European Romance, Two Ways
Hippodrome in Munich Photo Courtesy of Raquel Erwin
If it’s September, it must be Munich and its historic Oktoberfest! Counterintuitive, perhaps, but very historical—the festival dates back to 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig, newly married to his beloved Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen (who promptly became known, much less-confusingly, as Therese of Bavaria), held a festival to celebrate his nuptials. And, though the original festival occurred on October 12—hence, the name today—now, the party runs for more than two weeks, ending on October 3, but beginning on September 17.
During this extended holiday, from beer tents to Baden-Baden, the area is packed with hordes of thirsty festival-goers, all partying the weeks away under a benevolent Bavarian sky. (Admission: The first time I actually saw the Swiss-German Alps, I thought, “Hey! They’re real! And they look just like The Sound of Music!” Because I was classy like that.)
This year marks the 201st Annual Fest—it’s been interrupted occasionally by things like World Wars, but no matter—and it’s not too late to book a flight in time to hear Munich’s mayor shout, “O’zapft is!”—which is a sort of Austro-Bavarian call-to-arms of the festival and means, “It’s tapped!”—referring to the first beer keg of the party.
In fact, and while we’re at it, Oktoberfest is actually not called that, either by locals or by those who want to seem sophisticated: It’s called Die Wiesn, referring to its location and the same Therese that started this whole thing! There is a whole dictionary of Wiesn-words, actually, covering every eventuality from the need to cling to something steady after imbibing too much beer (eihebn); to—one of my favorites, due to the pleasing onomatopoeic quality of the thing—a noun describing “luxuriant breasts” (gaudinockerln).
Do be sure to arrive in Munich for the opening of Oktoberfest—the parade is astounding, with floats, horse-drawn carriages, and bands a’plenty—and the Mayor’s opening of the festivities, this year in the über-traditional Schottenhamel tent, to the accompaniment of the traditional 12-gun salute, is quite an event. It’s also worth mentioning here that “beer tent” is not exactly how the behemoth structures covering the Theresienwiese could best be described: These are really 14 stand-alone buildings, some big enough to house from hundreds to thousands of people, featuring everything from yodeling (at the historic Braeurosl tent) to flirting (at the sleek, youth-fave haunt Hippodrom, which is also a favorite stop for visiting celebs: Keep your eyes peeled for Heidi Klum and family!).
But Oktoberfest is more than just a beer-drinking marathon. (Although it is, most definitely, also that—and do remember that the “official” Oktoberfest beer has a much higher alcohol content than the lager we Americans are used to—up to 8–10 percent.) It’s also a full-on carnival, appropriate for kids of all ages—although no child under six can be present in any of the tents after 8 p.m. For nigh on three weeks, the area around the festival becomes a huge, traditional funfair, with rides, games, music, even face painting, and each tent offers its own dancing, music, bands, and specialty foods. (Don’t miss the smoked duck, brats of all sizes and shapes, and even Bavarian dumplings.) There’s even a tent which can best be described as something out of Hansel and Gretel—if the lost twins were also secretly Disney prince and princess—Café Kaiserschmarrn, a whipped castle confection (think the most elaborate gingerbread house you’ve ever seen), which is run by one of Munich’s best bakeries, Rischart, and is an ideal jumping-off point for a long day of tent-hopping. (Best to lay a sugar-carb base before diving into the keg, face-first.)
Castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria Photo Courtesy of Steven M. Valenti
It’s important to note, too, that although you go to Munich in September for Oktoberfest, you don’t stay there for it—Bavaria, of which Munich is the state capital, is itself one of the most beautiful areas of Germany: unspoilt, friendly, and almost unbelievably scenic, with its pretty valleys framed in bowls by the towering Bavarian Alps ringing them. The Romantic Road stretches through here, from Würzburg to Füssen, taking in some of the most get-out-of-town, Where’s-the-film-crew? scenery in Europe, including that testament to marital love (if not fidelity—old Ludwig was known to be a sucker for a pretty face or 12): the dream castle of Neuschwanstein. Don’t miss it!
A little further down the road—about three hours from Munich—is the famous spa town of Baden-Baden, where the rich and famous have gone to take the waters, rest, recuperate, and just plain hide out, from time immemorial. If the ravages of Oktoberfest are beginning to evidence themselves on your visage, do stop in. Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa, which was rated #1 in Germany’s SpaFinder Magazine in 2009, is very fine and a taste of the best of the best of old-school Germany. Stroll in the Wintergarten, revive yourself with health and beauty treatments—there are a host to choose from—and then prepare to re-enter—refreshed and revigorated—the manic fray of Oktoberfest. Prosit! brenners.com.
The Charles Hotel Munich is a five-star, recently built hotel in the Old Botanical Gardens—making it the perfect base for your trip. Their spa, swimming pool, fitness room, and sauna make it the perfect fit for busy American tourists; the combination of traditional elegance, modern convenience, and luxe touches makes it lovely for anyone at all. thecharleshotel.com. –Kate Ancell
Hotel Ritz in Madrid
It’s late in the afternoon, too late for a siesta, too early to even think about dinner (this is Spain, after all). But an afternoon spent in the Prado, marveling at El Greco’s atmospheric mayhem, facing Velazquez’s monumental “Las Meninas” for the first time, and being dumbstruck by the dark, strangely contemporary look of Goya’s “Pinturas Negras,” my eyes cannot take much more stimulation and my body, still digesting the delicious but deadly, chocolate-dipped churros I started the day with, insists I find a place to sit.
Madrid, like all of Spain, lives, really lives, around the bar. While the French have their cafés and the Italians their caffe, Spaniards have no problem passing at least some part of their day making conversation over a fino or cerveza. Since this capital city boasts countless charming establishments in which to do so—from humble neighborhood tavernas to such of-the-moment spots as Va de Baco—it might seem a sacrilege to sit here, in the bar of the Ritz Hotel. But believe me, it’s no sin. As it is just across the street from the Prado, it’s also a sensible thing to do.
Every great city has its grand hotel, and some have more than one. But for my money, when in Madrid, nothing beats the Ritz. Lose your key as I have, (key, not card, mind you), and within minutes, someone appears outside your door with a spare. Appear lost or indecisive (yes, me again) and a vigilant staff member will materialize to offer assistance. And even if that were not so, there are few lovelier environments in which to lose one’s bearings.
Built at the insistence of King Alfonso XIII, the luxurious property opened in 1910 and—thanks in no small measure to the regal imprimatur—it was immediately the epicenter of influence and style. Over the years, it has welcomed aristocrats, heads of state, stars (sometimes grudgingly), potentates of business, and perhaps most fundamentally, discerning travelers who revel in its Belle Époque accommodations and superb service. And this afternoon, a proper bar in which to wonder about those black paintings of Goya.
Situated off the enormous, high-ceilinged central hall, where islands of seating rise atop vast carpets that have graced the space for over 100 years, the Ritz bar is a warm, wood-paneled cocoon. Dubbed the Velazquez Bar, this intimate retreat sports clubby leather sofas, Louis XVI chairs, and diminutive occasional tables, the sort it’s easy to tangle with when you’ve had one too many of whatever you’re having. Newspapers hang at the ready and on the bar, champagne chills in a big, ice-filled silver bowl. The glass-fronted bar back, in which the various spirits are lit from behind, reads like a jewel box overflowing with gems.
While the bar has migrated about the property over the decades, it has always been a key element in many a guest’s enjoyment of the Ritz. Director Orson Welles, who stayed at the hotel in 1955 while shooting scenes for Around the World with Orson Welles, was fond of the martinis served there. Screen star Ava Gardner, on the other hand, who maintained a home in Madrid for a time, may have enjoyed the bar’s libations too much, as she was ultimately banned from the hotel premises. Surrealist Salvador Dali stopped in periodically, sitting at the bar with a glass of whisky in which he dipped his finger before twirling his infamous moustache. From 1977 until his retirement in 2009, head barman Marcelino Martin was everyone’s best friend, a master mixologist who had no trouble creating a drink on the spot, basing it on the color of a patron’s clothing.
There are no recognizable directors, screen sirens, or artists here this afternoon. And the hotel staff, whose impenetrable discretion is a wonder in our gossip-driven world (where waiters are more than happy to tell you how Brad Pitt likes his eggs), will never reveal who is stopping at the hotel. I am sure they know I am no one, but they treat me as I if I am and that makes all the difference. So, sitting back, sherry in hand, I luxuriate in the muchness that is the Ritz bar—the classic design, the coziness, the attentiveness of the service. And yes, the air of exclusivity, one not bred of money or even taste, but good sense; the good sense that sometimes a drink isn’t just a drink, but an elixir, and that a bar is more than a stool and a big screen TV. Back home, I begin to research those alarming black paintings of Goya. It seems some experts doubt the man made them at all. It seems perhaps his son, looking to trade on the family name, may have whipped them up. It is troubling to discover these captivating images may not be the genuine article. But have no doubt; the bar at the Ritz is the real thing. –Thomas Conners