Every year Stuttgart celebrates the change of season from summer to fall with a trip to the Cannstatter Volksfest. Colloquially called the "Wasen" (so named for the fair grounds on which the event is located), it's the second largest beer festival in the world after Munich's Oktoberfest. There are carnival games and rides, as well as plenty of food stands and beer tents in which you can order a mug of beer and sing off-key to a combination of traditional German beer-drinking songs and old American rock music.
This past year the Wasen was held from September 26th to October 12th. I make it a point to go to the Wasen at least once or twice with friends over the three week period. It's a fun evening, and I'm always looking for a reason to wear my dirndl, a type of traditional dress in southern Germany.
My decision to purchase a dirndl was a big one. After all, I'm not German (though I am German-American on both sides of my family), and the full kit -- dress, shirt, shoes, purse, and other accessories -- can be pretty expensive (think 80€ to upwards of several hundred euros). As a side note, my German friend and colleague once told me that it's only in the past five years or so that the costume has caught on, and now you tend to see a lot of foreigners wearing dirndls and the male equivalent, lederhosen, to the Wasen. Personally, I just like to dress the part no matter what the occasion.
So a couple of weekends ago when my father-in-law was in Germany for the first time, we figured that we had to dress up and experience the Wasen for a night. In the past I've gone mostly on busy weekends, but on this occasion we went late in the afternoon on a Sunday. There are two entrances to the Wasen: one side opens up to the tents while the other side opens up to an odd row of stalls selling a mishmash of kitchen goods and slippers, followed by the carnival rides.
The area was busy, but not crowded, and so we didn't have to wait very long to ride the enormous Ferris wheel. It was my first time on the Ferris wheel at the Wasen, and my first time on a Ferris wheel since I was a kid, so the experience was really exciting for me. We were packed into a giant car that easily fit six people and made about three turns around, all while oohing and ahhing at the sights of the fair ground through the plexi-glass windows.
Be forewarned: One ticket to the Ferris wheel cost us 6€, and my impression is that most other rides, from the haunted house to the bumper cars, are about the same. And unlike in American fairs, you can't just purchase a string of tickets and use them until you're out; you have to pay for each ride separately. If you're going to the Wasen with kids, I'd suggest you make budget and stick to it.
After a turn about the Ferris wheel, we made our way into one of the tents. Each tent at the Wasen offers a different kind of beer, music, and décor, though the food is largely the same and all priced the same to reduce competition. In past years we've purchased tickets with friends and gotten a table. The ticket gets you three large Maß-sized beer and a half of a chicken, as well as reserves you a spot for about 35-40€ (the price has gone up over the years). However, as Sunday evenings aren't as busy, we were able to walk right in to the Sonja Merz tent and sit down at a table.
Wanting to recreate the "typical" Wasen experience, we all ordered our first Maß of German pils. Now pils really isn't my favorite kind of beer. In fact, I tend to find it rather flavorless, and much prefer a hoppy hefeweizen or IPA. But when you're drinking large quantities of beer at the Wasen, a mild, non-filling pils just seems to fit.
After our beers came to the table, we decided to order food. I chose to have a half chicken served with a roll (the meal that you get when you get a ticket to the Wasen), while Matt ordered a kind of beef roast. My meal was definitely the winner. The chicken was hot and juicy with a crispy, herb-crusted skin. I think rotisserie chicken is just something they do well at the Wasen, and the dish is one of the most filling and least expensive (at 9€) on the menu. Matt's meal, on the other hand, was a bit dry and overcooked, which would have been okay if it hadn't cost 18€. My suggestion is to stick with the chicken.
Tip: If you want to save money on beer and food, purchase a less expensive (though smaller beer outside of the tents and eat at one of the food stalls around the rides. They offer a variety of sausages, french fries, corn, spätzle, and other traditional foods that are always cheaper (and often tastier) than the equivalent beer-tent meals.
As the night wore on and we started our second Maß, we joined in the singing and merry-making by jumping up on the benches. If you go to the Wasen, you absolutely must get on the bench and swing your mug in the air while singing "Ein Prosit!" at the top of your lungs. The benches are very strong, and you build a kind of camaraderie with the people around you as you sing and cheers. (Just be careful not to slip and fall after the second or third beer when the benches get a little shaky.)
The Sonja Merz tent was fun, but I do prefer the music in the Göckelesmaier tent. Apart from the German songs "Ein Prosit" and "Fürstenfeld", at the Göckelesmaier tent they also play a number of American songs that I know the lyrics to, including "Hey Baby - If You'll Be My Girl", "Country Roads", "Sweet Caroline", "Sweet Home Alabama", "We Are the Champions", and "No I Will Survive". Yes, I know I'm in Germany and should be learning more German, but it's always a little exciting to hear a song and know what the words mean.
Tip: Make sure you bring plenty of 50-cent coins to pay the attendants at the toilets. It's customary in German to pay to use the restroom (sometimes the fee is just a tip while in other places it's required). And while it took me a while to get used to this custom, I'm really happy to do it now as the restrooms in Germany are much, much nicer than most public bathrooms I've been in in the States.
As the night wore on and we all started to get a little sleepy, we decided to leave and seek out dessert. After our last trip to the Weindorf, I've decided that I love the sweet simplicity of chocolate-covered pineapple, so I had a stick of that while Matt opted for a Nutella-covered langos, a kind of fried bread similar to funnel cake in consistency. It was the perfect ending to a fun night.
Note: The Wasen is usually pretty safe. While you will find some people drink to excess, it's not as common here culturally speaking as it is in the States. Most Germans will go to the Wasen in groups, and there's usually one sober friend or two in the group who is able to shepherd the group home and keep them safe. And while as a young woman I've generally felt extremely safe in most parts of the city, even late at night, I would still suggest that you have a girlfriend or boyfriend with you in case a drunk person decides to get a little too close for comfort.
The Cannstatter Volksfest is over for this year, but you can look forward to the Frühlingsfest (the spring-time equivalent) in April/May. Did you make it to the Wasen this year? What was your impression?