The small Bavarian village of Oberammergau is known the world over for its Passion Play, held every ten years. Situated in the Ammergau Alps, it is also a scenic and beautiful destination for lovers of the outdoors.
How to Get There
Oberammergau is easy to reach from Munich by either car or train. Both trips take around an hour, making Oberammergau an easy day trip for those who prefer not to stay overnight. The Innsbruck train, which departs daily from München Hauptbahnhof stops at Murnau, and it is from here that direct trains to Oberammergau (conveniently the last stop on the line) leave. Once in Oberammergau, the village is easily traversable on foot or by bicycle, although there is also a local bus service, which those who find walking difficult might prefer.
What to See
Although Passion Plays are performed all over the Christian world, Oberammergau’s is unique, in that it is a thanksgiving to God for sparing the village’s inhabitants from the worst ravages of the bubonic plague in the seventeeth century. First performed in 1634, it is now held in years that end in a zero. Consequently, the next performance is scheduled for 2020. All the performers and technicians involved are locals; around 2,000 people, around half of the village, took part in 2010. Each performance lasts seven hours, albeit with an interval. Unsurprisingly, for something that was never intended as anything more than a local event of thanksgiving, it is performed in German. However, nowadays non-German speaking audience members can buy an accompanying guide to the performance, which includes an English translation.
The Passion Play attracts huge numbers of tourists, and any visitor who wants to combine their trip with seeing a performance ought to plan, and book, well in advance. Packages to visit Oberammergau during the 2020 Passion Play season are likely to go on sale at the start of 2018. Anyone visiting in the latter half of 2019 might notice that many of the local men have long hair and beards; this is because Ash Wednesday 2019 will be “Hair Decree day”, after which all the men who wish to take part in the play begin growing their hair and beards.
Those arriving in a non-Passion Play year might like to visit the Passion Play theatre. Between May and October, tours that explain many of the historical, technical and religious aspects of the play run on Tuesdays to Sundays. During the holidays, they also usually run on Mondays as well. With the tours running almost every half-an-hour, getting a ticket is not usually a problem.
The Bavarian State School of Woodcarving has its home in Oberammergau, and visitors will realise why when they see the brightly painted frescos (Lüftlmalerei) that decorate so many of the local buildings. Most of the frescos are traditionally Bavarian, showing fairy tales and, because this is Oberammergau, religious tableaux.
Ettal Abbey is an easy 7km walk from the village of Oberammergau. The Benedictine monks who live in this splendid Baroque monastery have diversified, and the abbey is now home to a boarding school, hotel, cheese factory, brewery, distillery, and bookshop. Most of the monastery is closed to visitors but the façade is impressive, and the basilica’s interior, adorned with frescos, is open all year. Beer from the brewery is tasty and available in nearby Etal village.
For those with children, seeking an escape from rain, or just with an interest in reptiles, the Reptilienhaus Oberammergau is well worth a visit. This is a private collection of reptiles, which are mostly snakes, with the addition of some spiders and scorpions. It is small, but well designed, inexpensive, and very welcoming even to the casual visitor.
The Wellenberg offers a great place to swim while also enjoying panoramic mountain vistas. It has both indoor and outdoor pools, a sauna, and two waterslides. The entire place, including the outdoor pool, is open all year round. There is also a cafe.
As with much of Bavaria, Oberammergau is an ideal place for scenic hiking. There are walks to suit all ages and abilities, from easy loops on relatively flat terrain to challenging overnight mountain hikes. There are several huts in the Ammergau Alps, where hikers can spend the night. The Oberammergau tourist information has details of many of these walks and the mountain huts. It is also possible to hire hiking equipment locally.
For those wanting a souvenir from Oberammergau, the many woodcarving shops are the ideal places to look for a purchase that has real local significance. Many of the beautifully carved products are connected with the Passion Play, but there are also toys, household items, and other things. Wooden crucifixes are probably the most popular souvenirs, with clocks running a close second. Some of the clocks for sale are the traditional cuckoo variety but others are Bavarian clocks, inscribed with a legend that translates as “in Bavaria, clocks run differently”.
When is the Best Time of Year to Visit?
For those wishing to see the Passion Play, there is only one time to visit: the 2020 Passion Play is scheduled to be held between May and September of that year. For other visitors, temperatures in spring and autumn tend to be more conducive to enjoyable hiking.
Food and Drink
For such a small place, Oberammergau has a wide choice of eateries. Many of these, such as the Mexican restaurant, el Puente, and a selection of pizzerias, try to cater for the tastes of the village’s increasingly international visitors. However, the local bars may offer a more authentically Bavarian experience, and generally at very reasonable prices. Hotel Maximilian is another excellent choice for those seeking well cooked local fare.
Although Oberammergau is an easy day trip from Munich, it has plenty of its own accommodation options. Needless to say, these will be booked out well in advance, when the Passion Play is running. There are guesthouses and hotels to suit most budgets, some even accepting pets. There is also a youth hostel, although this closes during the winter season.