They say there are at least two sides to every person, place or thing. Sides are funny things. You don’t always like all of them. Bamberg hadn’t ever shown me a bad side so I was kind of expecting such when I recently went to their renowned Sandkerwa. Don’t know what the Sandkerwa is? Well, it’s their version of a Folks Festival ala the Munich Oktoberfest. The two don’t share all that much in common aside from beer being involved and a preponderance of people wearing Lederhosen and Dirndls.
two sides: the crowds filling the bridge into the Old Town & Little Venice serenity
Ok, a few facts. The Sandkerwa loosely dates back hundreds of years in the form of the Kerwa of the St. Elisabeth Church. Kerwa is dialect for Kirchweich, typical church celebrations around Bavaria. This one would have been restricted to this small neighborhood around the church which is close to the river in Bamberg. It’s still part of the now much larger Sandkerwa that not only transforms Sandstraße (Sand Street) into a series of small beer “tents” and food stalls but also much of the Old Town. In its current form, it’s about 65 years going but I imagine it was a much smaller affair even that recently. It now also runs five days from Thursday to Monday at the end of August.
backstreets before the crowds & St. Elisabeth Church
So, I arrived midday on the Friday with my wife in tow. I say in tow as she wasn’t particularly keen on going, despite loving Bamberg. She does NOT love Folks Festivals and to be perfectly honest, neither do I. So, we were both expecting to see this bad side of Bamberg I alluded to earlier. Our apartment wasn’t ready so we went to nearby village Debring for lunch. There was a bus from the train station that went right by where we’d be staying to Gasthof Braurerei Müller, so it would be easy to return too. It would be a new brewery for us and we knew it was likely to be quiet and have much better value food than the festival. It was also a chance to try some new beers and I was still unconvinced the Sandkerwa would put any beery feathers in my cap.
a tasty pork in creamy chanterelle sauce & great dark beer at Gasthof Müller
It turned out to be a winner, with both excellent beer and food. It was nice enough to sit in the small Biergarten out back and as planned, the bus back was easy, as well. When we got back down the hill, our apartment was ready so we lugged our bags back up there. Actually, we were lazy and waited for the bus. It was included on our Bavaria Ticket ticket and they were quite frequent. The apartment was great, very colorful and my wife loved it. Between the successful meal excursion and the homey accommodation, things were looking good.
our little flat up the hill
Once in the Old Town, we weren’t enthralled with the decorations, which weren’t untypical in any way but Bamberg is anything but typical. Still, it wasn’t crowded and we’d seen photos with thousands of people clogging the narrow cobblestone streets of our favorite Bavarian town. We bypassed a few great but not hard to get regional brews and made our way to the river. To our surprise, there were lots of Biergarten-type long tables with benches running along it. That looked more like it and even better, I saw beer from a brewery I’d never been to, as well. We went in and had a quite nice Lagerbier from the Hausbräu Stegaurach and shared a plate of decent if very pricey Bratwurst. The beer was expensive by Bamberg standards but cheaper than the Oktoberfest. It was also a beer I’d not only not had but thought pretty damn good.
Hausbräu Stegaurach had a great spot down by the river
There wasn’t much time to linger so we headed along the river and noticed one thing in particular. It seemed that every group had one person carrying a large paper bag, overflowing with caramel corn. That was something our group lacked so the walk along the river now had two purposes: hopefully find some more untried beers and for sure to find that popcorn stand. Naturally, we found the beer first. We’d recently stopped at Brauerei Kundmüller in Weiher but with such a huge selection, I hadn’t been able to try their noted Lagerbier and here it was, served up with a great view of the Little Venice of Bamberg across the river. My wife had ventured for a fish sandwich and secured a seat. She smiled and even said she was glad we’d come. Oh, this was good, very good and we hadn’t even found the popcorn yet.
Little Venice aglow & Weiher Lagerbier with a Fish sandwich
As chance would have it, on exciting paradise, we saw it: Hofmann’s Popcorn…with a huge line snaking away from it. We got on the tail end and waited excitedly. The atmosphere was buzzing but family-oriented and not crazy in the least. It was hard to fault the Sandkerwa at that point. It was a rare time where the corn lived up to the hype. Hofmann’s did just that. We munched on it and continued up river and found it even less busy. I guess once most get to Hofmann heaven, they turn back around. Only locals seemed to be walking with us now, bonded by carrying white bags of warm, freshly popped corn.
the real attraction at Sandkerwa: Hofmann’s
In little time, we were at another riverside Biergarten with yet another untapped for me brewery, Adler-Bräu from Stettfeld. I got one, trying to be judicious about drinking too much with what seemed a lot of choices. Their Altfränkisches Lagerbier was another winner and I was soon up and ordering another, rather than sharing it. It went surprisingly well with the slightly sweet Hofmann concoction. It was kind of good it was cooling down or it might have been hard to pry ourselves away from the river.
Adlerbräu was new for us & some great scenery down river we’d have missed
We headed up to the St. Elisabeth Church area to enjoy the original area that spawned the festival. It was starting to get busy but still easy to get a spot. There were quite a few good brews to choose from but we got the Kellerbier from Hummel since they were pouring from gravity dispense. It was even great after the amazing Adler-Bräu entry. We also had a Kronabier from Drei Kronen in Scheßlitz to top things off before heading to the area around Schlenkerla, Bamberg’s smoky timeless pub that doubles as perhaps its biggest tourist attraction.
Hummel Kellerbier from gravity dispense was a hit
It was getting a little zoo-ish and as much as we love Rauchbier, we’ve had and will have it many times so opted for less easy to find favorite, Zehendner Lagerbier from Mönchsambach. The smart move, really, would have been to save that for the next day and head home but we were having fun so it was the last one before heading back up the hill.
at what festival could you pass up Schlenkerla Rauchbier?
The next day got off to a slow start as the weather was gray and a bit cooler. We decided to have a meal away from the Sandkerwa area again but this time chose longtime fave Mahr’s. The Biergarten had been so great a few weeks earlier but we headed right into its cozy classic pub as it was not a day for sitting outside. We snapped up one of the last tables and soon groups were being sent back outside. Their U was as marvelous as ever, as was the typically great meal.
the U & the Ah
The weather was growing more sour and we thought about heading to the apartment to wait it out but got stuck under a tent in the rain right in the thick of the Sandkerwa, at least drinking a Huppendorfer Vollbier to bide our time. It lightened up enough to head back down to the river and as it turned out, just in time for the Fisherstechen festivities. This is one of the holdovers from the earliest times of the Sandkerwa. It’s jousting of sorts that takes place from long boats on the river in front of Little Venice. The main event between the men would be on Sunday at 3:00 but this was the boys event. It was fairly entertaining and I imagine the one between the men would be even more so.
Fischstechen on the river: the young boys event
We headed back up to nearby St. Elisabeth Church and discovered a beer I’d somehow missed the previous day, Schederndorfer Landbier from Brauerei Will. I’d not had this since the year my wife and I met and she took me to a bunch of such village breweries. I always joke, she must have really been in love. All joking aside, I knew a keeper when I saw one; anyone willing to put up with that kind of malarkey just had to be. With the weather starting to sour, we sought cover behind Schlenkerla. There was a fairly large permanent mostly enclosed area and we lucked out with a table. I grabbed us a couple beers and we chatted with a two guys who asked to join us.
Schederndorfer Landbier & my wife enjoying a dried spiral potato
If the weather had remained so, we’d have likely headed home but the sun started to come out so we sauntered back down to the river to repeat some of the highlights of the previous day, including of course, an even larger bag of Hofmann’s. Popcorn aside, and in no way a knock on the beers, it was anticlimactic until the sun came gloriously out, casting a reddish hue on the cute Little Venice houses, strewn in summer flowers. Yet, summer it wasn’t and the sun wasn’t about to sink as slowly as it does then. The bad side of Bamberg wasn’t so bad, after all, it seemed and going home on that high would have been the wise choice. As is too often the case, one decides to dip into the well one more time than is best and off we sped to Adler-Bräu for what was to be one more.
Little Venice aglow is a big attraction of the river area year round.
The wind started to pick up and it was getting dark. We finally were ready to go back to our flat but there was one small problem. Everyone else was just coming out. We walked back the way we’d come and suddenly, the streets were swollen with revelers. For most, this is what Sandkerwa is all about but for us, this was the nightmare we’d envisioned: the bad side of Bamberg. Every way we tried to go, it was equally packed but we managed to zig zag our way through the crowd fairly quickly. We were in the thick of things when my wife, much to my surprise, asked if there was anything else I wanted to try. I’d like to say I surprised myself and said no, that I was completely satisfied. Instead, I led her to the Wagner of Kemmern stand where we shared one, right in the thick of the madness. We thankfully managed to squeeze to the far side of the square bar-like servery. The three young women serving were about as good as we’d seen at the festival, machine-like in their precision. Coming from service backgrounds, we always enjoy watching those good at it. That said, going home was long overdue and once finished, there was no question where we were headed. Sleep came quickly once up the hill.
Schlenkerla BEFORE the crowds & crew at Wagner banging out the beers
The next morning was the sunniest but we lingered in our little flat as long as we could before setting out. We left out bags at reception and meandered through the Sandkerwa, taking a few pictures but not even thinking of stopping for something to eat or drink. It was still early but it was busy, Sunday morning Frühschoppen was in full swing, the tradition of the late Sunday morning brunch that is more of an excuse to drink than actually eat. Weisswurst was on nearly all plates and a beer in front of most patrons, scored with Bavarian music or jazz.
the view coming down the hill from our flat & Frühschoppen at Sandkerwa
With the sun blaring, it was slightly tempting but for our last meal in Bamberg, we had Schäuferla on our minds. It’s the signature dish of Franconia and living in Munich, Weisswurst is a staple. We retrieved our bags and headed over to Klosterbräu and sat in the sun there. It was surprisingly quiet for a Sunday lunch time but I guess most everyone else was at the Sandkerwa.
a Schäuferla & Schwärzla at Klosterbräu is tough to turn down
We got going in plenty of time to catch our train home and on that journey, I contemplated the bad side of Bamberg but all I could really muster was my own lack of judgment each night when one more could have been skipped. The bad side of the Folks Festival is generally over indulgence and I was guilty of that, but that’s my bad side, not Bamberg’s. Sure, it was very crowded at times, just like in the pictures but that would have been avoided by departing earlier, too. During the day, it was truly a family affair and though beer was a part of it for most, it was mostly people just washing down some food, at least down by the river.
If you want a crazy Oktoberfest-like experience, Sandkerwa more or less offers that after 9:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, especially in the heart of the Old Town. If you want a more relaxed time, go earlier and avoid that area. Go down to the river, pull up a bench overlooking Little Venice. If you’re lucky, the sun will shine but the one thing not to forget is Hofmann’s. From what we saw, Sandkerwa has one true constant: white paper bags of hot caramel corn. There can’t be a bad side to that.