On Wednesday, I took my annual stroll across the Freimarkt, Bremen’s annual autumn fair. The Bremer Freimarkt is one of the oldest fairs in Germany, held every year since 1035 AD, which makes 2016 the 981st reiteration. I’ve blogged about the Bremer Freimarkt a couple of times before – you can find my old posts here.
When I was younger, I used to be a big fan of fairground rides, but most of my favourites are either gone by now (such as the late lamented Frisbee, sold off to Dubai two years ago), while those that are still there tend to be too hard on my back. And three minutes of feeling like Han Solo during the asteroid chase in The Empire Strikes Back isn’t really worth several days of backache.
So this year, I just focussed on the food and enjoyed the atmosphere. I had fish and chips (a fairly new Freimarkt addition that started showing up approx. five years ago to complement the more traditional fish rolls and baked fish), Chinese vegetable stir-fry (first showed up in the late 1980s), sweet potato fries (brand new – this was the first year I saw them), Schmalzkuchen, a doughnut like pastry that is a traditional fairground food and roasted almonds, another traditional fairground treat. My companion’s taste ran more towards the traditional: Thuringian sausage, French fries, Rossbratwurst (horse meat sausage, a regional specialty) and soft serve ice cream.
In general, I noticed fewer stalls selling candy and sweets – used to be that every second stall was a candy stall. It’s probably due to health concerns (fairground candy isn’t exactly healthy even by candy standards) and parents being less willing to buy candy for their kids. I also suspect the Freimarkt allowance, which was standard when I was a kid, is gradually dying out, so kids often don’t have money to buy candy for themselves. Coincidentally, balloon vendors, which were extremely common until a few years ago, have also nearly died out.
Another classic that has become rare is the gingerbread heart, which is decorated with icing spelling out a name or message. They used to be popular gifts for children, girlfriends, etc…, but I saw a lot fewer people wearing a gingerbread heart than usual. I guess people are no longer buying them, for while they make great decorations (I had one on my wall, when I was a student in London, sent to me by friends), they are nigh inedible.
Drink stalls and tents (beer, mulled wine and even hard liquor are normal at German fairs) were plentiful as ever, but thankfully, there were a lot fewer drunks around than usual. Meanwhile, pizza seems to have exploded in popularity. There used to be two pizza stands at the Freimarkt – this year, there were at least six or seven. New additions to the fairground food circuit were langos, a Hungarian specialty. I also saw a stall offering tacos, burritos and other Mexican street food, but it didn’t look very good. Plus, one of the usual fish stalls (fish sandwiches are a North German fairground classic) offered fresh oysters. Now I love oysters, but the Freimarkt is not where I’d eat them. A New Orleans type oyster po’boy I could imagine – po’boys aren’t that different from our traditional fish sandwiches, after all – but not fresh oysters for slurping.
As for rides, there wasn’t anything new this year, just a whole lot of more or less old stand-bys. But then, innovation in mobile fairground rides has slowed down since the early 1990s. Indeed, strolling over the Freimarkt it was striking how many of the rides were already thirty, forty or fifty years old. Ride design wasn’t particularly exciting either, though I question the wisdom of naming your space-themed ride Apollo 13.
One thing that was sorely missed were the barkers who comment on the rides and do their best to entice people to buy a ticket. Most barkers limit themselves to comment like “Come in, a new journey starts.” or “Do you want some more?”, but some are excellent entertainers. The best Freimarkt barker used to work on the rides owned by the Robrahn family, first the Ranger and later the Frisbee. This guy was so hilarious that people would stand in front of a ride they had no intention of boarding just to listen to him. When a power failure plunged part of the Freimarkt into darkness back in the late 1980s, he switched off all lights on the Ranger, while it was upside down, and kept apologising how sorry he was they’d have to stay that way now (no one realised that if the power had really been off, the loudspeakers would have been off as well – at least, I didn’t). Another year, when a couple of Canadian tourists were riding on the Frisbee, he played the Canadian anthem for them. But the Frisbee is now spinning in Dubai and the barker? I have no idea what happened to him, but I miss him.
Another thing that annoyed me was how many rides and stalls were Bavarian themed. Now there have always been some Bavarian themed rides and stall at the Freimarkt, but this year it was really excessive and it doesn’t fit here culturally. I suspect a lot of stall and ride operators couldn’t be bothered to switch out the backgrounds and decor after Oktoberfest – cause most stalls and mobile rides have multiple background and decorations, Bavarian themed for Oktoberfest, maritime themed for Freimarkt and Hamburger Dom, Christmas themed for Christmas markets, etc…
Meanwhile, one classic ride I was happy to see again at the Freimarkt after a few years of absence was a mobile go-kart race track. I suspect it dates from the 1950s and indeed my Dad claims that he rode it as a teenager. The ride is still in excellent condition (fairground rides are subjected to frequent safety checks in Germany, so accidents are very rare). It was massively popular, both among elderly gentlemen eager to relive their youth and teenaged boys (and yes, they were all men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman or girl on the go-kart ride). The teen boys were a joy to behold – one look at their faces and you could see that they were imagining being Michael Schumacher or Sebastian Vettel at that moment. One kid even had its own cheering squad made up of mother, sister and little brother. Two other boys hugged and posed for a photo after the race was through. So cute.
There was more police and more paramedics in evidence than usual and the layout had been changed to reduce the number of exits. Security concerns are heightened this year due to terrorist fears, even though the only terrorist attack ever at a German fair and coincidentally the worst terrorist attack in postwar Germany, the Oktoberfest bombing of 1980, was committed by Neo-Nazis. And believe me, they weren’t afraid of Neo-Nazis this year. Whereas the people they were afraid of were enjoying the fair like everybody else.
I didn’t take my camera to the Freimarkt – too risky, because it’s a pickpocket hotspot. However, by now I have a smartphone which takes pretty decent photos, so I made use of that. You can find my Freimarkt photos below.
If you prefer moving pictures, here is a video documentary of the 2016 Freimarkt. I also found these two Freimarkt videos from 1987 and 1989, featuring many late lamented classics such as the Rainbow, the Sky Lab or the Alte Liebe. The 1989 video features the infamously noisy Sky-Rider (the hydraulics were so noisy that even the music couldn’t drown them out), while the 1987 video also features the Ranger barker – damn, I miss him. The Ranger itself is actually not nearly as much of a test of bravery as my teen self thought – I had the chance to ride one a few years ago. Never got to ride a Sky Lab or Enterprise (same ride, different names) sadly.
Traditional Caterpillar rides, once popular because couples could kiss when the canopy came down, still show up on German fairs occasionally. Here is a video of a beautifully preserved Caterpillar ride from the 1930s.
For a look at the Happy Sailor in holiday dress at the Bremen Christmas market, see here.
Back in 2011, The Kraken, a Schwarzkopf Monster III that had been fairly recently refurbished, suffered an accident at the Freimarkt, which injured a couple fo people. I blogged about that here and here. I was always a big Kraken fan, all the way back since 1979, so I’m glad to see a Schwarzkopf Monster III at the Freimarkt again, even though it’s not The Kraken.