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Oktoberfest isn't just for Germans anymore. People have flocked to Germany from all parts of the globe to participate in the world's largest annual festival for nearly 200 years. In addition to the two-week celebration in Munich, the Bavarian capital where the tradition began, Oktoberfest is enjoyed in one form or another in cities and towns worldwide.

So how did this global party get started? Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who was later crowned King Ludwig I, wanted his people to share in the celebration of his marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. Ludwig organized a horse race and invited all the people of Munich. The royal party drew about 40,000 guests—a major party, by ordinary standards, but only a small fraction of the 6.4 million people at Oktoberfest in recent years. A good time and copious amounts of beer were apparently enjoyed by all that first year. It was decided that the horse race would be held again in 1811, this time in conjunction with the state agricultural show.

Although the horse race was eventually abandoned, many characteristics of the early Oktoberfest celebrations have remained the same, if not expanded upon. Munich's annual celebration is still held on the original site, dubbed Theresienwiese ("Theresa's fields"), in front of the city gates.  The agricultural show continues to be a feature, though it is only held every third year now. The tradition of beer and food stands, begun in 1818, continues today and is perhaps the most significantly developed aspect of Oktoberfest.

The modern celebration has replaced the small tents with giant brewery-sponsored beer halls that can hold up to 5,000 people apiece. The party has also grown in length, to become a 16-day extravaganza ending the first Sunday in October.  The 2010 festival dates are September 18th to October 3rd.  The Oktoberfest in Munich has been cancelled at times in the past due to war and cholera.   

The Costume and Riflemen's Procession takes place on the first Sunday of the festival, in which some 7000 performers -- groups in traditional costumes and historical uniforms, marching bands, riflemen, thoroughbred horses and other livestock, old-fashioned carriages, and numerous floats -- parade through the streets of Munich's city center showcasing the diversity of local, regional, and national customs. The second Sunday of the Oktoberfest features an open-air big band concert involving the 400 or so musicians who comprise all of the Oktoberfest bands.

Between events and beer tents, guests can traverse the 103 acre Oktoberfest grounds to ride a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, or water slide, navigate their way through a labyrinth, visit a haunted house, be entertained by numerous types of performers, take a look at the flea circus, stop off at one of dozens of game booths, or take a festival tour, among other things.

Oktoberfesters in Munich consume more than 5 ½ million liters of beer, about 45,000 liters of wine, and almost 165,000 liters of non-alcoholic beer.  The beers the Munich breweries produce specially for Oktoberfest contain 4.5 percent alcohol, and the festival halls in Munich can seat 94,000 people.                                         
Additionally, attendees consume large quantities of food, most of which consists of traditional hearty fare. Readily available all over the fairgrounds are Hendl, whole chickens grilled on a spit and typically sold in halves. Variations are the spit-roasted duck or goose. Roasted meats, especially pork, and potato dumplings are served up with the traditional red cabbage and apple dish (Blaukohl). Local specialties such as roasted ox tails, grilled pork knuckles, or Bavarian Weißwürste, steamed white veal sausages served with sweet mustard, sauerkraut, and a pretzel or bread roll are found on just about every menu. Visitors interested in seafood might try the charcoal-fired fish-on-a-stick (Steckerlfisch).
Smaller appetites are satisfied by potato salad or potato soup, and even vegetarians won't go hungry, feasting on massive warm, soft pretzels, cheese plates with bread, or one of the many meatless dishes served up in each of the tents. Typical dessert dishes include Dampfnudel, a steamed honey-dumpling served with vanilla sauce, apple strudel, and Kaiserschmarrn, a sugared pancake with raisins.
Concessions peddling a variety of sweet snacks are also scattered across the landscape. From pan-roasted, sugar-glazed almonds (gebrannte Mandeln) to cotton candy (Zuckerwatte), from glazed fruits to ice cream, Munich's Oktoberfest has something to satisfy every sweet tooth.
A great way to experience Oktoberfest is to spend a few nights enjoying the festivities and culture of Munich, then board the fabulous MS Amalegro, operated by AMA Waterways, on a 7-night river cruise from Nuremberg to Amsterdam.  This is a great opportunity to visit central European ports which larger ships cannot reach, while providing an opportunity to relax on a deck chair enjoying a 360 degree view of Europe as you glide by.  This river worthy vessel will dock in several riverside communities allowing cruisers to experience Oktoberfest with festivities specific to each town’s traditions.

The largest Oktoberfest held outside of Germany takes place each year in the twin cities of Kitchener-Waterloo in Canada, where a large ethnic German population resides. The largest such event in the United States is Oktoberfest-Cincinnati in Ohio, which boasts half a million visitors each year.

If you enjoy beer (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) or want to participate in a memorable high energy cultural festival I highly recommend you consider Oktoberfest this year!


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