by Tim Dawe


Plans for a day trip when travelling can easily go awry with the weather. Yesterday I spent a glorious sunny, spring day entombed in Munich’s museums. Today’s planned visit is to Oberammergau. It’s cold, wet, foggy and gloomy. But I am keen to see the site of the famous Passion Play.

Oberammergau is a rural village in the Bavarian Alps 80km from Munich. If it wasn’t for the bubonic plague (Black Death) which swept through central Europe in the early 17th century, Oberammergau would still be just another farming village in the beautiful Bavarian boondocks. Instead it is an international tourism destination, famous, prosperous and boasting a parking lot for double-decker coaches the size of three football ovals.

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Religious symbolism

A quirk of fate, also known as Devine Destiny, spared the villagers from the plague. In gratitude they made a vow to stage a Passion Play every 10 years, beginning in 1634. The next production is in 2020.

Once a simple show of devotion, nowadays the play is produced and directed by professionals with all the staging, lighting and costuming that contemporary theatre – and money – can provide. But the cast is still drawn from village shopkeepers and farmers. There is a population of 5,000 and about 2,000 of them are “occasional” actors in the play. Presumably the actors change roles with each decade.

Each performance is seven hours but my stay here is only one hour so I despite the constant drizzle, I want to see more of this village. They refer to Oberammergau as a village but it seems bigger. It’s more like a small industrial town, where the only industry is religious tourism. The schedule tour allows one hour for exploration before boarding the coach.

Picturesque Hotel Alte Post on an overcast spring day

Despite the constant grey drizzle, I set off to see these famous buildings shown in their sunny glory through the hundreds of postcards on display. Without specific plans, I’m in the mood for serendipitous surprises. It’s not long before I am overwhelmed by a two-storey canvas of lüftlmalerei, that very Bavarian thing of daubing your house with large wall paintings, usually depicting a local landscape or theme such as a fairy tale or a religious scene. It includes elaborate decorations highlighting, and transforming, windows, doors and eaves. Lüftlmalerei is named for the local painter, Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748-1792) after his house: Zum Lüftl.

I continue on past the many tourist traps selling all manner of themed kitsch to a road juncture that must have been a medieval market place and do a double take. I know this place yet I have never been here. It is the Hotel Alte Post, a much photographed Bavarian Alps icon. It looks greyer than I “remember” its postcard image in full sunlight, overflowing flower boxes and smiling patrons dining alfresco under umbrellas (perhaps that was yesterday). Somewhere over there behind the grey clouds must be beautiful snow-capped Bavarian Alps.

Wonderful luftlmalerei of Pilatushaus

Oberammergau is noted for its wood carving and there are some remarkably good public works on display at the large square. I note the name of the local artist and visit his shop. I don’t stay long. The display of so many pieces depicting last suppers, crucifixes and apostles – and some Hansel and Gretel – aimed at the current market is too much.

For the second time I’m halted in my tracks, this time before the wonderful lüftlmalerei of Pilatushaus. The whole house is traditionally decorated in strikingly rich tones without the need to paint a scene. It is complemented by a splendid formal garden. Other painted houses are Disney; this is Titian. I am transfixed. Regrettably Pilatushaus is not open to the public yet provides functions such as weddings and receptions.

Buying postcards of a sunnier Oberammergau

My usual scurrying means I see most of the features before my fellow coach travellers and return to our agreed meeting place at the theatre. As would be expected, the large modern theatre dominates the village with its adjoining expansive redeveloped parkland, a very pleasant spot marked with religious statues – one from the last King of Bavaria. The theatre is so large it could be the pride of a medium-size city.

I reward myself with a hot chocolate in the friendly, and warm, restaurant facing the park. On a whim, I go down a lane to look over the back wall of the restaurant. There, just 25m from this imposing international theatre that attracts the cultural elite and celebrities, is a messy, muddy and grunting pig farm. Maybe it is a village after all.

Despite the weather it’s an enjoyable and memorable little visit to a small village with a big reputation. But I don’t feel the desire to return in 2020. With my contented fellow day-trippers, we settle back in our dry, warm and comfortable coach and wind our way up the mountains.


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