27 August 2009

Straubing's Festival

Small city, large festival. This describes Straubing and its famous Gäubodenvolksfest, another vibrant Bavarian festival, but a cut above the rest.

Straubing lies in eastern Bavaria. The train connections from Eichstätt are less than ideal. As such, a trip that would take no longer than a couple hours were it direct, requires closer to four. The city of 45,000 rests on the banks of the Danube. It has all the features that one would expect of any other Bavarian, German, or, for the most part, European city of similar size: an attractive old town center, a scattering of medieval churches, and the occasional watch tower left over from another time. Were this all that Straubing offered the community would likely only receive visitors from its immediate region; however, for two weeks in the middle of August every year there is something else, something that attracts attention to Straubing from across Bavaria and Germany. This is of course the Gäubodenvolksfest.

The festival is not only a classic example of a Bavarian Volksfest, but additionally Bavaria's largest after only the world-renown Oktoberfest of Munich. As a reminder, a Volksfest is essentially the equivalent of a German fair or carnival. The word can be litterally translated to "people's festival." Whether large or small, a Volksfest has the similar atmosphere of a county or state fair in the U.S.A. Vendors sell all sorts of fast foods and comfort foods; amusement rides and carnival games line the midway. Though most towns of decent size in Germany hold at least one Volksfest a year, the festivals in Bavaria usually host a slightly different flair. The most noticeable difference is the beer tents, which I'll get to in more detail later.

As said above, Straubing's Gäubodenvolksfest is the second largest festival in Bavaria. Considering that the first-place holder is arguably the most visited annual festival in the world, second place is in fact saying something. The roots of the festival deal with celebrating the local harvest, but aside from some decorations and a home, garden, and agriculture show that takes places next-door that fact can be easily overlooked. Except with its size, only one major difference from Oktoberfest exists.

For Bavarians the Gäubodenvolksfest has become a more authentic, not commercialized version of its cousin in Munich. The residents of the state joke that nowadays one has a better chance of talking with Americans, Japanese, Austrailians, or other foreigners at Oktoberfest than with actual Bavarians. Because of its obscurity outside of Bavaria and Germany, foreign visitors to the Gäubodenvolksfest remain rare and the exception. The festival's official slogan proclaims it as Bavaria's prettiest Volksfest, but for many that adjective is code for most unspoiled.

Wanting to personally experience the Gäubodenvolksfest, I traveled to Straubing two weekends ago and, better yet, visited the festival with my friend Eric, whose home is in a village outside of the city. Most of my questions could be answered with a local at my side. In the picture below both of us attempt to smile for the camera while the late afternoon sun beams on our faces.

After arriving at the festival we ate dinner with Eric's mother, stepfather, and brother. As an employee of the local health department, his mother must inspect the kitchens of the beer tents at the festival. As a "gift" during these inspections, the beer tent opperators usually present her with several food and drink coupons. We made use of these with our meal, which consisted of giant pretzels, halves of roasted chickens, and liter mugs of beer. Among other things, they explained to me that the cooks in the beer tents add extra salt to the roasted chickens in order to grow a customer's thirst.

After dinner and too soon of a ride on some spinning amusement contraption, Eric's parents returned home and his brother went to work, but we naturally stayed to enjoy the festival. We stopped in another beer tent as an Elvis impersonator sung from a boxing ring in the middle of the tables to mark the anniversay of the King's death. Soon after boxers took to the ring and Eric told me that it's a typical event for the festival. Exactly as it sounds, the beer tents are cavernous tents where festival-goers can enter for a place to sit, eat, and drink. At the larger festivals where there are multiple tents, each one usually caters to a different target audience. In some the bands play traditional Bavarian music, while others perform covers of favorite pop songs. The tents are usually owned by a different brewery and serve their respective beer, which most of the time can only be ordered in the one-liter mugs. The next photo shows Elvis performing in the ring.

We eventually left to discover the offerings of the midway, part of which is seen below.

Having worked up a small hunger since dinner, we looked over the menus and counters of the several food stalls. I mainly wanted to try something sweet, but when we passed one stall something savory caught my eye. Intrigued, I asked Eric if its name was only that, or if it accurately described the item. He confirmed that the name was as literal a description as possible. Always open to a new gastronomic experience, I ordered one Pferdewurst: horse sausage. Most customers were simply taking the short but thick red sausage by the hand and dipping it in mustard. The meat was surprisingly tender and moist, and delicious. Eric also explained that the sausage was actually a mixture of 50% beef and 50% horse; 100% horse meat would give the sausage too watery of a consistency. Rather than a picture of the sausage, here's one of the chocolate-covered strawberries I had for dessert.

When the festival started to shut down a little after midnight we rode bikes to Eric's house and slept for the night. The next afternoon we returned to the city center, seen below, and caught a train heading back to Eichstätt. In the end, Straubing's Gäubodenvolksfest had indeed offered an atmosphere like Oktoberfest but without the throngs of foreingers. Some of the festival's features, like an Elvis impersonator, boxing, and horse sausage, likely rate at different levels on a scale of authenticity, but they definitely all come together to make the Gäubodenvolksfest a distinct and worthwhile event to visit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nicholas / horse sausage wow! / not sure I would be up for that / sounds like it worked out well with the coupons / good talking to you today / look forward to you visit