Oberammergau City Guide

The Village
Just about 46 miles to the south of Munich and about 6 miles north-east of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is the village of Oberammergau, set in the lush meadows and foothills of the Bavarian Alps. The village has grown up alongside the River Ammer and today is home to some 5,300 inhabitants.

It is a pretty village, with leafy parks and typical Bavarian houses – their carved wooden balconies and gardens bright with summer flowers. Many of the buildings are noted for their very special and ornately painted exteriors, some of them dating back to the 18th century. These Lueftlmalerei, or frescoes, are usually religious themes or scenes from fairytales.

Oberammergau is famous for its woodcarvers and its Passion Play, performed every 10 years in the purpose-built theatre. There are regular guided tours of the theatre. Also worth a visit are the Pilatushaus to see craftsmen at work and the museum with its fine examples of folk art and woodcarvings and its unique collection of Hinterglasbildern – paintings on the back of glass.

The villagers are passionate about music and theatre; apart from folk groups, the village also boasts a brass band and orchestra as well as a choral and music society.

Apart from being rich in art, culture and tradition, Oberammergau also has the friendliest of people and a great reputation for hospitality.

Oberammergau Passion Play
About half the inhabitants of Oberammergau take part in the once-a-decade Passion Play.
This means that over 2,000 villagers will bring the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life for audiences that flock in from around the world. Using the impressive open-air stage, the play lasts five hours.

The play starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem, continues up to his death on the cross and finishes with his resurrection. As ever, this is an extraordinary community effort. Rehearsals last ten months. Already working on the revised text are the villagers selected to play Jesus and Mary, Pontius Pilate and the apostles, the priests, soldiers and children. The orchestra and the choir are studying the memorable score, composed in the 19th century by Rochus Dedler, again a resident of Oberammergau.

When they come together, their devotion and talent retells the story of Jesus, with a message that gives hope and strength to millions.

The Kofel
From the top of the Kofel there are fantastic views of Oberammergau and the surrounding valley. At 1341m it is not a particularly high mountain but the Bavarian Alps are noted for their craggy appearance and the Kofel is no exception. The word ‘kofel’ was the Celtic word for a cone-shaped mountain indicating that this area was once home to a Celtic tribe.

Today, topped by its cross, it is a favourite destination for hikers. There are a number of hiking trails leading to its peak; the shortest trail taking some 45 minutes. However, that is far too slow for some of the folk from Oberammergau and the surrounding villages. They prefer to run to the top! Some of the actors in the famous Passion Play are so fit they can reach the summit in less than 20 minutes.
Traditions abound in the mountains. For instance every year on August 24th the Kofel is lit up with flames from a huge bonfire and a crown blazes on its peak commemorating the birthday on August 25th of King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

The Pilate House
The Pilatushaus (Pilate’s House) on Verlegergasse, Oberammergau is a superb example of Lueftlmalerei (fresco work). The exquisite designs and skilful trompe l’oeil depicting illusory balconies, balustrades and columns along with scenes of the resurrection of Christ, were created by the acknowledged local painter Franz Seraph Zwinck who lived 1748-92.

On the ground floor of the Pilatushaus is a workshop where craftsmen and women take turns producing and demonstrating traditional handcrafts using skills that have been used for hundreds of years. Examples of their work can also be purchased in the shop. In days gone by itinerant traders would have taken their goods and sold them throughout Europe, thus spreading the fame of the Oberammergau workers.

Painted Houses – Lueftlmalerei
Lueftl (Luftmalerei) fresco paintings are the characteristic decorations on houses in Alpine regions. They date back to the 18th century when wealthy merchants, farmers and craftsmen showed their wealth and status with colourful frescoes on the façade of their houses. The paintings often incorporated existing architectural structures, such as windows or doors, or took the form of medallions or scenes from the Bible, fairy tales or folk festivals.
The most famous Lueftl painter was Franz Seraph Zwink (1748-1792) who lived in Oberammergau for many years. He lived in a house called ‘Zum Luftl’ which could be where the word lueftl comes from. Other theories as to the origin of the word include it being connected to the word luftig (fast) or luft (air) – the frescoes being painted in the open air.

Whatever the origin of the word there are many stunning examples of Lueftl work to be enjoyed in Oberammergau.

The Museum
The history of the Oberammergau Museum dates back to the year 1905 when in 1905 the Oberammergau retailer of handcrafted goods, Guido Lang (1856-1921), commissioned the Munich architect Franz Zell to design and construct the museum.

In 1910, the “Verleger Lang’sches kunst- und kulturgeschichtliches Oberammergauer Museum” (the Retailer Lang’s Oberammergau Museum of Art and Culture) was opened. This unique ensemble was acquired by the local council in 1953 and in the years that followed was considerably expanded.
The main emphasis of the Oberammergau Museum is on woodcarving. Carving has been carried on in Oberammergau for over 500 years, and so the collection displays a wide range of examples of art and handicrafts from gothic to modern times. In the largely authentically maintained and historically furnished rooms on the first floor – the museum in the museum, so to speak – a wide variety of toys, figures of saints, crucifixes and delicately carved genre scenes are on display.

The exhibition “The 20th Century” shows exhibits of contemporary woodcarving, modern sculpture and painting. It is supplemented by media presentations and a databank in which over 1400 Oberammergau carvers and artists are registered.

The Crib Collection includes magnificent Oberammergau cribs, such as the famous historical church crib on which generations of local carvers worked and which King Ludwig II once admired.

In 1955 the local council acquired a large part of the important collection of verre églomisé works (pictures behind glass) belonging to the Murnau master brewer Johann Kroetz (1858-1919) to add to the numerous verre églomisé works that the museum already possessed.

Hillernschloesschen (Hillern Palace)
Above, on a hill, the villa of Frau von Hillern – a very famous German writer – stands out. The owner, who could not resist the bewitching influence of the Play in 1880, erected the house at considerable expense, and has now beg me with heart and soul an Ammergauer. Of all the thousands who have viewed the Play not one has, like her, gone so far as to sever all ties with the outer world, and to settle here in the Village.

In the place, where the magic of the Passion Play had taken hold on her in all its force. And now she lives summer and winter up there, the precipitous Kofel and the north in front of her, and in her heart an ideal to which she will remain true until the end of her life.

Farther in front, to the right, at the foot of the Villa Hillern, is the house originally inhabited by Thomas Rendl who, besides his trade of carver, also tills the post of concierge at the Villa Hillern. This house is now the Villa Asih.

The Ammergau Alps
Thousands of visitors flock to Oberammergau every 10 years to see the village’s famous Passion Play.
However, even when the Play is not being performed there is plenty to see and do in this pretty village and the surrounding Ammergau region.
Oberammergau is situated in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, near to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, famous for its winter sports attractions such as skiing or ski jumping, with the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, and the Austrian border a few kilometres away.
Close to Oberammergau are a number of enchanting lakes, like the Staffelsee or Kochelsee, set amidst the beautiful Bavarian scenery.
There is also the church of Wies (Wieskirche) in Steingaden, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. The former abbey of the Steingaden Premonstratensians was founded in the 12th century. The somewhat plain exterior of the church does not prepare the visitor for the splendour and magnificence of the rich and shimmering interior.

Also high on the list of places to visit are Ettal and Linderhof Palace and for sheer relaxation one of the region’s spas.

Ettal, a small village with 850 inhabitants, is located just five kilometres from Oberammergau.
Ever since the Holy Roman Emperor Ludwig the Bavarian founded the monastery in 1330, Kloster Ettal has been the cultural centre of the Ammer River valley. The Benedictine Monastery where some 50 monks still live and work is also home to two schools, a brewery and a liqueur distillery. Guided tours are available.

The Distillery
Medieval monks were experts in growing healing plants and in the skilled hands of the cloister pharmacist these plants produced remedies both for monks and ailing pilgrims. The tradition of the distillery continues today with the monks producing a variety of herbal teas and delicious liqueurs – all to secret recipes. They also have created a range of colognes.

The Brewery
In Ettal brewing the ‘liquid bread of Bavaria’ boasts a continuous history of more than 400 years. Today, the beer that originally served the needs of the monks and pilgrims, has grown in popularity and is now enjoyed worldwide. Brewed from the crystal clear waters from the Ammer Mountains and selected locally grown ingredients, Klostierbier ranks among the prize winning specialities of the monastic brewing tradition.

The Basilica
This beautiful Gothic church with its later Baroque additions is at the heart of the monastery complex and well worth a visit. Visitors should note its powerful Baroque dome crowning one of the masterpieces of Bavarian Rococo and its tiny exquisite Madonna and Child statue.

Linderhof Palace
Linderhof Palace and gardens a few kilometres from Oberammergau was built for King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Like his other two castles it has a romantic and dreamlike quality and is said to be the King’s favourite.
King Ludwig was fascinated by the mystical world of the Orient, the romantic age of chivalry and above all the splendour of the Bourbon court. At Linderhof he set out to recreate the palace and gardens of Versailles, the magnificent residence of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
The building developed around the forester’s house, the ‘Alpine Hut’ that belonged to his father Maximilian II and used by the king when, as crown prince, he accompanied his father on hunting trips. The palace took only four years to build as Ludwig wanted it finished as quickly as possible. Technicians were brought in to speed up the transportation of building materials and at times as many as 180 people were working on the site. Even the growth of the park trees was accelerated by means of extra fertilization – provided by some 100 cartloads of cow manure a year.
With its Baroque parterres, Renaissance-style terraces and English landscape-park to say nothing of inspiration from French and Spanish gardens Linderhof is one of the finest examples of the mixed-style garden.
Ludwig II had a profound influence on life in the Ammergau Alps and Linderhof Palace and its gardens is an impressive example.

The Spas
The healing power of nature – straight from the earth: that is what the towns of Bad Kohlgrub and Bad Bayersoien, about 15 kilometres north of Oberammergau represent.

Both towns, known as WellVital towns, offer high levels of relaxation and treatment. Bad Boyersoien opened as a sanatorium in 1968 and an official spa resort in 1996. Bad Kohlgrub received its spa status in 1948.

The mountain pine moors from which the peat mud is extracted is renowned for its medicinal, relaxing qualities and when combined with exercise and good wholesome food help to create a healthy and relaxed body. Both resorts offer a variety of treatments such as full body massage, beauty treatments and aromatherapy as well as a vitalising water treatment.