5 Questions about the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt

The Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt is an annual wine festival in Bad Dürkheim, Germany.  The Wurstmarkt is the world’s largest wine festival, attracting over 500,000 visitors every September.

The first time I visited the Wurstmarkt I saw a grown man tackle his girlfriend into a trash can.  As the two of them collapsed onto the ground in a drunken haze like a couple of neophytic alcoholics, a friend came to the rescue and separated the pair before any further felonies were committed.

So it goes at the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt.  The festival operates under the guise of a “sausage market”, but exists mainly as a celebration of the annual grape harvest.  Dozens of vineyards from the Rhine, Mosel, and Neckar Valleys converge on the small town of Bad Dürkheim in Germany’s fertile Rheinland.  Tents are erected, carnival rides are constructed, wine is delivered by the truckload, and people from all around the region (including thousands of Americans thanks to a strong military presence in the area) converge on the town for an annual pilgrimage dedicated to debaucherous behavior with a side of sausage.

Is drinking really the main attraction?

Yes and no.  There are rides for the kiddies and displays of cultural relevance, though most people are typically too drunk to show an interest in such things.  The festival itself is over 600 years old so it is fair to say that ceremonial tradition has a strong presence in Bad Dürkheim every September.

Outside of the wine, which we will get to in a moment, the best thing about the Wurstmarkt is the food.  German food has a certain weight that some people may find a bit challenging, but nothing is a better accompaniment to a future hangover than a grilled Bratwurst im Brötchen (bread).  The Germans treat their fest food like Americans treat a cup of coffee.  Too drunk to drive?  Eat a sausage and give it a few minutes.

Forgive me if I am feeding the stereotype of Germans and their love affair with all things sausage, there are plenty of other culinary options for those who have an aversion to tubed meats.  Leberknödel, a liver dumpling, similar to a large meatball, is a popular option at the Wurstmarkt.  Grilled pork steaks with onions, bratkartoffeln (skillet potatoes fried in the fat of angels), roasted chickens, schnitzels, and about ten different varieties of sausage other than bratwurst can be had at reasonable prices.

How’s the wine?

It depends on your definition of wine.  Do you like white wine?  Do you like moderately sweet wine?  Do you like to mix sparkling water with your wine?  No?  That’s fine, neither do I.

In truth, most people I know do not hold German wine in very high regard.  Many people find the tendency toward sweet as a negative, though Germans do produce several varieties of trocken (dry)  whites.  Before moving to Germany I was indifferent toward white wine and in all honesty, I don’t drink much wine at all outside of festival season.  That being said, there’s something about drinking a local product in a celebratory setting that cannot be ignored.  I’m unlikely to open a bottle of halbtrocken Silvaner or Riesling while sitting on my couch on a random Sunday, but the Wurstmarkt commands that you partake in the bounty of the previous year’s harvest.

Nearly all of the respectable vineyards in the region are represented at the Wurstmarkt so you’re likely to find something that suits your taste.  Glasses of wine are inexpensive, ranging from 3-5 Euros depending on the brand.  A pfand (deposit) is required when you receive a glass from a vendor.  As long as you’re able to keep control of your glass and can avoid the temptation of turning it into an ashtray after you’ve finished your wine, the proprietor will gladly return your deposit.

 

Why do they mix the wine with sparkling water?

Remember the guy who tackled his girlfriend into the trash can?  That guy didn’t mix his wine.

The reality is that you do not have to order a schorle (wine with sparkling water pronounced shore-la) but most people do.  The schorle is a product of the Germans’ tendency to consume massive quantities of alcohol in a single session.  Everyone is familiar with the infamous liter beers of Oktoberfest – now imagine one of those filled with wine.

There are two main sections of the Wurstmarkt:  the “elegant” side where the local wine producers set up classy tents with small tables and limited bench seating, and the “party” side where the conditions are a bit more austere.  The elegant side typically features more mature Germans (read: old) sipping single glasses of the best the vineyards have to offer.  It’s also worth noting that vintage wines aren’t really a thing in Germany.  Why drink tomorrow what you could drink today?  The Germans have a logic that is difficult to argue at times.

The party side is where the proletariat goes to drink.  If your vision of a German festival includes dancing on tables, singing, rowdy behavior, and the occasional vomit drenched stranger trying to bum a cigarette, the party side of the Wurstmarkt is what you want.  Goblet style wine glasses are not commonly found on this side of the Wurstmarkt.  Instead, most of the tents offer half liter, straight sided glasses more suitable for schorles.  Of course, you do have the option of ordering only wine in your half liter glass, but that means you have forgotten about the guy, his girlfriend, and the trash can.

How do I get there?

Assuming you are in Germany in September, you can reach the Wurstmarkt quite easily by train or bus.  It is possible to drive into the town of Bad Dürkheim but this defeats the entire point of the festival.  Generally speaking, if you leave the Wurstmarkt with the ability to drive, you’ve done it wrong.

Train travel to Bad Dürkheim can be a nightmare on the weekends of the festival.  You should be prepared to board a train with people who are drunk or in the process of getting drunk.  The train ride home is an unspeakable horror of tightly compacted, wildly intoxicated Germans and Americans.  Imagine a train that loads in the middle of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.  Tickets are rarely necessary when leaving the festival, provided you stay on local transport trains.  If you have no idea what you’re doing or you are too drunk to figure it out at the end of the night, try to find a train that is headed in the general direction of your destination.  Eventually you will sober up and find a way home, trust me.

Digression:  I have a friend who decided it was a good idea to walk home after a long night at the Wurstmarkt.  He regained consciousness in the middle of a vineyard.  His phone had no reception and he had no idea where he was.  If at all possible, keep those in your party who are susceptible to blackouts inside the grounds of the festival.  Bad Dürkheim is in the middle of German wine country – meaning it’s in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no walking home and a taxi driver is going to be reluctant to pick you up for fear of spending the rest of his shift picking bits of Leberknödel out of his upholstery.

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I’m going.  What else do I need to know?

It is a good idea to be familiar with some basic German phrases and customs before getting yourself into an environment like the Wurstmarkt.  First aid tents are scattered throughout the festival for good reason – medical emergencies are quite common.  That said, nearly every German in the region has at least some understanding of English and many are fluent.  Here are a couple additional tips:

  • Cash is necessary.  Most of the booths are mom and poppish in nature and will not be equipped to accept cards.  There may be an ATM in Bad Dürkheim but I’ve certainly never seen one.  Bring the cash with you.
  • Tipping is not compulsory but is appreciated by the people who are working the festival – one Euro will suffice in most instances.
  • If wine is not your thing there is plenty of beer available, though not typically in the main tent areas.  If you want a beer you are going to have to search for it.  Just try the wine, it’s why you’re there.
  • Don’t hold your pee.  Lines for the bathroom at the Wurstmarkt can be soul crushingly long.  If you wait until the last minute you’re going to be doing the pee pee dance in front of hundreds of drunk Germans.  Bad times.
  • No Irish Goodbyes.  The Irish Goodbye is fine if you’re at the pub down the street from your house, but it’s a bad idea if you’re at the Wurstmarkt.  The cell phone towers in Bad Dürkheim are typically overloaded during the festival and finding your friends in the sea of people can be an exercise in futility.  Stay with your group.
  • Meet some Germans.  Last year we met a woman who wanted to practice her English curse words with us.  Her sample sentence of choice was always:  “You are a/an (curse word).”  Perhaps this was just her way to call a large table of Americans “shit bitches” without fear of retribution.
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