Detail of building

The village of Oberammergau (population of about 5200) has a history going back to Roman times and has had a parish church since the 12th century; however, it only became incorporated in 1818.  It is located in the Ammergau Valley of Bavaria in the German Alps about 100 km south of Munich and lies very near the Austrian border.   Surrounded by mountains, forests, and lakes, Oberammergau and area is a four season playground with something to please most.  Nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen is hosting the 2011 World Cup Ski Championships on its stunning new Olympic ski jump built in 2008.  I really do mean stunning.  It is a work of art with a practical function – check out photos on-line, although it is hard to find some that do it justice.

Passion Play theatre - the stage is open to the elements, but the Play goes on regardless of weather

Oberammergau is best known for its Passion Play, The Bavarian State Woodcarving School (and woodcarving, of course) and the NATO School (located there since 1953).

Passion Play Theatre - Rear

The only reason for my going to Oberammergau was the Passion Play.  Passion Plays were common during the 16th and 17th centuries, but Oberammergau’s is the only one to have gone the distance.  2010 marked the 41st performance.

In the early 17th century, Oberammergau had remained untouched by the plague, mainly due to its isolation.  The Village Council decided to keep it that way and guards were posted to keep people in or out as the case might be.   However, it was all for naught, in 1632, a man who had been working outside the village snuck past the village guards to visit family.  He brought with him the plague.
By July 1633 the desperate surviving townspeople vowed that if God would
spare them further deaths they would perform a Passion Play, depicting the last
weeks of Christ’s life, his crucifixion and resurrection, every ten years.  Apparently, from that day on there were no more deaths.  The first Passion Play was performed in 1634 and has continued with only a few interruptions (World Wars) since then.  In 1680 it was decided to have the Play in years ending in zero, and in 1934 and again in 1984 there were special anniversary performances – 300 and 350 years respectively.

Charli perusing Play book

This year, of the 5200 residents of Oberammergau about 2500 were involved in the play in some capacity.  The cast alone numbered close to 1100 people, with about 200 being children, and 50 animals.  This year was also the first that had Muslim children in the play as well as camels (two, a momma and her baby – they were both quite unperturbed), a horse and birds.  Only those born in the village of Oberammergau are allowed to be a part of the production.  Not sure if that applies to the animals but it does for the people.

Our arrival in Oberammergau began on a sour note leaving me unsettled and maybe that has coloured my perceptions.  Anticipated ETA was pushed back by 2 hours,  one hour in Stuttgart due to some instrument failure on the train (which meant setting up new connections), and one hour because the train personnel decided, after an hour or so of travel, that a 10 minute smoke break was in order.  That 10 minutes cost us another hour as we missed our new connection by 10 minutes!  Grrrr…. I wasn’t as relaxed about train travel then as I am now, partly because I was responsible for getting Charli here and there, but also because I didn’t realize then that there are several times a day that trains will travel to the same locale.

The “Oberammergau Experience” is very much a “six of one, half a dozen of the other” sort of thing.  On the positive side; the weather was great!  We saw the sun and it was just as fine as we remembered it.  We even went as far as wearing T-shirts and capris!

Our dining mates, Ian and Peter, were a pair of interesting fellows from the Boston area.  Neither of their wives liked travelling so they travelled together.  They were basically on a hiking holiday in Austria and Germany and had the opportunity to take in the Passion Play.  It was Ian who put forward the captivating idea that Jesus was a “fun guy”.

And, speaking of dining – The food was divine!   Here is our dinner selection for the first night:

Charli can legally drink beer in Germany!

Appetizer – Amuse bouche (slice of green melon, thin slice
of smoked bacon and a small piece of fancy bread)

1st course – Potato cream soup

Main course – a choice of one of the following:

  1. Grilled filet of pork with cream sauce served
    with homemade spatzle (noodly thing) and mixed salad.  The salad consisted of:  cold diced potatoes, shredded carrots, shredded cucumbers, peas, diced tomatoes and greens all in separate little piles on the plate and all with individual dressings.  Both Charli and I chose this course selection.  This was before my “pork” experience on my pilgrimage.
  2. Cordon bleu (veal) served with French fries and mixed salad.  As Charli and I object to eating veal we did not choose this.
  3. Roasted filet of Pangasius (cat fish) cream sauce with herbs served with wild rice and mixed salad.  Neither of us was brave enough to give this one a go.
  4. Spinach strudel and mixed salad.  This was a close second choice for me, but Charli had issues with spinach.

Dessert – choice of:

Homemade wildberries parfait with whipped cream.

Fresh fruit.

The portions were huge, but I was determined to stuff it all down to get my monies worth!

Another positive – well the Passion Play comes around every 10 years and it was very special to experience what was likely a once-in-a-lifetime event with Charli.  The music and singing was wonderfully moving and the acting was passionate.  Also, we saw an area of Germany we had not been to before.  It is quite lovely too especially if you like high mountains.

Now, the negatives.

The Oberammergau Passion Play was a package for two (accommodation for 2 nights, 6 meals, admission to the play, a script, and admission to the museum) that I had purchased through a travel agency.  The agency was only one of 3-4 that were selling the packages.  As every other series of previous performances had sold out about a year in advance I was worried that I was already too late, so when I saw them advertised in Octoberish I smacked my money down!  I could have waited another 3 months and saved $400!  In fact, if I would have arranged everything myself I would have saved far more money.  At the barest minimum I figure I was easily overcharged by $1000.  However, at that time I was unwise and unsure about managing all that sort of “stuff”.  Ian and Peter had also purchased the package and were annoyed about the overcharge, but took the attitude that you win some you lose some.  I still haven’t decided if I am going to kick up a little dust and complain.

The irony is that this was a story of Jesus Christ, but then money grabbing is often done in the name of Jesus.   Turns out that the Passion Play did not sell out on all its dates due to the shaky worldwide economy.

In so many ways the commercialization of the Passion Play overshadows anything else that Oberammergau has to offer.  I can’t help but feel that religiosity is a cloying insincere thread that weaves its way through the town.  Everything seems to turn on a religious theme.  For instance – Oberammergau has had a Woodcarver’s Guild since 1563.  Virtually every woodcarving you see is of a religious nature and there are about 120 woodcarvers in Oberammergau all producing pretty much the same.  It seems to be a case of – Gustav has sold a carving of Mary holding Baby Jesus, so 10,002 more of the same every year will  be a good thing.  Surely, after nearly 500 years someone could diversify! Having said that, I did find one fellow that had some other items besides Jesus tortured on the cross and bought a carved rose.

Jesus on the lathe - from Oberammergau Museum

Church bells!  They ring every day, every hour beginning at 6AM and ending at midnight. There are several churches in Oberammergau and not all of them are in sync, so you can imagine the cacophony.   However, that may just be “special” during the run of the Passion Play (May-1st week in October).

As I said the meals at the hotel were exceptional, but you had to pay extra for the drinks –alcohol I can see, but tea, coffee, water – even expected to pay for the bottled water they provide in the room …. come on.

Mini aside.  A LOT of the beverages in Germany are carbonated and that includes bottled water, although you can get it with or without carbonation.  I’ve even seen carbonated apple juice.  It is called Lift.  We were drinking so many carbonated beverages that Charli was afraid she would either blow up or make unseemly noises if anyone gave her a big squeezy hug.

Two of the included things in the package were a script of the play in your language of choice and admission to the museum.  Having the script is great and I can refer back to it, because what they don’t tell you is that most of the latter half of the play is in the dark and you cannot follow along with the script because you can’t see it.  The Play is over 5 hours long.  The first part begins at 10AM, and is 2 ½ hours long, then everyone gets a lengthy break and the play recommences at 8PM.  It was finished by 11PM.

Costume from a previous year's Play - Oberammergau Museum

The museum was fine to go to and having the admission price as part of the package saved us 5 Euros.  Funny thing about me and museums – for all that I love history I don’t care to go into museums.

Kind of creepy clock - Oberammergau Museum

Most are static displays and as a record/depository of artefacts they are essential, but I much prefer wandering around and “feeling” how it was.  Give me a building or, preferably, a ruin to explore any time!

So, like I said “six of one, half of the other”.  If I were to go again I know what I would change.  Still lesson learned and experience gained and that is always a good thing! But, dust kicking is appealing too.


Anita and Charli