Major celebrations like Mardi Gras or Oktoberfest can create an intense desire to join in, or an equally intense desire to stay away (or often, a bit of both). That’s the trouble with big festivals – they’re fun, exciting, one-of-a-kind experiences, but they also mean huge crowds, sold-out hotels, and jacked-up prices. However, there are ways to get a taste of the experience without plunging all the way in. Many cities offer smaller, less publicized versions of their big festivals, or hold pre-events that feature the pageantry without the crowds.
Starkbierzeit, the Alternative to Oktoberfest
Take it from me, Munich’s annual Oktoberfest is a blast. Giant beer mugs, sing-alongs, lederhosen, pork knuckles – what’s not to love? But I can also tell you that the hotel rates are substantially higher than normal, and if you want a seat at one of the big tents in the evening, you need to reserve well in advance. Fortunately, beer lovers can opt for Munich’s Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Season) instead. This smaller, less famous but still boisterous festival is held annually in mid-March. The tradition began with the Paulaner monks, who began brewing extra-strong beer in the 17th century to sustain themselves during the fasts of Lent. The event is held at beer halls throughout Munich, starting off at Paulaner am Nockherberg, and continuing at other breweries like Löwenbräu and Augustiner. Along with the hearty dopplebock beer, the festivities include traditional Bavarian costumes, oompah bands, wood-chopping competitions, and a stone-lifting contest, which takes place at the Löwenbräu Keller. Hours are stricter than Oktoberfest, but prices are lower.
The breweries are a short distance west (Löwenbräu, Augustiner) or south (Paulaner) of the center. If you want to stay in the old city, the boutique Cortiina Hotel offers chic, modern rooms in a great location a few blocks from Marienplatz. To fortify yourself before imbibing, pick up some cheese and sausage at the open-air Viktualienmarkt.
Pre-Palio Pageantry in Siena
The Palio di Siena horseraces are the events of the summer, hugely popular and of supreme importance to the locals. The races are held each year on July 2 and August 16 – following a colorful parade, horses and jockeys representing ten of the local contrade (or districts) run around the Piazza del Campo. The crowds and enthusiasm are massive, and the best way to view the race is from one of the balconies facing the piazza (it helps to know a contessa, or be one).
If you can’t swing one of the actual Palio races, you can get a taste of the event at the estrazioni, when the contrade who will run the races are announced. There are 17 contrade in Siena, each with its own emblem (unicorn, owl, giraffe) and heraldry. However, only ten can run in each race. The seven who didn’t run in that month of the previous year are automatically entered in the current year’s race – the other three are chosen by lottery. Crowds gather in the Piazza del Campo, and flag bearers, drummers and trumpeters in traditional costumes march around the square as the anticipation builds. Finally, one at a time, the flags of the chosen contrade are flourished at the window of the Palazzo Pubblico, to much shouting and singing from the crowd. You won’t get to see the horses run, but it’s highly enjoyable nonetheless.
The estrazione is held on the last Sunday in May for the July race, and the first Sunday after the July Palio for the August race. If you want to feel like Italian royalty, stay at the Grand Hotel Continental, located in the very heart of Siena just steps away from the Piazza del Campo.
A Mellower Der Meistertrunk in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The beautifully preserved German city of Rothenburg wouldn’t exist without the Meistertrunk. When the city was captured in 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, the enemy commander agreed not to destroy it if the mayor could drink a 3.5-liter tankard of wine in a single gulp. He guzzled it down, and saved the town. This historic contest is still a very big deal in Rothenburg – a clock on the Marktplatz features mechanical figures acting out the event, and it is also commemorated with a play called Der Meistertrunk (the Master Draught), performed during the annual Meistertrunk Festival in May, the Imperial City Festival in September, and again the first weekend in October.
Rothenburg is a magical place that transports you back to medieval times – the festivals heighten this impression with torchlight parades, fireworks, and historical markets. However, the city gets overwhelmed with tourists during the high season, and even more so during the festivals. The October event is much smaller, but still features costumed musicians on parade throughout the weekend – and you’ll get to see the famous play while avoiding the hordes. A good hotel option is the Goldener Greifen, a cozy, historic inn just off the Marktplatz. (The musicians from the parades like to gather in the beer garden out back.)
Mardi Gras Ramp-up in New Orleans
In New Orleans, the days just before the start of Lent are a non-stop party, with constant parades and revelry. Hotels are booked months in advance, and most hotels require 4 or 5-day minimum stays. But many people don’t realize that Mardi Gras season actually stretches for several weeks, with parades being held on weekends starting in January. If Mardi Gras week is too much, you can get your bon temps on at one of these earlier events. The first parade of the season is traditionally put on by Krewe du Vieux, and tends to feature political satire and adult themes – if you want something more G-rated, the Krewe of the Little Rascals holds a noontime children’s parade the following day. Other early parades feature wine themes or all-female Krewes.
You can expect crowds, bead throwing, and tourists carrying 3-foot-long receptacles filled with Hurricanes at these earlier events, but the revelry is substantially dialed down, and hotel rooms are much easier to get. Try the elegant Lafayette Hotel, just outside the French Quarter on the Charles Avenue streetcar line.
Ellen is a Bay Area-based freelance writer. She loves wildlife and nature, art, history, food and wine, and light (very light) adventure. As she writes this, she is about to head off on a not-so-light adventure – Antarctica! Wish her luck.