For the millions of Catholics worldwide, the town of Oberammergau in southern Germany rated among the short list of pilgrimage locations. That was, once every ten years.
Each decade, this little mountain village hosted a momentous event known as the "Passion Play," a day-long performance that portrayed of the life of Jesus according to the Gospels. The play was offered daily over several months during the opening year of each decade (2000 was the last, 2010 will be the next). What made this play extra special were the following: the cast included as extras most of the residents of the town, the script had not changed in centuries (therefore it was strongly traditional in nature), and the stage was open air and therefore subject to the whims of nature. (Can anyone imagine the real Golgotha covered in snow during the crucifixion?) It was a portrayal of a significant historical event, flavored with lots of Bavarian creme.
Well, ok, Oberammergau was a busy place during a few months once in a while, but what about the other nine-and-a-half years in between performances? As we found out in 2004, there was every reason to go anytime, and then perhaps wait for an opportunity to go buy tickets for the next round.
The biggest attraction in town was the theater, which served as a museum for the Play. The front of the theater was shown in the first photograph, with the entrance leading to the reception area for the hourly guided tours. Most of the tours were in German, but there were at least two daily tours in English (we missed out and went on a German tour). The foyer greeted visitors with life-sized photographs of several key characters in costume.
The tour began with the open-air stage and a view of the theater. The theater had a roof, but the stage was fully subject to the elements, and later parts of the tour showed the performances done in some pretty bad weather. The stage itself was simple, with archways behind an open floor suggesting the city setting. Then, the tour was brought backstage to the dressing rooms -- each of which was devoted to a single character or class of characters. For example, the first room we saw was the dressing room for Pontius Pilate. Arranged in the room (which we were not allowed to enter) were the various costumes and props for Pilate, accompanied by a photograph of Pilate during the 2000 performance. The next room was for Jesus, whose crown of thorns was placed on a chair draped by His bloodied tunic. Larger rooms were reserved for groups of Roman soldiers, the Jewish people, the Pharisees, and others. One hallway had hung upon it the dozens of shields, and racks below contained all the spears.
We also moved backstage to see some of the settings used. For example, the second photograph shows the table and stools used during the scene of the Last Supper. We were also shown the trees used in the garden where Jesus was arrested, and the crucifix used. The crucifix was very interesting, as it contained a hidden harness to make it easier for the actor Jesus to carry, and the nails used were hooked so as to appear that they entered through the wrist, but were actually holding Jesus up. The Pharisee High Priest had a huge wooden chair to be carried by eight extras upon his entrance. It was a fascinating tour, start to finish.
But the Passion Play Theater was just one of the town's sights. The rest of the town was absolutely gorgeous and worth a tour by itself. Covering dozens of buildings all around town were detailed murals, mostly of a religious nature, such as the one in the third photograph. That particular building was striking because of its bright blue murals on several sides, clearly a draw for its wares being sold inside.
Another example of a muraled building is shown in the fourth photo. This was followed a more common theme of a white-sided building with colorful figurines arranged on it. Some also included flower boxes, filled with seasonal flowers (mostly red, white, and pink) or vines. A prominent example of such a building was the Old Post Hotel where we enjoyed lunch. This hotel was clearly set up for the big groups with at least three large dining areas. There was little doubt that big groups hit the town on occasion judging from the size of the bus parking lot.
Probably the one structure that stood out for us was the Pilatushaus, a building somewhat offset from the main street that served as a shop and museum, and prime postcard shot. This structure was painted in bright maroon and gold on all sides with very elaborate Scriptural paintings. Aside the building was a hedge garden, shown in the fifth photograph, with the sculpted hedged arranged like a maze and decorated with flowers. The crucifix shown in the photo was positioned at the back corner of the garden.
The shopping at Oberammergau was terrific. Its main market street was not long, but it specialized in religious artifacts and souvenirs. Also prominent were chains of stores devoted to the Christmas season, which is passionately celebrated in Bavaria. There was also plenty of shopping and restaurants surrounding the Passion Play Theater.
Those interesting in purchasing tickets for the next performance (as of this writing, it would be 2010), should be advised that they were not available until about three years before the performances begin. At that time, flexibility would be necessary, as the tickets will go very quickly. Also, a number of agencies will order blocks of tickets for tour groups, etc. While hotels in Oberammergau would be a premium, it would not be necessary to stay there. The town had its own Deutsche Bahn rail station at the end of a line originating from Augsburg, meaning one could take the train in to see the play and then leave after the performance.
But again, the lack of a performance did not mean the place wasn't worth visiting. It was a great place in a perfect location, conveniently only a mile or two from Ettal and minutes away from the major resort towns of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the historic Linderhof palace. It made for a terrific stop on a wonderful Alpine tour.
Trip taken 11 October 2004 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2004 Tom Galvin