THE PASSION PLAY
For many years, Oberammergau has been on my bucket list. I was fascinated by the many facts that I’d heard about the Passion Play held there every 10 years. Luckily the 2020 event was postponed because of Covid and I realised that for this once in a decade occasion, I could not procrastinate for too much longer.
Oberammergau is a small village located in Bavaria in Germany among the stunning Ammergau Alps. Nearly 400 years ago the history of the Passion Play began. The plague raged in many parts of Europe during 1633 and it did not spare the village of Oberammergau either. The villagers soughtvrefuge in prayernand vowed to perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every tenth year. The first play took place in 1634, in the cemetery next to the parish church, supposedly on the graves of the plague victims. Seemingly there were no further deaths from the plague.
Later, in 1830, the performance space relocated to the northern edge of the village, where it still remains today but in a modern open-air theatre with amazing acoustics The villagers’ promise was kept until 2020, when the play had to be postponed for two years, this time due to another plague, the corona-pandemic.
To be considered as a performer in the Passion Play, you have to be born in the village, be married to a local for 10 or more years, or live there personally for 20 years. No exceptions to these rules are made.
Costumes are made by villagers and for accuracy and authenticity on stage, no wigs are allowed. A “Hair and Beard Decree” comes into play in March of the year of the performance so there are no trips to the barbers.
Over 2,000 locals take part every 10 years, but there are only around 124 speaking roles up for grabs. Some of the scenes include 64 vocalists and 55 instrumentalists sitting in the orchestra pit.
BUT FIRST BAVARIA
DAY 1 WEDNESDAY
After landing in Frankfurt, we travelled to Wurzburg. According to tradition, the first Bishop of Wurzburg found the remains of the Irish saint, Killian and built two churches on the spot c. 1060. These churches underwent renovation and changes over the years until the entire city of Wurzburg was destroyed on 16th March 1945. However in the years since the chey have both been restored.St Killian is held in very high esteem in this town with many of the eldest boys in a family being named after him. Wurzburg is a lovely town, particularly the Saints Bridge across the river Maine. With a small deposit on a glass, I had a ‘take away’ local wine sitting on the wall of the bridge.
We then continued to Nuremburg to stay in the lovely Novina Hotel. After a super dinner – what a selection of foods – and few scoops, I was more than ready for the bed.
DAY 2 THURSDAY
After breakfast, we went on a tour of the city of Nuremburg with Andreas, a German guide. The weather was dreadful making the cobbled streets very precarious. But we climbed to the top of the Imperial Castle and looked across the beautiful city which for centuries was regarded as the cradle of European culture, with grand residences, ancient walls and an old castle. Nuremburg was the city of Nazi rallies and the Nuremburg racial laws.
Andreas explained that the new Germany acknowledged Nuremburg’s part in the National Socialist barbarity and accepted the destruction of the city in 53 minutes on the 2nd January 1945, the death of 1800 people and the loss of 6 centuries of history as part of the consequences. Siting the Nuremburg trials in its Palace of Justice was just as much symbolic as practical: it was one of the few towns with a prison alongside a court.
Nuremburg is now restored to its former beauty. There a many tributes to Duhrer to be seen around the city – my favourite was the hare sculpture in the square where Duhrer lived and the Ship of Fools in the market square. The Nuremburg traditional gingerbread was delicious. Nuremburg is a city of fountains – the Schöner Brunnen (beautiful fountain) which was more a public well for water in the 14th-century was shaped like a Gothic spire in the main market square.
We departed Nuremburg for Altotting stopping off in Augsburg to see the famous painting of Our Lady, Untier of Knots in the church of St Peter. Pope Francis is said to have been particularly inspired by this wonderful painting and frequently prays to Our Lady to undo the knots of life.
The Hotel Plankl in Altotting was our destination. After dinner a few of us explored the town, found a lovely bar and shared (a few) bottles of wine.
DAY 3 FRIDAY
We spent the morning exploring Altotting. Since the 9th Century the Black Madonna has been one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in Central Europe. Pope Benedict who was reared near here often stayed here – also in Hotel Plankl.
In the afternoon, we travelled out to Markt Marktl where Benedict was born. We all remarked at how big his house was, but the guide informed us that the building housed the Police Station (his father was a police officer), a customs post (Austria is only a few miles away) and accommodation for the police and custom officers as well as Benedict’s home.
DAY 4 SATURDAY
After an early breakfast, we set off for Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This German ski resort in Bavaria was formed when 2 towns united in 1935 for the Winter Olympics, often called the Nazi Olympics.
Our destination, the Riessersee Hotel was fabulous and being allocated a suite overlooking the lake was the icing on the cake. My balcony afforded a unique view down into the valley although there was little chance to enjoy it before being whisked off to Oberammergau. The shortening days of September moved the performance start time to 1.30.
Oberammergau was stunning. Most of the houses have colourful murals or Luftmalerei, the older ones illustrating martyrs, passion scenes and famous citizens and events. More recent illustrations are of nursery rhyme and fairytale characters. The Hansel and Gretl house is magnificent. The shops along the route to the theatre have wonderful displays of wooden ornaments and Christmas decorations, sometimes the woodworker is actually carving outside the door.
Men and women were separated into different queues, probably because the women generally have handbags and the search might cause delays. The banter between the spectators was lively as we shared stories of our journeys here.
Inside we were directed to really good seats; the view of the mountains behind the stage was awesome. The play revolved around the mystery of the Psssion of Jesus in both a dramatic as well as a meditative way. Between scenes, moments of the Old Testament were depicted as ‘living pictures’. The scale of the production with 2.000 actors and live animals, up to 400 on the stage at one time, was unbelievable. The score was haunting and the acoustics of the theatre allowed it to reverberate right through the audience.
The play was in German, meaning that the dialogue didn’t distract from the action. A copy of the script in English was made available but I decided it would be better read after the play. The play was approximately five and half hours long, performed in two acts with dinner served in the village during the intermission. While not a culinary delight, there was a selection of Bavarian and international food. We had a little time for shopping before returning to the theatre.
DAY 5 SUNDAY
A quick trip back to Oberammergau this morning for some shopping and outdoor Mass (in the pelting rain) before onward journey to Munich. The city centre roads were all blocked off in Munch for a music festival. So we got a festival and a quick run around Munich and then off to airport.
The holiday/pilgrimage met all expectations and I certainly wouldn’t rule out a 2030 trip to Oberammergau. It wasn’t oppressively “holy” but it gave opportunity for contemplation and questioning.