Straubing’s alternative to the Munich beer festival

Oh dear! Here I am again, swaying and singing, arm in arm with a couple of women in blue, white and red dirndl dresses and surrounded by a cacophony of noise, light and colour.

It is approaching midnight in this vast tent, where maybe 5,000 people are celebrating around 500 tables laden with one-litre glass tankards, all brimming with golden East Bavarian Roehrl Brau beer. I am in the midst of the frenzy of Straubing’s annual Gäubodenvolksfest – the second largest beer festival of its kind in Germany after the Munich Oktoberfest – and by all accounts, more Bavarian, more authentic and much more friendly.

What a feast for the senses as you enter one of the seven massive beer tents. Men are dressed almost exclusively in tight-fitting knee-length lederhosen, braces and cheque shirts. Women wear long, frilly blouses complemented by aprons every colour of the rainbow. Waiters and waitresses shoulder metre-long trays laden with pork knuckles, wurst, sauerkraut and massive Masskrug tankards.

Some 300 yards from where I stand, a brass band thumps out traditional drinking music, amplified to ridiculous levels. Table-loads of people have risen to their feet, climbed on the benches and are stomping in time to the umpah music. “Prost!” they roar, clashing glasses and looking directly into each others’ eyes as custom dictates.

“We Straubingers know how to enjoy ourselves, ja?” the young woman says, tightening her grip on my elbow while her boyfriend eyes me carefully. I nod silently. I am beginning to understand why Bavarian writer Max Penzkofer called the Gäuboden beer festival “a little glimpse of paradise”.

But to backtrack a bit. Straubing, where the Bavarian heart beats strongest (or so the locals boast), lies in the flat, fertile Danube plain, the Gäuboden. Yet it is only a step away from the Bayerische Wald (Bavarian forests) with their wonderful hiking and cross-country skiing trails.

Unesco world heritage site Regensburg, Germany’s best preserved medieval city with its incomparable 12th-century, 15-arch Steinerne bridge, is a mere 40km up the Danube. The baroque jewel that is Passau, glittering like the prow of a huge steamer surrounded by the waters of three rivers, is less than an hour downstream. And in between, there’s the lovely Danube city of Deggendorf.

But with its warm, sunny summers, Straubing is undoubtedly an excellent place to stay. The 600m Gothic marketplace (Germany’s longest), set against a backdrop of steeply-gabled medieval townhouses and rococo facades, pulsates with life and energy. In July, one of Europe’s best jazz festivals attracts international stars. Out of town there are cycling paths, plenty of watersports, trips on the Danube and a zoo and aquapark for the kids. And it all culminates in the great Gäubodenvolksfest.

For 10 heady days in August, locals and foreigners alike (more than 1.2 million people visit the festival) enjoy the specially brewed beers of five local breweries, generally celebrate and – let’s not beat about the bush – get moderately or totally inebriated.

I’ve come for the festival. But since arriving, I have conducted a whistle-stop tour of the town in the company of a charming guide called Roswitha (Rose White). Together we climbed the 227 steps of the Stadtturm, the 14th-century tower that divides the marketplace neatly in two.

During my breathless ascent Roswitha chirpily entertained me with local lore – how the cunning inhabitants of Straubing diverted the course of the Danube until it flowed conveniently past their settlement perched on higher ground – and how consequently, one of the principal duties of the watchman posted in the Stadtturm was to alert the townsfolk to the approach of every ship. For almost 500 years Straubing prospered from the tolls it extracted from passing trade on the river.

And I have been getting to grips with Straubing’s history, from the time of its occupation by Celts and then Romans to Duke Ludwig’s establishment in 1218 of the “Neustadt” (new town), remarkable for its grid design. In the Gäuboden museum, there are 116 priceless Roman artefacts, found by chance during construction work, the single most important hoard of Roman treasure discovered north of the Alps.

But the Neustadt’s prosperity has always been based on its granaries, its breweries and its rich agricultural heritage as the gateway to the fertile Danube plains. In fact the Gäubodenvolksfest started life in 1812 as an agricultural show.

Wandering along the Neustadt’s well-kept cobbled lanes, Roswitha and I admire the late Gothic churches, steeples soaring, brickwork cleaned and polished, gleaming as if built yesterday. Here’s the beige-pastel Burgerspital. “It started life in the 13th century as a poor house for the sick and elderly,” Roswitha declares. “And it is still an old people’s home today!” Albeit a rather more prestigious one, I can’t help thinking.

But like a magnet, the festival draws me ever nearer. I go through the Spital, the only one of the original five town gates still standing, and walk along the remains of the medieval fortifications and into the festival ground, passing the funfair with its blaring music, carousels, big-wheel and roller coaster.

“Welcome to Straubing’s fifth season,” the barmaid grins, handing me a huge, foaming tankard.

Fast-forward to 1am. No more beer is being served. I am swaying in a large, friendly crowd, the few hundred metres towards the Stadtturm. From the knight tournaments of old to the rave events of today, the space within the shadow of the Stadtturm in the Gothic marketplace has always been the hub of all social life.

We enter a late-night club and are soon at the bar and I am rambling on to a blonde woman about nothing in particular, while her husband buys me drinks. I try to restrain him but he merely smiles wider and buys me more.

Now she has given up her half-hearted flirting with me and is dancing wildly with a young, handsome buck. The music stops. They disengage. She returns to the bar and casts a longing glance back at the young man. I decide it’s time to leave.

Alone again, I stumble through the cool of the night down Straubing’s narrow lanes and suddenly, round a corner is the fast-flowing Danube. In that instant, the river seems older than time itself.

British Airways (0844 493 0 787, flies Heathrow-Munich from £107.70 rtn inc taxes. Ryanair flies from Stansted to Salzburg and Linz. Gäubodenvolksfest ( runs 7-17 August, and hotels in Straubing are fully booked months ahead, but for rooms in the surrounding area, call the tourist office on +49 9421 973127.

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