoberfest together. Although we didn’t see as many parades or dance shows as we should have, plenty of new friends were introduced to traditional British drinking games such as “21” and “I’ve Never.” If Oktoberfest is about anything, it’s about an exchange of culture and we certainly played our part in that.
Chris from the US: “This is my first time at the Córdoba Oktoberfest and Saturday, my first day, as far as I recall, was fairly epic. There was a lot of pre-party which is a bit foggy but the set-up was great although the weather was touch and go. There was a lot of mud and I was watching my step where I walked. I tried about six beers but Antares was my favourite. We also did some post-partying at a warehouse in ruins that had been converted into a disco. Now I’m on the second day and I think I might make it to about 4am. We North Americans tend to peak earlier than the Latinos.”
José from Buenos Aires province: “This is the first day I’m here and I am with some friends on a stag do. In fact they’re just buying beer right now. I think it’s good that people aren’t allowed to drink in the street because whatever can ensure everyone’s safety is fine. I don’t know if there were problems previously, but it’s good that it is all very civilised.”
All photos by Christopher Harry Kemp.