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Oberammergau & Beyond/Part TWO

Author: Lisa C.
Date of Trip: September 2010


THROUGH THE GATES OF MUNICH, TO HELL IN DACHAU, THE PASSION PLAY & BEYOND – – Includes travels in Murnau, Ettal & Schwangau

So, I left amazing Amsterdam behind and made my way to MUNICH in order to join with an escorted tour group of 44 other folk in our pilgrimage to Oberammergau for the famed Passionsspiele.  This year’s production is the 41st performance since 1634, having been held every 10 years as promised by the villagers to God and the heavens above since the 15th century to avert the bubonic plague.  The town of Oberammergau is nestled amongst the Bavarian Alps and is small enough to walk in it’s entirety within a days visit.  The imposing Alps encircling the town gives it a picturesque backdrop for the open air theatre, built to seat an audience of over 4,000 attending each performance and with a stage that holds a cast of over 2,500 villagers.  The same person serving your lunch pre-show is likely to be one of the actors, chorus or orchestra members performing in the show.  For a full description of the Passion Play and its elaborate history, see the addendum to Part THREE of my story, soon to be added to this collection.

Traveling briefly backwards in time now, I’m in Munich airport again, and after my very brief jaunt through to the KLM counter only three days earlier, I finally have a moment to take in exactly how huge the Munich airport really is, but I am also blessed to see my Lufthansa Airport Shuttle Bus right outside of the baggage claim area I find myself in, so I don’t have to traverse what appears to be approximately 10 miles of terminals and outer buildings comprising the airport.  The shuttle took about 40 minutes to arrive in the city, dropping me conveniently at the Hauptbanhof, which was 1 block from the Courtyard Marriott City Center.  The package, through Travel Bound, offered 4-nights accommodations, most meals, motor coach transportation to and from Munich, as well as tickets to the play.   My traveling companion, Carol, had taken a solo tour London and Paris while I sported around Amsterdam; each of us had planned separate pre-Munich itineraries but vowed to meet on the afternoon of Friday, September 3rd, in order to meet our fellow travelers at the Marriott for a cocktail party which was held on our behalf in a relaxed, curtained-off private conference area.

I arrived first to find an abundance of hors’dourves set for our meet and greet and then Carol came rushing in rosy cheeked from her Paris flight; two hours, much wine, laughter and many like-minds met later, Carol and I stepped into the darkened streets to take a much needed leg-stretching walk through the Marienplatz, or shopping area of downtown Munich.  She regaled me with stories of her sunset Stonehenge tour and visit to Notting Hill, the Eiffel Tower seen glittering from her hotel room (which, by the way, was just as small as mine in Amsterdam!) and her picnic lunch within view of the Trocadero, her bullet train ride in-between these two great cities.  We chatted gaily until we ended up in front of the Glockenspeil, a world-famous tourist attraction, its clock-tower houses an elaborate display of 32 life-size figures and 43 bells that chime while the figures re-enact two stories from the 16th century, mechanically jousting horses entertain “Duke Wilhelm V and his new wife, Renata” in the top story, and lively “barrel makers” spin in the first story, performing the Schafflerstanz (the coopers’ dance); to finalize this 15- minute spectacle, a golden bird pops out of a small window above the balconies, chirping three times. The Marienplatz cobbled streets are filled with upscale shopping outlets, fancy hotels, their windows laden with bright blooming flowers, outdoor cafes with huge umbrellas and thousands of night-time tourists.  Towering monumental gates, or propylaea, are interspersed throughout Munich’s many platz.  Storefront windows are filled with traditional dirndls and leiderhosen, to my amazement still considered fashionably correct and appropriate streetwear.  Our room and the entire Marriott property was spacious, clean and functional, the luxury bedding perfectly turned down for our 1-nights’ needs.

The next morning we took the S-Bahn to Dachau, where we both took in the mournful quiet and pastoral emptiness of the footprints of barracks passed, walking the gravel walkway lined with lonely poplar trees and passing on into the administration building, which now houses a museum.  By the time we reached the crematorium we were in tears, so we made an abrupt exit, nearly running past the barbed wire fencing and out past the visitor’s buildings at the entryway, literally feeling as if we’d emerged from the gates of Hell.  Our ride back to Munich was silent as we tried to blank our minds and bring back our previously gay demeanors.  This short 2-hour trip is not to be missed when in Munich, even though it will leave you feeling quite godforsaken.

Fortunately for us, we had an appointment with God, or his play at least, so we mustered our fortitude as our motor coach awaited the group in front of the Marriott and we were off to Murnau at one o’clock in afternoon for our 2-nights accomodations in this quaint and idyllic alpine town.  From Murnau, our destination was just a 40-minute drive, so by staying in this quiet and picturesque town we avoided the thousands or more congregating in Oberammergau.  Enroute we had a local guide aboard to relay the history of various castles such as Nymphenburg, important “monuments”, such as the BMW building (I’m being funny here – a promo stop on the city tour for sure, I still find myself suddenly interested in a 3 series coupe after sitting in one in the showroom!) and much more.  Our city tour ended in a pastoral drive through sunny fields where small clutches of bavarian styled homes were dwarfed by alps encircled with cloudlike formations of mist.  Snow-topped and unscalable alps that became bigger as we wheeled down the highway, they seemed to come alive and envelope our bus once the city disappeared behind us.

Only upon reaching our destination at nightfall in MURNAU did we get our first breath of the freshest air west of the Atlantic, or so it seemed.  The air was soft, the weather mildly foggy as we emerged from the motor coach to find ourselves in the cobbled streets of Murnau, where angled buildings with dangling wrought-iron signs lined both sides of the square, each painted with brightly colored Lüftlmalerei, or frescoes, mostly religious themes or scenes from fairytales.  Our accomodations at the Hotel Angerbrau were sublime compared to those in Amsterdam and Paris, respectively.   A wonderful bar-restaurant, The Fifty-Fifty Pub, was on premise and was where they served our delicious dinner.  The town’s ‘red carpet’ was pretty much rolled up after our dinner hour, so we wandered aimlessly taking in the alpine air and kicking up our heels in the otherwise empty square; closed shops lined the streets and emtpy cafe tables beckoned us to sit and take in the townscape.  Every store had the most beautifully displayed wares, most especially the photographer’s shop, where many wedding portraits were displayed, in each the bride and groom (in fact, the entire wedding parties) dressed in traditional german garb, with the most spectacular alpine backdrops in most.  The town was quite “over-poplulated” by intriguing and assortedly-designed steeples, church bells rang at each hour through-out the night.

We left early the next morning for our full-day’s itinerary in Oberammergau, with a brief stop along the way in ETTAL and a visit at the Ettal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery established in 1330 and where there is also a brewery and a distillery, a bookshop, an art publishing business, a hotel, a cheese factory joint venture, and various other small businesses. As we scaled the Ammergau Alps and then spiralled downward to the Ammer River valley and our ‘play town’, the frontside of the mountain facing Oberammergau became visible as it juts out like a huge anvil, barren and stark.  Also within this range, the Laber grouping of alps, there stands a wooden cross at the summit to which cable cars traverse to and from the town of OBERAMMERGAU.

After a hearty lunch was served in at the lovely three-tiered Sonnenpark hotel and restaurant, we became immersed in the town’s many shopping delights until the sound of horns came from the theater’s loudspeakers, signalling the beginning of Act One.  We scurried to our section (M) and found our seats which, by some divine miracle, were on the end of a stretch of seats 50-wide, midways up in the auditorium.  The opening narration began, voiced by a single shepherd, as white-robed chorus members began heralding their opening number, then blue swathed young children ran onto the stage, followed by a small herd of sheep, hundreds of villlagers and Jesus himself, all filling the stage where the story begins and inundating the audience with the feel of biblical times.  In between the story-telling tableaux vivants, or living pictures, are shown with vividly color-schemed backdrops behind lavishly costumed silent and motionless actors.  The story begins with Jesus’ preaching in Jeruselem and continues to his clearing the temple, selection of the Apostles, his betrayal by Judas and eventual exile amidst rampant papal pandering by his enemies, his stumbling through the town with the cross and stunningly realistic portrayal of the crucifixion (his own and the two criminals by his sides) and, at the finale, his eventual resurrection; the angel Gabriel, white swathed and rather plain, forlornly narrates the final scene.  Kudos to the director, Christian Stuckl, for a veritable triumph of grade A-perfect production values, with clean and compelling acting by adults and children alike, and where, with an orchestra sounding as if from the heavens above, all elements conspired to make the 7-hour production worth every minute, every penny and every tear.  We both cried many times in the watching and reading the script as the play moved forward (the play is spoken in German, with a ‘playbook’ that one must read alongside in English — bring a flashlight for Act Two!).  Of course, at the intermission point (6PM) dinner was served in the same friendly, Bavarian manner as was lunch; a delicious menu of dinner items was available to select from, again served by actors and extra cast members with gusto and energy you wouldn’t expect from the length of their long day’s commitment.  Throughout the town Luftlmalerei were painted intricately on every house and most had shops inside filled to the brim with hand-carved religious art and handmade articles of every description – all made to accommodate and sell to Oberammergau tourists; each and every townsmember carved or knitted, sewed, sung, acted, ushered or cooked in their efforts to perform and provide for their visitiors, and do so each and every season; a commitment level literally astounding all who make the pilgramage. The museum of Oberammergau is also not to be missed, a three-storied whitewashed building chock-full of many play’s past accoutrements and thousands of carved articles of every description.  The tour guide mentioned that every child in this lovely town is carefully watched and encouraged in whatever art form they show aptitude for from a very early age, each lovingly prodded to accomplish their chosen tasks, becoming a part of the whole production in which they perform ‘for life’.  The commitment to these many tasks making up the Oberammergau experience is so inspiring and overwhelming, one can’t help but fall in love with the town and all it’s inhabitants.  How truly blessed one feels to have had this experience is undescribable, but for these many words on paper, and an unbearable lightness descends upon all who come here.

Another reason we loved our tour package so much was that it also included a trip to Neuschwanstein Castle on the day after the play, enroute back to Munich with only an hour’s detour and plentiful views.  The entire day was filled with climbing the storied streets of SCHWANGAU, ascending to the “Mad King Ludwig’s” elaborate lair, which is ensconced in the side of the tallest mountaintop, for a 45-minute guided tour; this trek was not for the weary or weak-legged and we were quite winded by the time we reached the entryway.  Inside our tour guide described the ‘still-unfinished’ castle, the story of the late King’s madness and eventual drowning only six months after the castle’s initial building stages were completed, and how ever since the late 1800’s the castle had become open to the public.  If your energy isn’t completed exhausted, do not miss the opportunity to take the path further to the swing-bridge in order to better encompass your views for a few wide-angle photographs of this mammoth residence.

Stay tuned for Part Three of our continuing Oberammergau and Beyond saga, in which we take the DB Bahn regional train from Munich to Salzburg, directly to our heavenly beds at the Sheraton

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