Austrian Beer Fest: Don Your Lederhosen!
ALTAUSSEE, Austria (AP) - Dirndls, lederhosen, an oom-pah-pah band and beer: It doesn't get more traditional than this when the sleepy Austrian village of Altaussee wakes up for a nonstop beer party, Sept. 4-6.
The annual three-day beer fest is sometimes described as a more intimate and less commercial version of Germany's Oktoberfest. It marks its 50th anniversary this year in Altaussee, a quaint hamlet located 186 miles (300 kilometers) west of Vienna.
Showing up in traditional garb is a must. So if you've ever wanted to don an Austrian dirndl or lounge around in lederhosen and knee socks for a few days - this is your chance.
Organized by the local fire department, the annual beer fest draws both droves of locals and a large crowd from the Austrian capital.
It was with one of these Viennese groups that I decided to make the trip last year.
Within minutes of our arrival, the owner of the inn we stayed at welcomed us with a hearty "Griass eich!" (an informal greeting in the local dialect). We had entered another world where talk revolved not around politics or the financial crisis but about the strength of the local schnapps.
The epicenter of the event is the so-called beer tent ("Bierzelt" in German) crammed with wooden benches, tables and counters selling sausages, roast chicken and, of course, beer. From a stage in the center, bands pump out "oom-pah-pah" tunes that, in the early hours of Sunday morning, oddly enough included an Austrian rendition of "The Final Countdown." A small fairground lies to one side the tent, complete with rides and stalls selling sweets and gingerbread hearts.
As the tent fills up to maximum capacity, you might consider securing a spot at the Wirtschaft Altaussee, an inn a stone's throw away where, as the night wears on, patrons are known to dance on tables to Austrian and German pop songs. Or for a more formal dinner, try the restaurant at the Gasthof zum Hirschen where we spotted Hannes Androsch, a well-known entrepreneur and former Austrian finance minister.
The festivities also attract people from farther field.
Take Ronnie McGeehan for example, a Scotsman who lives in the German city of Erlangen.
"There's a great atmosphere here," he said while waiting in line to try the tent's much-touted chicken.
Or John Semone, from San Francisco, who described the weekend as "something quite different and traditional."
"You see a lot of pretty girls - and good-looking guys too," he added.
Which brings us back to the all-important dress code.
Although I'm half-Austrian, I have to admit that the idea of squeezing myself into a dirndl didn't entice me much at first. But ladies, let me tell you - the outfit flatters any body type. Granted, the tight-fitting bodice does make it a tad tough to breathe but after a while, well, you adapt!
Guys can choose between above-the-knee or somewhat longer knickerbocker-style lederhosen. But even a traditional green blazer paired with long leather pants or dark jeans does the trick.
If late-night carousing in green socks isn't your thing, Altaussee has other attractions.
Located on a shimmering lake and surrounded by majestic mountains, it's paradise for people who like the outdoors. A perfect way to soak in the area's beauty is to hike to the Jagdhaus Seewiese, a hunting lodge known for its homemade pastries. Less athletic types can opt for a scenic boat ride there and back.
Altaussee also boasts its fair share of beautifully maintained old farmhouses, so strolling the streets gives you a sense of what life was like in times past.
A perfect time for traipsing through town is Sunday when dozens of booths line the main drag to the beer tent, offering goodies that range from toys and handmade jewelry, to herbal remedies and hiking boots.
About those hiking boots: While it may sound like a complete fashion faux pas, they are the perfect footwear for dirndl-wearing women since the weather in this part of Austria can quickly turn wet and chilly. I learned this lesson firsthand when it took me days to scrape the mud off my moccasins.
If You Go ...
ALTAUSSEE: Located about a three-hour drive from Vienna along the A1 Westautobahn. You can also take the train to nearby Bad Aussee but be prepared to switch at least once if you're coming from the Austrian capital. While the ride takes almost four hours, the train winds its way through stunning landscapes. Salzburg is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) or an hour's drive, away.
LODGING: The Gasthof zum Hirschen - http://bit.ly/cEijXR with nightly rates beginning at $92 or 73 euros through early September - is just steps from the beer tent. It has clean, modern rooms with solid windows that keep out the noise for those who choose not to party all night. The staff is friendly and served breakfast for late risers last year well after 11 a.m., which is unheard of in Austria. If you're looking for lodging with lake and mountain views, try the upscale Hotel am See http://www.hotelamsee.at/ with nightly rates beginning at $94 or 75 euro through early September.
OTHER AREA ATTRACTIONS: Take a tour of a salt mine in the nearby town of Hallstatt http://www.salzwelten.at followed by lunch or dinner on the local lake.